Creating viable public spaces beyond aesthetics in Asian cities
Public spaces, this year’s theme for World Habitat Day, are increasingly coming under threat by rapid urbanization in Asia, where cities desperately need to maintain and expand public spaces to enhance mobility, counter the effects of climate change, and create income opportunities.
- Restricted mobility. Continuous urban expansion requires providing adequate access roads. The expansion of transport networks can make or break a city’s transport system, depending on how the system is designed: if roads are designed for vehicles without considering pedestrians and non-motorized traffic, this restricts transport choices of people going from point A to point B. For example, a 5-kilometer trip can easily be covered by bicycle. But without proper infrastructure like bicycle lanes or decent public transport options, one may have no other choice but to travel by car to cover that distance. Cities in Denmark and the Netherlands are probably the best examples of integrated transport network systems.
- Climate change risks. A city with decreasing green open spaces means there is a bigger risk of warmer microclimate conditions in certain densely developed areas – a phenomenon known as “urban heat islands”. These heat islands, steadily increasing across the region’s cities, are areas blocked in by concrete roads and buildings that restrict the flow of rainwater back to aquifers, and reflect heat from sunlight back to the surroundings. This raises the temperature in certain spots. These spots have less air circulation, fewer green areas and permeable surfaces that can drain rainwater.
- Missed income opportunities. In terms of development interventions, this is one aspect of public space development often unappreciated by city governments. Developing public spaces with historical and cultural value is more than just “recreating the past to make the present beautiful.” Restoration and preservation of these sites provide an attraction for cities that trigger the development of tourism-related businesses and additional demand for services. This creates job and livelihood opportunities for people, and increased income for the local government from increased business taxes and fees, as well as from real property taxes. Siem Reap in Cambodia and Hoi An in Viet Nam are good examples of how preserving heritage sites and spaces can create a year-round vibrant social and economic climate for the city.