Uncovering Different Faces of Public Space in the Global North and South

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 48 – Number 2


Public spaces have been significantly shaped by the contexts and societies in which they have emerged. Whether shaped by various political changes and rising calls for democracy and human rights or for environmental consideration related to climate change, various types of public spaces have transformed to accommodate a range of social and economic issues in different cities. In this way they have acquired new meanings over time. Recent studies have started to point towards the differences between the Global North and South and their implications for planning and design (Roy 2009, Watson, 2009; 2018; Haneef et al., 2021). An increasing number of scholars have challenged existing theory and scholarship for being too focused on the Global North and have started to call for a reconsideration of planning approaches that are more relevant to contexts within the Global South (Connell 2014, Lategan and Cilliers, 2017; Satgé and Watson, 2018; Bhan et al., 2018). There have also been strong influences from colonialism and post-colonialism on the role public spaces have in shaping everyday life. 
These issues raise several questions regarding the relation of public space to various contexts and the different manifestations globally. What are the larger forces that shape local changes in public space in different contexts? Are there differences between the so-called Global North and South? If so, what are these and why do they occur? How can we understand the driving forces affecting public spaces and what are their implications? Are the theories that have been developed in the Global North applicable to the Global South or are there aspects of public spaces in the Global South that could inform theory in the Global North? How are public spaces influenced by the capacity of local governments and how does this play out in different contexts? 
This special issue of Built Environment focuses on the different faces of public spaces in the Global North and South and to what extent these differences are likely to promote or inhibit opportunities for inclusion. 

Various Contexts Revisited: Notions of Time and Space 

The manifestation and implications of different types of public spaces in the Global North and South have been explored through three notions of time and space that are intertwined to weave a complex narrative of changing public spaces, namely historical evolution, present-day realities, and future visions. Therefore, while acknowledging the interrelated nature of these notions of time, they are used to understand and analyse the complex dance between time, space, and context and to show how larger forces shape local changes in public space in various ways. Firstly, context specificities are related to the historical evolution of cities and implications for the ownership, provision, and regulation of public space. For example, contexts where property is initially public or common, then private uses are allocated, versus contexts where land is considered a private commodity, and public land is there to enhance the exchange value of the private properties. There are also examples in European cities where some public spaces were initially private gardens/spaces and later opened for public use. In colonial cities the introduction of public space as a model of ‘modernization’ did not necessarily stem or respond to local needs for socialising in public. 
The first article in this issue by Makakavhule (2022) focuses on the historical evolution of public spaces in Pretoria, South Africa and explores how the history of the country influences present-day day experiences related to sports and recreation. The discussion also shows how people’s memory of spaces influences their openness to welcome or reject new users in public space. The absence of a strong memory of place tends to make people more amicable to accept various changes and newcomers. 
The second article, entitled Park Politics in a Post-Colonial Indian City by Vanka (2022) also investigates the historical evolution of a particular public space in Bangalore, India and more specifically the implications for the ownership and provision of public space. Contextualizing the discussion in a post-colonial setting, the author shows how parts of the space have been taken over by local residents and gated to control its use. While a part remains open for sports activities and other uses, it reflects notions of micro-management and governance in public space. Both these articles indicate how history sets a basis for present-day realities, either as a platform to craft memories and a sense of entitlement or as establishing measures of control that are exclusionary and self-serving. 
Secondly, a range of present-day realities continue to shape the nature and use of public space in various contexts, including cultural differences, decreasing investment and instability. As people move between different parts of the world, fear of others is exacerbated and often amplified in public space. This relates not only to the difference of unfamiliar people but also to the migration of various spatial practices that could be accepted or rejected by the host community. This can include discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, age, tenure (homelessness) and legal status (refugees, migrant workers). Rising crime rates and a lack of investment in the public realm also contributes to a reconsideration of shared space through indirect control, securitization, and privatization. 
The third article by Kouros (2022) focuses on informal urbanism in Limassol and the use of plants as a tactic to blur boundaries between the public and the private. He examines the negative impact of tactical urbanism – in the form of interventions by residents and real estate developers – in limiting access to public spaces within Limassol. In the analysis of two areas in Limassol – Ais-Savvas residential neighbourhood and the Limassol Marina – Kouros reveals the impact of power relations in defining the public and private domains reflected in social practices, and the informality that is not necessarily linked to the ‘urban poor’ but is also used as a tactic by affluent actors. These case studies demonstrate the impact of tactical urbanism as a tool for social exclusion from public space. 
Through a focus on morphology, the fourth article by Iqbal and Midhat (2022) explores two public spaces in the Global North and South, in Stockholm and Karachi. The authors analyse the relationship between the fear of crime and urban form along two streets and show that despite similar morphological characteristics, the fear of crime differs. Public space, as micro-context is therefore also influenced by the broader socio-economic conditions in the cities. However, while rising crime rates and a lack of public investment can have an impact on the fear of crime, the authors note that one has to distinguish between actual and anticipated levels of fear. Given this, spatial responses may have to be adapted in various contexts. 
Thirdly, in response to present-day realities, our visions of future public spaces tend to differ, depending on the constraints and opportunities embedded in the local context. This may include visions of temporary public spaces through mechanisms to cope with COVID-19 or the incorporation of ICT to improve the use and experience of public space. Alternatively, it may encompass new trends in design to work with the specific character of place or fusion of different cultures. 
The COVID-19 pandemic raised many questions about the role and control of public space across the world and started to shape alternative visions for the future. The fifth article by Kamal (2022) deals with temporary urbanism as a response to COVID-19 and explores the temporary appropriation of spaces not normally used as public spaces, which allow people to socialise outside their homes. The discussion highlights how various groups adapted different types of spaces in Amman, Jordan, including a parking lot, BRT lane, and park to accommodate various types of activities during the COVID-19 restrictions. The author discusses multi-level government arrangements and greater flexibility about the use of space and argues that this offers a way to reconsider fixed space as the only way forward. The article calls for a shift from planning’s fixation with the long-term to consider short-term options as well. 
Similarly, in the sixth article, Bild et al. (2022) also explore a particular response to COVID-19 in Montreal, Canada. They focus on reimagining the future of public space related to changes in terms of social imagery, temporal interventions, and positive sound outcomes through a discussion of the pedestrianization of a street during the COVID-19 restrictions. They argue that temporary changes offer a way to test future visions and possibilities. 
The last two articles highlight the impact of ICT and digitalization on public space, and raise questions about its future in terms of the co-design of physical and virtual space. The penultimate article by Cheshmehzangi (2022) revisits future notions of public space through an investigation of the impacts of ICT platforms in China. The author investigates internet-based ICT platforms in four different types of public spaces in Ningbo, China and shows how different use patterns impact people’s interaction and choices within the spaces. He argues that ICT can play an important role in enhancing interaction in important urban nodes and as a result, planners need to consider how to integrate the digital and public realms.
The final article also focuses on the use of digital platforms and considers their potential to actively engage citizens in co-designing public spaces. Reference is made to the Citizen Initiative portal used by city authorities in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Nikšič (2022) identifies how e-participants engage with the platform by reporting diverse issues, sharing initiatives, and how the local authorities respond to the input provided, with the aim of determining the possibilities and limitations for citizen engagement, beyond the sharing of knowledge, and alerts to public space maintenance needs. Nikšič is concerned with the transferability of such platforms to different contexts, and their efficiency in active participation within diverse contextual specificities in other cities, especially in the Global South. 

Uncovering Different Faces of Public Space in the Global North and South: Divergent Stories and Common Threats 

The articles here illustrate eight divergent stories of efforts to understand the nature and use of public space in different contexts across the world. While some focus on post-colonial or post-apartheid cities, others are geared more to the improvement of public spaces through the use of new technological interventions. However, there are a number of common threads present in the articles. 
The first refers to the role of governance in public space, whether it is a lack of regulation from local governments or micro-governance from residents. For example, the study from Cyprus highlights the flexible nature of governance that opens up space for residents to engage in informal urbanism through tactical gardening. In South Africa, residents of one neighbourhood bemoaned the lack of response from government to enforce old conventions in a park to prohibit new games from being played by new users. In India, residents mobilized to close part of a public space for a certain group of users, clearly reflecting notions of micro-management. In other examples in Jordan and Canada, residents responded to the COVID-19 restrictions through the establishment of informal activities in public spaces. This raises interesting questions about the balance between flexibility and constraint. To what extent should public spaces be regulated and how much informal activity should or could be tolerated? This is especially pertinent given the growing debate related to temporary urbanism and the role of various actors in terms of either scaling down actions of citizens in public space or scaling up responses from planning authorities through a revision of policy or bylaw enforcement. 
Secondly, and related to the previous theme, is the role of public space to respond to urban crisis, whether short term or over the longer term. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, cities have turned into places of ICT-integration experimentation to address diverse needs. The example from China illustrates the increased use of ICT in public space to inform users and extend their options. It also shows how ICT can be used to monitor and manage people in public space. In Montreal, Canada restrictions on the use of and gathering in indoor spaces gave rise to an extended use, both in terms of activities and duration, of a temporarily pedestrianized street. As in Montreal, residents in Amman, Jordan, also responded to the urban crisis related to COVID-19 restrictions through the creation and use of temporary urban spaces such a playground in a parking lot, small stalls in a closed BRT lane, and selling food on a vacant plot of land. While the responses in Montreal came to an end when the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, some of the initiatives in Amman continued. 
Thirdly, the influence of the broader context on public space was clearly articulated. In both South Africa and India, the role of colonial and/or apartheid planning and governance models still influence the responses of residents and planning authorities in relation to public space. The present-day behaviour of public space users tends to be influenced by their memories and fears of the past. In this way, the micro space – public space – acts as a mirror of the broader society, for example as shown in the study of two streets in Karachi and Stockholm. Despite similar morphological characteristics in both streets, the level of fear is greater in Karachi, which can be related to the broader contextual socio-economic conditions.  
The final common threat refers to the notion of inclusion. In both China and Slovenia, local authorities implemented ICT platforms to encourage participation and/or interaction. However, the levels of engagement with ICT tend to vary. The e-participatory tool in Ljubljana, Slovenia functions more as a way of monitoring maintenance-related issues and does not really allow citizens to influence decisions. In Ningbo, China the ICT activities are related to optional and social activities. These ICT platforms, although still not optimally utilized, do increase levels of inclusion. On another level they also facilitate the integration of the physical and virtual realms. The discussions of public spaces in Cyprus, India, and South Africa highlight another dimension of inclusion, namely partial inclusion in terms of who is welcome to enter certain spaces. Some individuals or establishments in Cyprus appropriated public space for private use, creating an outrage among other residents. In India, a local group of residents gated a portion of the public space for ‘private’ use. Stances and feelings towards inclusion also influenced conflicts related to sports and recreational activities in South Africa, reflecting struggles for equitable state resources, subtle resistance, and structural power dynamics. This also highlights the different explanations and interpretations of inclusion or a lack thereof across the articles, whether related to activities or people, and regardless of the locations in the Global North or South. 

The Way Forward 

This special issue highlights the different faces of public spaces in the Global North and South. However, distinctions are not always that clear. Regarding the distribution in the Global North or South, while the contributions of Makakavhule, Vanka, Kamal are clearly from the Global South, Bild et al. and Nikšič are clearly from the Global North, Iqbal and Midhat compare the Global North and South. However, though Kouros’s contribution is from Cyprus, which is a European country, reference is made to public space literature, indicating that the conditions examined reflect Global South characteristics. Similarly, Cheshmehzangi’s contribution is from China, which is part of the Global South, yet the technological development could easily reflect a state in the Global North. We thus deduce that talking about overarching geographies of the North or South does not always reflect/ refer to clear distinctions at the scale of public spaces. This brings us to question the purpose of this North and South classification. On the one hand, the contributions have reasserted the need for further research and knowledge generation from the Global South, which would raise awareness of public space issues that are shared globally, while being addressed or constrained locally. Such a perspective would support re-balancing knowledge from both hemispheres, without dominating one another. On the other hand, the contributions offer a warning to avoid the creation of a new divide between North and South. The articles clarified the need to break away from silos to enable knowledge exchange that would serve the purpose of addressing public space challenges, which are related above all to people’s everyday contextual experiences, but also global issues such as climate change, conflict, migration, and so on. 
The special issue also sought to understand to what extent the different spaces in both the North and South promote or inhibit opportunities for inclusion. Although the different geographies exposed different interventions to promote inclusion, public spaces in both the Global North and South still reflected attempts to resist inclusion, which raises questions about public space governance, and invites learning from states of crises. Public spaces act at a local scale, yet understanding their dynamics requires the simultaneous grasp of urban dynamics at the macro scale. This highlights the need for a sharp focus on the micro scale, while maintaining the understanding of the macro scale, and an awareness of public spaces’ temporality. 


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