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UCLG Peer Learning on Public Spaces
A culmination of discussions, ideas, insights, experiences, and lessons learned occurred during a UCLG Peer learning session that took place on 07 – 09 December 2015 in Blantyre, Malawi. 

The session was hosted jointly by the City of Blantyre, UCLG, UN Habitat, UIA and eThekwini Municipality. Over the three days, at least 40 participants attended the event and they represented management and political leadership from the Cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, practitioners from the respective municipalities, NGOs and other stakeholders. The theme of the learning session was to explore public space as a generator of growth in African Cities with a particular focus on Blantyre. A number of topics were covered and they included: a public space discourse at UCLG; examples of good practice; fundamentals of public space development in an African context; UIA Projects in Africa; the problems and challenges of public space in an African context; the current state of public space in Blantyre; possible interventions for public space development; detailed Action Plans for interventions; horticulture and public space; as well as the role of the markets in public space. 

At the learning session, it became evident that public space has become a very important subject in many cities across the world and Africa in particular. Public space is now understood to have a potential to become a key generator of socio-economic growth in African cities. In his introductory remarks, Costly Chanza, Director of Planning and Estate Services, stated that the concept of public spaces has attracted much interest in the City of Blantyre. The learning session was seen as an opportunity to discuss and come up with solutions to some of the challenges that Blantyre is currently experiencing. Puven Akkiah, member of UCLG Urban Strategic Planning Committee also stated that the issue of public space features high on the agenda of global development as reflected in the sustainable development goals (SDGs)

The Mayor of the City of Blantyre, Honourable Councillor Noel Chalamanda, highlighted the fact that public spaces are often overlooked yet the character and image of the city is defined by its public spaces. In 2015, the United Nations approved an urban SDG11 that refers explicitly to public space. UCLG has been instrumental for in the approval of this goal. The proposed SDGs highlight public spaces as a key and important topic. SDG – proposed goal 11 target 7 states that by 2030 provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Moreover, the committee on Urban Strategic Planning, to which the city council of Blantyre is member, has focused the work around public local policies on public space since 2014 and is developing several city to city learning on this topic, towards a policy paper on public space that will be presented in the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders, in Bogota, October 2016. This process is nurturing the process of Habitat III, where public space will be considered as a lever of change. 

It is considered crucial to integrate public space in policies and development models of African cities. The design, use, decision making, regulation is complex. African cities need to be considered not only in spatial but also in economic and social management. Further, the profile of public space needs to raised, African cities grow fast, often informal and with little attention to public space.

The utilisation of green open spaces and urban parks has been very marginal in Blantyre due to the poor state of the parks. Since the early 90s, urban parks have been neglected and this has led to illegal use and degradation, particularly in Njamba, Rangeley and Queen Parks, Chimwankhunda and Chiwembe Dams. The neglect of these parks can be attributed to a number of factors. 

The post 2015 developmental agenda and the global arena dictates that local government needs to engage, reflect and propose to improve public space. With the advent of the UN Habitat Global Tool Kit for public space​, cities are now considering the importance of this strategy and structuring element of the urban form. Some cities have fully embraced the concept of people centred public space. Through learning events, cities are able to tap into their knowledge and experience of one another to assist in designing, developing and maintaining public space. 

There is a growing need for Municipal practitioners to continue learning and sharing ideas and creative ways to develop, design, implement and manage public spaces. The Urban Strategic Planning Committee has over the past year actively developed and influenced global policy through its learning events in Durban (South Africa) and Porto Alegre (Brazil) on public space dialogues with the Architects, Horticulturalists and Planners.

The outcomes of the learning events were documented and became key inputs to processes by United Nations, in particular into the UN Habitat Global Toolkit for Public Space as well as the public space chart of the Institute of Rome, and influence how each of the above professions view and implement public space design. Blantyre has also been participating in the UN high level events around public space.

To complement the international discussion about public space and provide a political input to Habitat III, UCLG Strategic Planning Committee is currently working on a policy paper that focuses on the role and power of local governments on public space. It is with this intent that Urban Strategic Planning Committee proposed a learning event in Blantyre to expand on its current experiences in public space design and development with a view of consolidating the African experience to public space and further influences the development of a public space policy for local governments.
View or Download the learning notes for the Blantrye Learning Exchange below: 

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