Sustainable Cities conference bridges cultures, demonstrates shared experiences on public spaces

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The challenges of traffic congestion, civic engagement and shrinking public spaces are key themes for cities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; these same challenges cut across West Africa’s cities, too. November 4-5, African Urbanism participated in the conference “Towards a Roadmap for Sustainable Cities in the MENA Region” in Beirut, Lebanon, organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Lebanon and the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Public Policy Institute.

In particular, when it comes to threats on public spaces, many Middle Eastern, North African and Sub-Saharan African cities are up against similar challenges. On the panel “The Citizen and the City: Environmental Inclusion, Equity and Public Space,” African Urbanism shared experiences and strategies for promoting public spaces along with Mohammad Nayoub of Nahnoo, a Beirut-based NGO and advocacy organization that works to democratize public spaces in the city, and Merve Aki, urban planner with EMBARQ Turkey, who planned and executed a pedestrianization project in Istanbul.

Neoliberalism as a new framework for understanding the shifting perspective of urban management

In a panel on the first day of the conference, panelist Rami Daher introduced participants to neoliberalism as a framework for understanding urban development priorities in the MENA region. Rami Daher, practicing architect and professor in Amman, Jordan, laid out the deepening role of the private sector and private-sector interests in urban development in cities like Amman and the impacts on social services and spaces, particularly public spaces. In his presentation “Public Space and Sphere in the Midst of Neoliberal Threats and Urban Transformations: News from Amman,” Daher focused on the role of neoliberalism, a widening orientation toward free-market principles, that infuses urban development.

In MENA’s cities, the greatest threat to public space is the growth of neoliberalism asserted Rami Daher. Daher focuses on physical public spaces such as parks and common areas like train stations that promote access and social interactions. In the beginning of the 20th century, municipalities were much more involved in the development of infrastructure and public spaces. In addition, the notion of public spaces was socially, ethnically, religiously inclusive at that time. City government, private sector and communities themselves were all active creators of public space and involved in the creation of public spaces.

Across much of the MENA region, global capital (particularly in the form of surplus capital from oil reserves) has strongly contributed to an increasing private sector role in urban management and development. The capital is targeted at private sector projects – in the form of new financial districts, gated communities, high-end waterfront and urban development projects, for example – creating “new emerging urban islands of excessive consumption” that function as exclusive communities, Daher said. The result is private/exclusive spaces at the expense of real common city spaces (common areas, and areas open to the public that are socially inclusive).

Daher provided the example of the shifting treatment of low-income housing projects. Whereas in the 1960s and 70s such housing projects were heavily subsidized by the government, now such projects are often administered through private sector investors. These low-income housing projects are pushed to the outskirts of the city, away from accessible social services and urban transport nodes. At the same time, the emphasis on gated communities in prime areas ensures state-of-the-art services, conveniences and infrastructure, but only for those that can afford.

Instead of the government subsidizing social sectors that would support equal opportunity and inclusive development (education, healthcare, social services, social housing, transport, infrastructure provision, public transit and public spacemaking etc.) the government chooses to subsidize real estate development (through tax reductions, soft regulation, giving prime real estate to companies at discounted prices). In effect, Daher argued, the government is gradually supporting the creation of exclusive, private “public” spaces.

” As a consequence of neoliberal socioeconomics, and in countries like Jordan, the ‘State’ finds itself gradually pulling out of its responsibilities from fragile sectors such as education, healthcare, social security, social housing, and instead become move involved in real-estate development as a facilitator, regulator, and provider of indirect subsidies for multi-national corporations.”  – Rami Daher

This is leading to “geographies of inequality in the city,” Daher explained. This neoliberal governance affects the ways in which urban place, including public spaces are managed and prioritized. The result for is the shrinking number of actual public spaces that are open and accessible, and the rise of “private” spaces that contain the aesthetics of public space, but are exclusive and inaccessible to those who cannot afford or don’t belong to certain classes.

Daher researches and writes extensively on neoliberalism and urban development in the MENA region, and recently published the article “Neoliberal urban transformations in the Arab city” focused on Amman, Jordan.

“The Citizen and the City: Environmental Inclusion, Equity and Public Space”

On the panel focused on public spaces, Mohammad Ayoub discussed the Beirut government’s stance toward public spaces and the work of his organization Nahnoo, which seeks to re-open Horsh Beirut, an urban park that has been closed to the public since 1992. Discussing informal community-creating approaches to public-space making in Jamestown, Accra, Okoye outlined key attributes that characterize community social spaces and provided a community-focused planning process for creating more vibrant public spaces in the city.

The conference provided an opportunity for international engagement and discussion on some of the most pressing issues facing cities, and approaches and strategies toward equitable, sustainable development.

What did we learn?

Despite the difference and different context, citizens of Accra, Amman and Beirut are experiencing similar challenges in the accessibility of public spaces.  Private sector interests have a strongly shaping force in the city and prioritize commercial developments and exclusivity over social amentities, services and public spaces. This conference highlights the need for continued information sharing and networking between actors promoting more inclusive public spaces and sustainable cities, not just in the West Africa region, not just in the MENA region, but throughout.