Background

The “right to the city and cities for all” emerged early in the Habitat III discourse, propelled notably by civil society groups active in urban social justice issues. These themes reflect growing urban problems stemming from gentrification, lack of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure services, forced evictions, foreclosures, surging homelessness, refugee migration populations, privatization of public space, increasing low-density sprawl, the social dimension of land, property, and urban assets in cities and human settlements and other related challenges facing cities and metropolitan urban regions.

Cities are clearly attractive arenas for policy innovation and it has been said that it is in cities that all major global challenges, including the decisive battles for climate change, the economy, culture, inequality, and the very future of democracy, will be confronted.  Yet cities have long been recognized as paradoxical spaces. On one hand, urban labor markets and self-organizing residential neighborhoods crystallize inequalities and exacerbate disparities along political, economic, and ethnic-racial lines. But on the other hand, cities have also been recognized and rightly celebrated for their emancipatory potential.

As key sites of both social exclusion and political resistance, cities are where political claims and demands for justice are most frequently made, often with tangible and liberating consequences. Further complicating the picture, however, globalization is an essential feature of modern urban life, helping to reshape markets, transform politics, reconfigure social structures, and remake cultural practices in localities throughout the world, with outcomes that are viewed by residents as sometimes beneficial, and sometimes detrimental for their everyday livelihoods.

The profile and image, as well as the content of the city as a focus of public debate, an object of study and a subject for policy intervention has risen significantly in recent years. As we have in many ways entered both the age of the ‘triumph of the city’, where cities are at their peak performance in innovation, growth, culture, technology, urban expansion, opportunity, as well as competition, so have we also entered a ‘beyond the urban age’ where cities also find themselves confronted by issues of justice and the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity and power to all people in society.  It is here that an opportunity to expand research by identifying and filling knowledge gaps arises (lacunas), with the aim of providing practical research that aids in implementation. Specifically, what is the contradiction – and how can it be resolved – between the goals of inclusive cities and cities for all on the one hand, and the corporate, innovative and agile cities that, it is claimed, are better placed to solve major global challenges than national governments?

With the lack of a dominating paradigm in urban design and planning, the theme of Urban Disclosures also undertakes an inquiry into the postmodern condition of cities. Various paradigms point to different forms of and approaches to design intervention in the public realm – each with conscious expectations, results, and consequences for the end users. This investigation equally recognizes how forces of structural and emergent change contribute to shaping the urban landscape and living infrastructures exploring different measures for the reinvention of cities. The importance of the digital and social media and network society in general, with its specific transformation and creation of new spaces and urban places is still not adequately explored.

Moreover, even if the goals of inclusive cities for all are accepted, there remains a fundamental challenge of implementation.  The New Urban Agenda states, “We anchor our vision on the concept of Cities for All, which in some countries is understood as the Right to the City, and compiles the shared systemization of existing rights, seeking to ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, are able to inhabit, use, and produce just, inclusive, accessible and sustainable cities, which exist as a common good essential to quality of life.”  This is a laudable aim, but the methods of implementation remain unaddressed.

What we need now, are new theoretical and practical models for planning, designing, reshaping and equalizing the urban landscapes for opportunity, equity, well-being and overall quality of life; that which is based on adaptability, resilience, sustainability, comfort and security. This is where hard empirical research, creation of rich databases and observational urbanism placemaking methods and strategies for studying the hardware, software and the overall DNA of the cities will come to play. Seeing the city only as an artistic and visual manifestation (city as a work of art) or as a repository of statistics is extremely dangerous. The city should instead be seen as vessel of life - bringing all of its citizens together for mutual benefit in the sustainable commons.

While SDG 11 on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ and the Habitat III New Urban Agenda both recognize the importance and role of public spaces in cities, they do not yet give a clear articulation of what public space actually means, in terms of definitions, taxonomies and levels, nor does it articulate in the clear way what and how cities should be open to all, and thereby offering a “right to the city” vision for the future. This right is widely seen as one of the most fundamental and vital elements to recapture an equitable, human-centered urbanism. Aside from these problematic issues, the importance of context, geographies, different spatial levels and strategies (Macro, Meso and Micro), cannot be underestimated.  Overdeveloped countries of the North and the Countries of the Global South, the developing ones and the hyper-developed countries in the Far East, all need different approaches and selected and nuanced – that is, locally adapted – solutions. Lastly the importance of different actors (the cities policy makers, private sector, the middle class, the poor, professionals and experts) in the public realm and their role and position within the discipline will be quintessential for planning and managing cities.

Furthermore, beyond public space and its complexities, what are the roles and responsibilities of the adjacent and nearby private spaces?  Does “right to the city” mean the right of access to housing and other private spaces? (As it would seem, given that public space that is far from one’s home is not meaningfully accessible?) If so, how will these be funded or otherwise provided?  Assuring the right to the city does not address the avoidance of conflicts between different groups, outside of the usual private or government interests.  How are these conflicts to be managed equitably?  How is it possible to develop a successful and equitable “polycentric governance” of the public space commons? If there are no neutral places in the city, what are then the actions that need to be taken to change and refine the city, where people can have a common right to utilize the city spaces without restrictions? Lastly, it has been claimed that “public spaces are drivers of prosperity”.  But does this entail a greater privatization of the public realm, at least to some extent?  Would this be desirable?  If not, how is this phenomenon of privatization to be avoided and/or managed?

These are some examples of the many challenges pertaining to the implementation of the SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda, and their underlying commitment to equity, inclusivity and “cities for all.”  The goal of the Centre for the Future of Places (CFP) through the biennial theme of Urban Disclosures and Cities for All, is aside from giving a forward-looking vision of how our urban future can be shaped to achieve better outcomes for all, to clarify these research questions, and to contribute substantially to the identification and dissemination (or further development, as needed) of the findings that will be useful and effective, in the form of concepts, tools and strategies, towards the implementation of SDG 11 and the Habitat III New Urban Agenda. Cities, both in the north and south, have fallen short in dealing with the most burning problems of our society and also recent critical transformations in the becoming in the form of urban disclosures: those of mass and hyper immigrations, financial crisis, breakdown of the traditional industries, globalization, etc. They simply cannot fall short or fail on the public space agenda.

Those cities currently experiencing rapid urban growth, therefore need to be thoughtful in how they deal with public assets and amenities; those that do not plan ahead, will find the public realm under serious threat. Unlike other infrastructure, public spaces afford a human element to the city; offering an opportunity for residents to improve their health, prosperity, quality of life, and overall to enrich their social relations and cultural understanding. The future of cities is still in the hands of the stakeholders that comprise them. Any attempt to establish a public space agenda that does not place the citizens at the center of it will face severe constraints in their attempt to build livable cities – Cities for All.

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