Published on Sustainable Cities

The “human scale” in public urban areas

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Slideshow: Reimagining a park, a river, and other public spaces in Seoul (Photos by Judy Zheng Jia / World Bank)

"If you lose the human scale, the city becomes an ugly place," said Joan Clos , Executive Director of the UN-HABITAT at the Habitat III Conference last month. But more than being "ugly," the lack of good public urban spaces, such as open spaces, parks, and public buildings, often contribute to low livability in many of the world's congested and polluted cities. In fact, the importance of the issue received recognition in SDG 11, Target 7, which calls for the provision of “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green, and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities,” by 2030.
Global experience shows that disconnected, underutilized areas in urban settings can, instead, be opened up to a variety of uses to allow for improved social inclusion,  social mixing, civic participation, recreation, safety, and a sense of belonging, ultimately contributing to urban prosperity. Well-designed and well-managed public spaces also offer benefits to environmental sustainability, transport efficiency, and public health improvements, and can equally serve women, the disabled, and people of all ages.
The importance of good urban spaces was the topic of an international workshop—“ Vitalizing Cities with Public Space”—held in Seoul on November 14-17, 2016 and co-hosted by the Korea Research Institute of Human Settlements and the World Bank’s Urbanscapes Group. Eight cities from around the world—Seoul, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Chongqing, Kakamega, Zanzibar, Astana, and Tashkent—participated to discuss challenges and opportunities for better urban planning and design.
Although each city has its own context and challenges, successful projects have been able to unlock the multidimensional—and sometimes transformative— value that public space (re)vitalization can bring to cities and their residents. The value created spans numerous integrated economic, social, environmental, spatial, cultural, and psychological aspects . Yet, the success doesn’t come easy: access to high quality public spaces is often undermined by poor financing mechanisms, gaps in regulatory and institutional frameworks, and a lack of adequate participatory and consultative approach to truly transform urban spaces.
What does it take to build good public urban spaces?  The following insights from the discussions were particularly useful:
  • On urban governance and public participation. Cities need a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach and engagement of all stakeholders when envisioning and creating/protecting good public urban spaces. Partnership and coordination between different government agencies, private sector groups, and civil society to develop a shared vision of public space is essential to ensuring its sustainability and ownership. Different engagement tools, such as surveys, targeted consultations with interest groups, and co-design workshops, can help build consensus and political will for creating and protecting public spaces. Moreover, creating an inventory of public space and public assets, complemented with a management strategy and a viable action plan, can be successful entry points to leveraging city assets in the developing world. 

  • On spatial planning and human-centric design of public spaces. At the city level, it is important to have a strategic development plan that incorporates a system of public spaces, especially for areas that are starting to urbanize or grow fast. The plan should incorporate a variety of public spaces that respond to different needs (e.g. streets, neighborhood parks, large parks, markets) and take into account proximity, walkability, safety, and accessibility, as well as affordable transit options. At the project level, human-centric design that integrates different sectors can maximize the value of public space . Cities, where public spaces are scarce or commonly misused, can launch small pilot projects with inexpensive or temporary design interventions, which will then solicit public feedback and help scale up the successful projects. 

  • On financing, operations, and management. The local government can partner with the private sector to build and maintain certain public spaces . Realistic, comprehensive cost and benefit analysis of project proposals is the foundation for mobilizing financial resources in the government budget and the private sector. Moreover, as seen in several urban regeneration projects in Seoul, community-based social enterprises—such as community cafés and crafts workshops—can supplement the cost of maintaining public spaces, while enhancing social interaction.  

  • On socio-economic development. Good public spaces can bring commercial value and economic benefits to the city. Vitalizing public spaces can enhance livability and economic vibrancy in cities . Vibrant public spaces are also powerful in city branding, improving tourism, and enhancing the city’s competitiveness. From the perspective of social development, public spaces are key nodes for social interaction in cities.

To learn more about the World Bank Urbanscapes Group, click here . Follow the group's activities on Twitter using  #wb_urbanscapes .


Judy Zheng Jia

Urban Development Specialist

Jon Kher Kaw

Senior Urban Development Specialist

Annie Gapihan

Senior Urban Specialist

Marisa Garcia Lozano

Analyst (Consultant) with the Social, Urban, Resilience and Rural Global Practice

Rosanna Nitti

Senior Urban Specialist

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