Should the New Urban Agenda urge cities to fight private vehicles?

And other questions from the Habitat III Urban Dialogue on public space, which runs through 26 March.

The latest in the series of online discussion forums on hot topics in urban development have started up, with one on public space and another on European urban development.

These web platforms, organized by the United Nations, are designed to provide people the world over with the opportunity to weigh in on what should be in the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy that will be decided upon in October at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

The first digital forum focuses on public space, a topic that Habitat III organizers have flagged as a signature theme. Long absent from international discussions on development in favour of more traditional topics such as poverty, health care and education, the public realm has now taken centre stage, from keynote addresses at the U. N.’s World Habitat Day to a prime mention in the recent 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

The road to Habitat III will make a pit stop to focus in depth on public space on 4-5 April, when Barcelona — the hometown of Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos, who was that city’s mayor from 1997 to 2006 — hosts a formal meeting on the issue. That event will result in an official set of recommendations on the public space for the New Urban Agenda.

With questions focused on equity, neighborhoods and inclusivity, the dialogue has sparked a lively debate. Already, contributors have offered lessons based on a wide variety of examples, from a tower obstructing public park views in Manila to the proliferation of measurement tools in the United States.

There have also been criticisms of existing popular models.

“We have seen pocket parks, pop-up parks and other quick solutions made BY technocrat governments FOR the people, to attend the public space need in certain cities,” wrote PhD student Javier Otero Peña, who researches public space.

“We have also seen how short-lived many of these initiatives are,” he noted, “and how after one swing breaks, one bench is damaged, soon people are discouraged from using them and these parks become swing graveyards, weed gardens and in some cases an ideal place for illicit activities and for disease-vector breeding, until a future technocrat government decided to invest on maintenance on the park and the cycle repeats itself.”

[See: Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development]

The online debate, promoted by moderator David Bravo, secretary of the jury of the European Prize for Urban Public Space, has focused on the private automobile as having a particularly deleterious impact on public spaces. Bravo has gone so far as to throw out a provocative suggestion for the New Urban Agenda: “Do you think the United Nations should make a clear and forceful recommendation to the cities of the world to fight against the proliferation of private cars and to defend public transport and neighbourhoods where people can live as pedestrians?”

Elsewhere on the Habitat III website, the European urban community now has a space for debate about housing and sustainable urban development on the continent. However, that dialogue went live just as the Europe and North America regional meeting for Habitat III convened in Prague before concluding Friday. (Citiscope will have a full report on those sessions next week.)

Online participants still have a few more days to weigh in, although with a short window of time, the discussion has been tepid compared to the robust conversation on public space.

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