“People need to own public space” – Interview with Ebru Gencer from the Center for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience

Ms Gencer, what kinds of risks are inherent to cities?

In general, cities face bigger risks than rural areas in terms of exposure and vulnerability as more people and assets are potentially affected. Further factors that can contribute to increased exposure in cities are deteriorated buildings, deficiencies in institutional management and specific forms of vulnerability inherent to the urban context, such as the socio-economic vulnerability of residents, or the extent of informal settlements.

Slums and informal settlements are especially at risk, as you just mentioned. What can be done to make them safer, and what can local governments contribute?

Urban planning has very effective tools to reduce risks or to prevent future risks such as by way of providing affordable and safe lands for people who are migrating to the city. But urban planning should also account for the needs of the population that is already living in informal settlements, which are usually in high-risk areas. Many of the informal settlements are situated at slopes that are prone to landslides, or at river basins that are prone to flooding. Upgrades in planning and infrastructure can decrease existing vulnerabilities and risks.

You are describing factors related to the natural environment, which are mostly caused or aggravated by climate change. But what about the risks that cities face due to poverty, lack of infrastructure or failures of governance? How can these be tackled?

Again, good urban planning and urban management can provide key opportunities. First of all, knowing that the local government is making an effort to manage risks can already make a difference for residents, especially for those in exposed settlements. It increases their feeling of safety. Knowing that they are not left alone to deal with hazards is a first step to reduce their vulnerability.

The next step for cities and urban governments to decrease risks is to involve all stakeholders in the management of such areas. Community participation in planning is really important to increase safety in informal settlements for all types of hazards, whether it is a man-made hazard such as crime, robbery, or sexual violence, or whether it is a natural hazard. The local governments need to give the public the opportunity to understand these issues, and involve them in the planning process and in the management of the areas they live in. The same applies for all public spaces in general. Involving different groups in the design as well as the management of public spaces is a very effective way of decreasing crime and risks in such areas.

One reason why there is increased risk in public spaces is the fear of interaction. Public spaces should be truly open to all aspects of life and all people, and unless there are no limitations of who can use them, they can never be truly safe. For instance, if local governments do not provide benches in a public space for fear of homeless people sleeping or resting there, they prevent the space from being flexible and useful for different groups of people. In the end, they can cause more risks than they are avoiding. Such limited use and fear of interaction with the other can lead to increased vulnerability and aggressions. On the other hand, active and vibrant walkways and public spaces and short city blocks with multi-purpose use can lead to increased safety in our cities.

In addition to increased safety by introducing design elements, governments should also actively involve the local community, for instance by introducing safety patrols by community members. This will allow the residents to get a better sense of ownership and responsibility for their neighbourhoods, since they are taking part in their management. They will have to interact with everyone who uses the public space, and thus open the dialogue and push an inclusive approach to urban planning and management.

Can you give an example of a city that has managed to involve the public and relevant stakeholders in the decisions regarding safe public space?

I know that New York City has public design workshops to create or improve public spaces. Residents come together in groups to develop such designs, which they then provide to the community councils to adopt and implement. The new Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project in New York City is one good example. From its inception, the project involved stakeholders’ input to the design, and now involves their input in the implementation phase of green spaces that will work as a barrier to sea level rise. Barcelona is another great example to the increased use of public spaces, particularly with their new approach to superblocks. These superblocks not only increase the quality of life by adapting the city to pedestrians’ needs, but also reduce congestion. This approach is a great example of adaptation to climate change. The city has developed the idea by consulting with the public, and plans to try it out on one superblock with the local residents, to allow for changes and modifications to future superblocks.

Which specific risks do women face in public spaces, and how can public spaces be made safe for them?

Unfortunately, women have always been exposed to sexual aggression, assault and robbery in public spaces and even in public transportation. There are examples throughout the world, from the gruesome sexual assault cases in buses in New Delhi, to assault and robbery in parks in New York. Some countries have increased legal punishments in relation to sexual violence in public spaces to reduce such violence. For instance, the Municipality of Quito has one such ordinance. UN Women has a specific initiative on “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces” to advocate for this issue.

Again, involving women in the design of public spaces would be a great help to understand their specific needs and issues they have to deal with, and to incorporate these in planning or upgrading processes. Women know what they need to feel safe in a public space, so, it would be essential to include their perspectives in planning processes. That is especially crucial when it comes to spaces that women usually frequent more often than men – markets, for instance, is one such space.

How can that be done? Is it sufficient to just put in charge female architects or urban planners, or does it take much more than that?

The architect or the designer does not necessarily have to be a woman, but he or she needs to understand the issues from the perspective of the women who will be using the space in question. As we discussed earlier, community participation should involve more women, so that planning committees really understand the issues at stake. We have seen the importance of involving women in risk management, for instance in recovery areas after an earthquake or a tsunami. There is a good example from the City of Sendai in Japan, which after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake realised that its evacuation centres were largely managed by men. The city has since then advocated for new women leaders in disaster management, who now not only work in operations of these centres, but also provide emotional support to the victims. Indeed, women and children are affected from disasters multiple times more than men, particularly in traditional settings, where their access to public spaces and information are limited, which brings us back to the issue of unequal access to public spaces.

And what can local governments or even national governments do to make their cities safer for the inhabitants?

People need to own public space, not in the sense of property but in the sense that they feel it is theirs in terms of design and usage. Developing a sense of belonging is very important. This ownership is facilitated if public space is also public property, and not privately owned. It gives people a sense of control – if there is a participatory process for them to take part in, that is. The whole community should have a say in these matters, be it minority groups or any other part of society.

Coming back to the question what national governments can do, I think they can facilitate and support the work needed to be accomplished at the local level with necessary legislation and institutional backing. Local governments, on the other hand, can really work with the communities and try to understand how public spaces are used, how they can be upgraded, and what their inhabitants actually need.

How can local governments face this challenge, how can they approach the communities and learn about their perspectives?

As a graduate student, I undertook a summer fellowship at the Architectural Centre in Vienna, where our project was to redevelop a public space that was mostly used by the immigrant community. To understand the needs of the immigrants, we interviewed and accompanied them in their daily life. We learned how they used this public space and its weekly market. With the information we collected, we held a workshop to find an adequate solution for the redevelopment. To me, this seemed like a feasible approach.

Ebru Gencer

Executive Director at CUDRR+R
Ebru Gencer is the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience, an independent research organisation based in New York City. She is an urban planner specialized in disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and sustainable development. Dr Gencer is also the Co-Chair of the Urban Planning Advisory Group to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction and to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). She holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from Columbia University, New York.
Ebru Gencer
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