Urban public spaces for play and wellbeing?

By Dolf te Lintelo

The Tenth World Urban Forum (#WUF10) took place in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Hosted by UN-Habitat, the human settlements arm of the United Nations, this biannual gathering brought together over 13,000 professionals, practitioners, policymakers and researchers over five days. It offered a rich variety of panels, discussions, and wider exhibitions on current trends and issues relating to the topic of Culture and Innovation in cities.

Partnerships towards an inclusive culture of health in cities

My focus at the conference converged around the themes of informality, urban displacement, and wellbeing, and I was privileged to speak on three panels. The first panel was entitled Partnerships towards an inclusive culture of health in cities. Together with Margaret Bayo from Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Sierra Leone, and Caroline Kabaria from the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) in Nairobi, we represented the ARISE Consortium, which jointly hosted this networking session with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and the International Science Council (ISC). The session focused on urban health and wellbeing in relation to informal settlements and the urban form.

In this session, Jo Boufford (ISC) noted the paradox that despite the importance of the built environment for shaping health outcomes, at the global level, policymakers often don’t understand urbanism. Consequently, they frequently end up thinking about healthcare, not about the broader determinants of health in urban contexts. Jo further highlighted the necessity of urban planning schools to engage more with communities as co-planners.

My presentation outlined how the ARISE programme seeks to work closely with communities in urban informal spaces in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and India to identify their perspectives on what constitutes wellbeing, and how existing political economic relations and accountability dynamics shape health and wellbeing outcomes for diverse groups. Caroline Kabaria then discussed the opportunities and challenges in obtaining good quality data in these settings, whereas Margaret Bayo shared experiences on how women’s savings groups in Freetown slums helped to organise communities, communicate health messages, and conduct research to effectively engage the municipality and mobilise improved services.

Finally, Diane Archer (SEI) presented important new research that explored wellbeing in relation to urban green spaces in Thailand, to find that the latter are often scarce, and increasingly privatized. However, malls and other pseudo-public spaces are often used in similar ways to public spaces, which raises the question: do these spaces also provide important wellbeing services to city dwellers, and if so, how can we account for these? This work also entailed innovative methods to assess not just mental but also bodily perceptions of, and satisfactions with, particular urban spaces by monitoring heart rates and stress.

Harnessing public urban spaces to increase wellbeing

Diane’s was one in a rich seam of presentations across the WUF10 that paid attention to wellbeing in relation to urban public space. As a principal investigator on current research projects investigating placemaking, displacement, urban infrastructures and wellbeing – Displacement, Placemaking and Wellbeing in the City (DWELL) and Wellbeing, Housing and Infrastructure in Turkey (WHIT) – these had my special interest.

In many of the sessions, discussion focused on designated planned use and design, with examples ranging from upgrading a street, a market or a square, to totally reclaiming street spaces by banning cars and repurposing parking spaces as terraces and play areas for the benefit of pedestrians, children, the disabled and the elderly. Such public spaces were presented as prospectively beneficial to urban populations – for instance in cities like Brussels (Belgium) or Lima (Peru) – as they could foster cross-cultural interaction, harmonious relations, reduce insecurity and achieve civic trust that is essential to liveable cities. Public spaces are perhaps most important for children, whose access to these spaces has a big impact on their health and wellbeing, but public spaces also have important benefits for the community at large.

Some speakers argued that political leadership on urban planning and good urban design could have important effects on the community. For example,  providing suitable lighting in parks invited night-time use by the community and a feeling of safety, but using popular types of paving stones such as cobbles (much used in European cities) inhibit less mobile groups (for example, the elderly or disabled) from getting to and using these spaces.

Much will depend on whether planners and designers take active cognizance of current users of such public spaces, and for what purposes. In a nice training on ethnography of public spaces, Setha Low (City University of New York) explained that when shoeshiners were removed from Latin American parks to make way for better material structures that did not accommodate them, youth gangs soon took over the park, making it extremely unsafe. Planners had failed to acknowledge that street vendors play a critical role in keeping a watchful eye on what happened in the park, providing support to people, and therefore had provided safety through their presence.

Anandini Dar (a colleague on the DWELL project at Ambedkar University Delhi) noted in her talk on migrant children’s placemaking in informal settlements that in many cities of the global south, such as in India, development visions tend to exclude children from public spaces. Where city governments are unwilling or unable to support public infrastructures in informal settlements, planning and design take a backseat. Intriguingly though, some research in Delhi shows that children favour unkempt parks to formally designed play spaces, as children resist conforming and reinvent spaces in accordance to their own needs for play. Dar’s research also finds that informal settlements themselves pose many opportunities for spontaneous play and wellbeing, offering some nuance to the stories of horror, unsafety and harm that are stereotypically used to label such settlements.

Does this then mean that these children should be left to their own devices? Far from it. Children, and their capacity for imagination and play, must be recognised and become an active part of public planning and design. This could shift focus away from providing highly structured places and objects of play to shape urban environments that encourage playfulness for wellbeing.