This discussion paper explores and uncovers academic writing focusing on urban public space. Many theorists have contributed to ideas of public urban space; we will touch on the work presented by Henri Lefebvre, the contribution of Michel Foucault and a theoretical framework proposed by Ulrich Beck. In addition a research method presented by Rhoda Wilkie is briefly touched upon. Seven broad areas are explored. The first: The urban as political space, a place where citizens are constituted in ideas of equality by being empowered with the rights and responsibilities that sovereign states give to their citizens. The second looks into spaces of fear in urban design, perceptions of fear, the spectre of surveillance and relationships based on power. The third theme discusses the healthy body, both that of the individual through to the body of the city. Recent research shows the benefits in considering urban public space as a whole, not simply as isolated spots through out regions; the fourth section briefly discusses this viewpoint. The fifth examines the human/animal studies approach that has developed in Human Geography in the last decade. This discourse invites the non-human into the urban landscape. The sixth encompasses the huge wealth of literature that speaks to sustainability, resilience and the ecological processes that anthropogenic warming have sharply bought into focus. The final examines research supporting cross-disciplinary approaches to urban space. Creating networks to inform and influence aspects of urban design that can address the many ways that urban space is used. If a reader is to examine articles on the urban she or he is sure to find a comment or citation alluding to the ongoing, increasing urbanisation of humans on the globe. Nearly forty percent of this projected increase will occur in India, China and Nigeria (United Nations 2014), nations that are striving to join the Global North. Anthropogenic warming, stressed ecological systems and the ongoing overuse of finite resources stand in the way of such aspirations. Appropriately designed urban spaces in conjunction with plans of mitigation are being presented as a way towards a solution, as a way of living well and sustainably in the world. It is only by encompassing the multiple constructions of urban space that these challenges can be met.
The social sciences rely on historical content in interrogating practises in today’s world and as past members of a colonial empire many of our practises originate and have developed from the England of the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries. The public park of that time was a democratic space where members of a class based society could safely mingle, encouraged towards conformity (Thompson, CW 2002). Such narratives remain present as shown in Lord Rogers Report which, along with thematic presentations of sustainability and quality, also presents the ongoing theme of social integration, a place where all are equal (Rogers 1999). Some countries that experienced the direct effect of colonialism, however, recognise that these spaces were established as enclaves to encourage and promote segregation (Arku, E. A. Yeboah & Nyantakyi-Frimpong 2016). A contemporary viewpoint of these ideas is shifted more towards valuing diversity and difference (Thompson, S & Kent 2014).
This viewing also offers the park as an idyllic, ‘natural’ place of respite, a refuge from urban pollution (Swanwick, Dunnett & Woolley 2003). At core, however, is the contemporary acknowledgement that access to public green space is a right necessary for an equitable political environ.
Ideas of the democratic space and acts of classed capitalist societies are further developed with the seminal work of Henri Lefebvre ‘ The production of space ’ which presented urban space as a socially constructed arena. His writing challenges static conceptions of urban space with his idea of ‘the right to the city’. Although largely disregarded until the 1990’s, his theories have grown in popularity and contribute today to aspects of urban planning. Rather than just a catch phrase, the right to the city speaks of being able to be a part of the history and tradition of an urban space, to share in the depth of association that the passage of time instils in ‘place’. In order to be a full member of a society, or to have full citizenship, Lefebvre proposes that individuals have the freedom to act in the urban. Implicit in this is access to the act of revolution (Chiodelli 2013).
Lefebvre’s idea of revolution is not only seen as the Molotov cocktail and pitchfork version of state disruption, but also by unconscious acts of rebellion, by festivals that suspend the everyday, to challenge the built use of the urban, to enable opportunities to break out of the norm (Chiodelli 2013). To look at public space alongside ideas of revolution summons up thoughts of power and surveillance. This impacts upon constructions of public space and it is Michel Foucault who has addressed such aspects of geography and sociology. Foucault’s analysis of power as an enabling and constitutive force, his contribution of the concept of governmentality as practises and techniques the state performs upon the body of its citizenry and itself and his discourse analysis based on power relationships have impacted on the public arena in fields that deal with concepts of control and surveillance (Power 2011). Research into the design of urban space and its correlation to crime and fear discuss the links that have been uncovered. One such study Foster, Giles-Corti and Knuiman (2010) explored feelings of fear in relation to suburb design. The study found that there was a direct correlation between design and perceptions of fear and found that areas designed to be conducive to walking, to allow individuals to develop a sense of community and gain social capital reduced perceptions of fear. The shape of our space has great affect on those who occupy it and the feeling of surveillance can ensure acts of self-control, of self-regulation that otherwise may not be present.
The nineteenth century saw comparisons drawn between the operations of cities and biological metabolic processes such as the process of circulation in the physical body. These ideas tied in well with Darwin’s metabolic theories of the natural world (Swyngedouw 2006) of the same time. Ideas of flows into and out of the city were related to visions of healthy cities with the parks and public spaces seen as the lungs. It takes only a small step to connect the health of the city to the health of the citizens and this theme connects smoothly with contemporary thought on the health benefits of the public urban space.
The health sciences have a comprehensive body of literature reporting on the physical and mental health benefits of freely accessible green public space. Researchers studying built environment indicate the provision of public space to promote walking and cycling is an essential aspect of healthy living (Thompson, S & Kent 2014). The design of green corridors is becoming increasingly popular in cities that inexorably strangling under the weight of the car. The connection of fitness programs, correlated with public park access, has been used to study the disadvantages for social cohorts without effective access to parks (Dahmann et al. 2010). Studies focusing on the restoration of depleted emotional and cognitive stores and explorations of ways to qualify and quantify such processes are continuing to delve into these societal constructions (Van den Berg, Jorgensen & Wilson 2014).
Looking at the health of individuals and communities opens the door to many disparate fields investigating urban space. A joint paper with the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development at Montfort University in Leicester, the Manchester Architecture Research Centre of the University of Manchester and the Biodiversity and Macroecology Group in the university of Sheffield examined three aspects of urban space: Sound levels, Biodiversity and the nature of green space (Irvine et al. 2009). The paper discusses the affects of sound in urban environments on public parks and what effect these spaces have on soundscapes. Of great interest is the tacit acknowledgement that interdisciplinary approaches are beginning to be seen as a requirement for defining and exploring the urban world that much of the world’s population resides in.
Into the late 1990’s with an increasing amount of urbanisation occurring, the focus shifted towards ideas of compact, high-density cities. Researchers revisited the importance of public spaces as an essential aspect of modern urban life and consequently drew attention to the declining quality and availability of urban green space and the lack of effective policy in their management (Swanwick, Dunnett & Woolley 2003). In response to these changes research has appeared presenting a number of frameworks by which a researcher can measure access to public space. Lofti and Koohsari (2009) in their paper make use of a combination of GIS and fuzzy logic to allow an easy method for urban authorities to measure objective accessibility. Neema and Ohgai (2010) present a multi-objective mathematically derived model using population distribution, air quality, noise levels and land use patterns as the best variables for determining public space. This viewing of public space as a network as opposed to a discrete patch of territory is a framework that has not necessarily been reflected in many areas of policy development.
Representations of public space have also been affected by changes in the way ideas of community are being presented. Non-human members of urban environments are beginning to lay claim to public spaces of their own. The increase in demand for dog parks as examined in Urbanik and Morgan (2013) uncovers a propensity for dog owners to see their pets as members of their own families and as such entitled to some of the rights that citizens enjoy in urban space. This paper raises the question, ‘Where and how do the needs of other species become incorporated into urban spaces?’ Ideas of practising non-human geographies as discussed by Whatmore (2006) urge geographers to consider the intersections between the ‘bio and the geo’ with recognition that ‘livingness’, as coined by the writer Jeanette Winterson, is not exclusively human. Wilkie (2015) in her excellent article ‘Multispecies Scholarship and Encounters: Changing Assumptions at the Human- Animal Nexus’ offers a school of sociological study that has significant bearing on concepts of urban space within urbanised societies. Actor network theory goes a number of steps towards enabling the presence of the animal in social theory, the evening out of agency approaches an effective representation but it is still beholden to the western bias of anthropocentric thought that is one of the hallmarks of western civilisation. Wilkie suggests ‘Perhaps a more contextualised understanding of interspecies relations that considers where species are located in a network and any power differentials that may exist between and amongst human and nonhuman animals would add more texture and depth to multispecies networks’ (Wilkie 2015). The last fifteen years has seen multispecies studies enter into the realm of human geography and offer new opportunities for cross-field collaboration that promise to interrogate and challenge the ontological human / animal relationships (Buller 2014).
It is with this glimpse into the non-human world that the realm of the ecological descends into the narrative. Australia has an active and energetic narrative on water management. Sharma et al. (2012) in their paper acknowledge the effects of rapid urbanisation over the last century in Australia and the pressures placed on fresh water reserves. They propose a shift towards ecologically sustainable developments and offer a number of case studies including a South Australian project of a small scale refit of a car park to capture stormwater for irrigation of public open space and a Queensland project offering a framework for the development of a residential growth corridor. These Water Sensitive Urban (WSU) developments designed with Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) methods and Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) frameworks potentially cover all urban space and speak to piped and engineered solutions as well as landscape orientated design incorporating select flora in water filtration scenarios. It is these landscape solutions that share the space occupied by urban public space. To push further into this idea is to consider that before the time of professional specialisation in the twentieth century the arena of urban design and engineering blended together in the development of water resources and management. It is only in the modern city that infrastructure systems were relegated to the ‘hidden’ world of engineering and design was limited to the visible city (Rosenberg 2015).
To even briefly touch upon concepts of urban ecological sustainability is to move onto concepts of public space and to view public urban space in ways that embraces ideas of multi-functionality or ‘spatial stacking’. Ahern proposes a strategy comprising five parts, ‘to build resilience capacity and transdisciplinary collaboration’. These are multifunctionality, biodiversity, urban ecological networks and connectivity, redundancy and modularization and finally adaptive design (Ahern 2012). These strategies, in collaboration with landscape ecologists, are intended to promote an adaptive learn by doing approach which carries awareness of the avenues of risk that are being accepted through exploring such processes. ‘When cities are understood as complex socio-ecological systems, sustainability and resilience involve more than urban form. It engages a broad suite of social and economic issues and strategies.’(Ahern 2012) Stepping outside a known field is the only way to gain understanding of forms and forces from other realms of social and scientific enquiry.
The foundational ideas advanced by Beck, Giddings and Lash of reflexive modernisation and the making of risk society (Beck & Grande 2010) speak to an examination of the spaces that modern societies occupy. Reflexive modernisation places itself separate from post modernism. It suggests that our euro-centric view of society is evolving from first modernism to second modernism. The social institutions of the state, the post war structure that has underpinned development since the 1940’s, supported by economic structures created by industrial relations and life long employment allowed for change within these fixed structures. The state was the dominant model of society. Globalisation, the creation of commodity chains, the de-regulation of the market and the rise of individualism is undermining these stable institutions in which societies have resided. The basic premises on which we have constructed a society are being questioned. It is reflexive because of the recognition that mastery is impossible. It calls for a re-structuration and re-conceptualisation of society and social science. Our way of life has become problematic (Beck, Bonss & Lau 2003).
Becks ideas hold a place in the social constructions of the urban. A cacophony of meaning populates our vision and to transform these ideas into effective policy and frameworks carries a requirement to address these many views. This discussion paper has explored some of the many narratives that make up urban public space. It has shown the urban as a political space imbued with the rights of the citizen and the weight of class that it carries. Henri Lefebvre’s theories, influenced by Marx give these ideas depth. Fear and power through the methods offered by Michel Foucault have been addressed, offering a glimpse of how these potent tropes can shift design insights. The city as body and the health of the body presents only a slice of the thought that has been produced in creating healthy bodies in urban space, but is increasingly informing much of the design efforts being utilised in developed liberialised countries. Connected to health, ideas of human powered transportation lean to the idea of considering public urban space not as singular plots of land embedded in Local Government Areas but as part of larger geospatial networks. Yet another theme challenging ideas of urban space, the dog holds an esteemed place in human society, as a non-human member of society demands are being made for them to gain access to the city, for rights to be conferred. Closer examination of the ‘critter’ (Buller 2014) reveals that they have an essential place in creating the ecologically sustainable and resilient aspects of urban space. Rhoda Wilkie offers up interesting parameters for ideas of animal / human studies. Finally, without good quality water ecosystems fail. The change in the way water is perceived in urban environments is highly indicative of the rapid steps that can be made in the short term. The operation of water in the urban is explored as an introduction to the thought processes that construct the urban as a site of ecologically sustainable space. The final space that this paper speaks to, is that of exploring ways social scientists and geographers can begin to fulfil the increasing demands and requirements that have descended upon public space in the last few decades.
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