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How to ... rethink urban design for healthy and accessible public spaces

  • environment

Mapping accessibility to green space and understanding links to socioeconomic factors, establishing co-management of public space, a compendium of visual stories with a focus on tactical urbanism, a ‘drive slow, go fast’ campaign, and a catalogue of case studies on flexible public space governance.

These are the key actions our Eurocities members identified in our third workshop in the ‘Healthy, thriving and inclusive cities’ series.

By tackling those public space challenges highlighted through the pandemic – from accessible green, blue and quiet space, to reclaiming our streets and governing our use of public space – this new workshop series aims to broaden experience among Eurocities members and urban experts, for a new and ‘better normal’.

So how can we rethink the use and management of our public space for the health of all?

Here’s what our Eurocities members said.

How to rethink planning and management of accessible green, blue and quiet spaces?

Mapping green areas, establishing co-management of green recreational space, exchange good practices on green spaces for community building. These are the key actions our Eurocities members discussed for ensuring healthy and accessible public spaces.

The first step to taking any action is understanding the current circumstances. Many factors are involved in ensuring a healthy public space, explained Simone Mangili from the city of Turin. Turin has developed an extensive, multi-layered map of their green spaces which not only covers public green space but corresponds this with socioeconomic factors such as income, densification, and health. On top of this, Turin has added to the map to see air quality, a heat stress factor and is now looking at noise pollution too. This detailed and complex understanding of the city’s terrain clearly shows the correlation between increased green space, improved air quality, lower heat stress, improved health and higher income. Together, this allows the city to prioritise planning for green spaces where they are most needed.

But we know green space is not synonymous of healthy space by default. This is why we need to share good practices on integrating biodiversity into urban planning. In addition to this, we need our communities to engage and take some ownership over their public spaces and ensure that it contributes to their well-being. We can learn from each other on how to engage citizens to create healthy spaces – such as from Turin’s dedicated office for citizen participation . As their experience clearly shows, green spaces can be used to build communities, especially important in post-conflict cities where public space can become a public safety concern.

How to give space back to people and nature for the health and well-being of all?

Temporary changes to encourage permanent transformations, citizen awareness campaigns and visual stories to show ‘before and after’ transformations. These are the key actions for reclaiming our streets for people and nature according to our Eurocities members.

We need to rethink the design of our streets in our cities so they become truly liveable and healthy ecosystems, places where all aspects of social life can be enjoyed and not just corridors to move from point A to point B. This starts with tactical urbanism, temporary changes to our spaces, according to Brian Evens, professor of Urbanism and Landscape at the University of Glasgow. We should learn from good practice examples of lowering the speed limit to 20 km/h to reduce air and noise pollution. Other good practices such as building green bus stops, reallocating road spaces to green areas, bike lanes, and pedestrian areas should be capitalised on.

But change requires all stakeholders are onboard. To raise awareness amongst citizens, our members suggest using (social) media and launching a campaign to ‘drive slow, go fast’ aiming at piloting increased speed limits over a short time-span and mobilising different stakeholders to make the most out of the campaign. Using visual stories to show before and after transformations of public space was also identified as a possible follow up action.

How to capitalise on lessons learnt from our experience of flexible use of public space?

Case studies on governance of flexible use of public space, and capacity building on how to build flexibility into the regulation of new build public spaces. These are crucial to building on our experiences of the flexible use of public space through the pandemic and to set clear and legitimate standards on how to accompany this process.

Governing flexibility of public space is difficult as there is not a single understanding of ‘flexibility of public space use’. Before increasing our flexible use of public space, we must share our learnings and good practices on how public space can be used flexibly and with what consequences for the collectivity.

We must consider how different stakeholders experience public space so that we can build flexibility democratically, says Peter Austin from the city of Oslo. How accessible is the public space, how safe, who benefits from its flexible use?

One lesson we can take from the pandemic is that flexible use of space can be a tool for permanent change, as we’ve seen with pop-up cycle lanes becoming permanent infrastructures in cities across Europe. Flexibility gives us chances to raise awareness of the possibilities of space use and to adapt our uses to different needs, such as for different times of the day and seasons. In the context of the pandemic, such flexibility has proven extremely important, and it remains relevant during the second wave while cities try to stop the spread of the virus and support public (mental) health.

Key to increasing flexible public space will be the gathering of examples of how our cities are flexibly using public space, and how this is governed.

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