The value of functional public spaces for the wellbeing of citizens

Planning of public spaces in Europe is moving towards green and pedestrian-friendly values, while in some parts of the world the public’s basic needs for safety and accessibility remain unfulfilled. A comparison between the European and South African urban space gives perspective to understanding the fundamental value of a functional public space that supports the wellbeing of citizens. The power of street art to modify urban spaces towards a more open and inclusive direction is used in cities all around the world. 

Public space is an open space in the urban realm for citizens to encounter each other, feel belonging to the community and develop identity and trust towards each other. European public space is often relatively functional, serving the purpose it was created for. Cities support inclusive planning often on a grassroots level by inviting citizens  to influence these spaces and the decisions that are made about local development. Public spaces invite people to encounter each other in an equal environment and to use that space for various activities, like promoting local culture and organizing demonstrations. Over recent years notable elements in the urban planning of European cities has been the decrease of cars and the increase of green spaces. One example of this is the Boulevard Anspach in Brussels where over 3000 of former car routes have been turned into a pedestrian green zone. Spaces in cities are formulated to reduce air and noise pollution and shift from commuting spaces towards relaxing atmosphere so that cultural activity and tourism can flourish. 
Besides the shift to more pedestrian-friendly solutions, public spaces have, furthermore, a deeper fundamental value for the wellbeing of cities. Public spaces are the environment where the feeling of community and trust between citizens is built. The meaning of functional public spaces becomes visible especially when putting the matter into global context . South Africa, the country of incredible nature and a variety of cultures, is currently one of the most unequal places in the world. The unemployment rate has has peaked at 30%, impacting especially the younger generations. Neighborhoods of lower income often lack functional public spaces. Citizens feel trapped because of the gangsterism and vandalism that is taking place on the streets. In these areas the feeling of insecurity and the lack of trust and freedom are shaping the everyday behavior of the people.

Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town (Photo: Tiia Talvisara)

Don Pinnock, a South African journalist has tried to explain the meaning and development of gang violence in the city of Cape Town. He argues that the Cape Flats, where colored and black people were forced to move during apartheid, have by their design and planning modified the use of the streets over the past 50 years. Instead of moving whole communities, conjugal families were individually relocated to these statehouses and, as a consequence, the solidarity and trust between communities and neighborhoods disappeared. Streets were not anymore a common playground and the conjugal family itself became the focus of solidarity, shifting the social activity from streets to  small houses. Today these neighborhoods are stained by continuing fear towards the other and the only way that the streets are used for social life is by driving through them in cars during daytime. Weekly shootings and robberies prevent access to the public space for the majority of inhabitants and the only solution left for  the local state is to increase the volume of fences and assign more soldiers and police authorities to these neighborhoods.

Street art in the urban development

Woodstock, a former industrial neighborhood in Cape Town, used to be one of these unsafe neighborhoods with a relatively high rate of criminality. During the last 10 years, local artists started informally painting the walls of the neighborhood. Slowly, instead of just allowing to use the walls for murals, residents started to compete for the artists and pay them to get a mural on their wall. Now  over a decade later, Woodstock is a strongly gentrified neighborhood with growing real estate prices, hip cafes and local craft shops. The feeling of safety is increasing as is also trust and feeling of being part of a community. 
All over the world street art is increasingly used as a tool for gentrification. However, street art, meaning mainly murals and graffiti, has promising results in relation to creating spaces in the public realm that increase feelings of trust and peacefulness. For example, in Cape Town street art has over the past 10 years been modifying the urban space in neighborhoods like Woodstock and Salt River towards more accessible and welcoming. Europe has many examples of this phenomenon too, cities like Barcelona have branded themselves with street art to attract tourism and boost gentrification, and also on a smaller scale, neighborhoods are working together to include citizens in the local urban development. Street art has the potential to increase the wellbeing of local communities in the urban space.
Feelings of safety and trust are fundamental values of a functional public space. In Europe that planning is moving towards the creation of new green pedestrian areas that aim at  slowing the pace of life, while in South Africa many urban areas are struggling for basic needs such as safety on the streets. However, what is common in the urban realm is that both of these parts of the world find street art as a tool that can be used to improve public spaces towards more accessible and functional environments. Still, for the deeper and more profound change equality between people through education and employment needs to be supported. The public space remains an arena where the feelings of community, security and belonging are forming and should be maintained.
TEXT Tiia Talvisara
PHOTOS Tiia Talvisara 
The author is doing her master degree of urban studies and planning in Brussels, with a BA of political science and studies of clothing design from the University of Lapland. The author is currently working in Cape Town with the youngsters of local communities. Shas specialised in the questions of identity and socio-economic differences in urban areas.