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>The role of local public spaces as vehicles for multicultural interaction

                                                                                                                                          2009 London, UK

 “We need to see differences on the streets or in the other people neither as threats nor as sentimental invitations, rather as necessary visions. They are necessary for us to learn how to navigate life with balance, both individually and collectively.” (Sennett, 1991, p. xiii)

Public spaces expose us to social diversity. These spaces have the potential to enable understanding of social plurality and thereby foster tolerance. In this way, public spaces influence all of us in a manner vital for our own personal development. They serve as a stage for ongoing lessons in one’s life.

“Public spaces are fundamental features of cities. They represent sites of sociability and face-to-face interaction, and at the same time their quality is commonly perceived to be a measure of the quality of urban life.” (Dines et al, 2006, p.1). Nevertheless, not all public spaces have the same social value in terms of their influence upon us, nor in terms of their actual use and maintenance. Public spaces can be divided into two categories: the first category is defined by the labels ’main’, metropolitan and tourist friendly hot spots, with the latter category being characterised by the adjectives: ‘marginal’, local, and neighbourhood (Madanipour, 2004). Main public spaces usually act as gateways to the city by attracting investors and tourists. These public spaces are used to project a positive image of the city. However, neighbourhood public spaces, although often relegated to a level of secondary importance by planning bodies  are at least as significant for cities to function well and are especially important in regards to the quality of life of their citizens. This author further argues that these local public spaces are usually arenas of contestation and conflict between various neighbourhood stakeholders. On the other hand, they can be a significant asset in bringing people together and even improving the quality of life in these neighbourhoods.

Therefore, it is interesting to examine in detail how these local public spaces influence actual interaction and social mixing of different groups of people, especially in instances in which there is not any other venue for socially sanctioned contact. In the context of this work, ‘different groups’ are considered as people who differentiate themselves by ethnicity, race and income. The aim of this paper is to give examples of public spaces, from a diverse array of contexts, which have positively contributed to building social cohesion.
Examples from the United Kingdom

While most local public spaces have different user groups, some provide better settings for ‘real’ social contact between them. Market places and neighbourhood parks located near schools have shown to be amongst  the most successful spaces for achieving that ’real’ social mixing (Dines et al, 2006).

In their study on markets as social spaces in British towns, Watson and Studdert (2006) pointed out that markets play different roles for different social groups. Nevertheless, their study shows that market places prove to be places used by a wide range of community groups. Their study indicated that although the level of social interaction varied from market to market, all of them certainly acted as sites of social inclusion in some form.

Similar conclusions can be drawn when looking the example of Queens Market in East London (Dines, N. Cattell, V. et al., 2006). The authors point out that the market acts as a site for unstructured interaction amongst different ethnic groups. Their study indicated that these spaces of regular, casual contact were more important for developing tolerance than formally organised multicultural events in parks, or other community venues. This refers to the fact that markets operate as spaces of amusement, where a wide range of people spend time. Additionally, markets act as economically inclusive spaces by offering cheap and diverse goods, which attract members of all social strata (especially during periods of recession). Thus, markets as public spaces have a very important, yet often neglected social role within communities.

Parks adjacent to schools are another form of public space that serve as successful sites for social interaction (Dines, N. Cattell, V. et al., 2006). Not only do children and parents from different communities interact in the park, but the school and the park in tandem can bring entire communities closer together. As explained by the residents in Dines, N. Cattell, V. et al.’s study of  Newham, before the school and park were built, the empty lot which they later filled, represented a physical barrier between a mostly white housing estate on one side  and a predominantly Asian area of terraced housing on the other.

Similar conclusions were made in two further studies that were undertaken in different contexts and locations. Both studies focused on mixed tenure communities in which the main separating difference between residents was their income, which again generated problems regarding social cohesion. The report ‘A good place for children?’ (Silverman, E., Lupton, R. & Fenton, A., 2005) has shown that well maintained and safe play spaces and communal areas are one of the key features that facilitate social interaction amongst residents of different tenures. The other study of mixed tenure estates, ‘Living together’ (Jupp, 1999), concludes that the primary avenue of interaction between residents was centred on the bridges opened by the children of the community.

Another way in which public spaces can help promote social cohesion is through the various activities that are hosted in those spaces (Holland, C. et al. 2007). Madanipour (2004) provides the example of Walker, Newcastle, where summer festivals in the local park and Jubilee celebrations in the streets have shown to have a significant positive impact on community cohesion. The public celebrations and other events that bring local people together promote a sense of community which plays an important role in developing and maintaining cohesive social relationships. Furthermore, this author argues that residents’ involvement in public space maintenance and management is the key, as it helps to create a sense of ownership. This not only leads to improvement in the physical environment, but it can also develop social capital in a neighbourhood.

Different context, similar principles

Croatian town Vukovar provides an analogous snapshot of the core importance and social value of public spaces. Vukovar is a town located in what is now Croatia, bordering Serbia. The town was heavily damaged during the war between Serbs and Croats in 1991.  After a three month siege which set a precedent for the damage which would later be wrought on Dubrovnik, Mostar and Sarajevo, the town came under Serbian occupation and was ethnically purged of Croats. However, in 1998, Vukovar underwent a process of ‘peaceful reintegration’ during which it was legally integrated into the Croatian state and the Croatian refugees returned with the majority of the Serbian population also electing to stay in the town. Since then, the city has been ethnically ‘divided’ between these two nationalities. This has resulted in a divided school system, and mono-ethnic cafés, sport clubs, cultural institutions, places of employment and local shops.  The astronomical unemployment rates have reified the ethnic separation and carried it into the work place. Therefore, the most important contact zone for members of these two ethnicities is the market place and main town square (N.B. Vukovar is a small provincial town and this square should be seen as a neighbourhood public space rather than the main public space of a metropolitan city).

In Vukovar, the market place has been the primary setting for interaction of these two divided groups. The actual social mixing in the market happens in different ways, with the interaction between Croatian and Serbian occurring on three levels: between traders working alongside each other, between traders and shoppers and between the shoppers themselves. In this way, the market place provides for social interaction for a wide range of people making it the crucial social common space in this divided town.
A second interesting example of a public space showing the signs of a ‘spring’ of inter-ethnic cohesion is a recently opened cafe on the main town square that returned life to this devastated space. Although owned by a Croat it is the first cafe that is actually being visited by Serbs as well. Probably the most important reason for that  is the fact it occupies a big terrace which  takes up half of the public square. Therefore, as explained by some of the Serbian customers, it feels as if one is sitting in a public space (‘it’s not their space it belongs to everyone’).  Furthermore, given that it is in the main pedestrianised square, it is child friendly, meaning that many families with children use it as a rest spot whilst their children play on the terrace. Naturally, children do not care about ethnicity and start to play together setting the scene for adults to make friendly contact as well. Again, as explained in the examples from the United Kingdom, this shows how interaction of children in public spaces can be an important stepping-stone to encourage the mixing of adults.
The same square has shown that it can be a successful space of social interaction for other age groups as well.  A free, hip-hop festival that included activities such as skateboarding and graffiti workshops was hosted there in the summer of 2008. What made this event special is the fact that it was the first event in the main square of the town which included artists from both Croatia and Serbia. In that sense, it was a groundbreaking event with a high potential risk of ethnically motivated ‘incidents’, but luckily, it was a resounding success. Its success seems to rest upon the fact that it was organised by local young people and was not a ‘forced joint event’ imposed by outside actors. The event’s PR never emphasized the fact that it was going to be the first ethnically mixed event. By downplaying this aspect, they avoided a lot of controversial attention. Fortunately, this showed that although young people are officially divided in schools and nightclubs, because of the adults’ politics; sub-culture and public space, which do not officially ‘belong’ to any of the groups, can serve as venues which actually bring divided cities together. Additionally, this example shows how well organised events in a public space, presented in a sensitive way and in accordance to local conditions, can be a powerful tool for promoting tolerance and social cohesion.

Facilitating social cohesion is a complex issue involving wide range of factors. It requires a multi-dimensional approach in which having successful local public spaces represents just one dimension.  Nevertheless, no matter how minor their significance in the total process of social (re)integration, they represent a positive step forward.

Local public spaces have proved that they can play a fairly significant role in building social relationships in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of East London, new UK mixed income communities or even in the post-conflict areas in the Balkans. It seems that what brings people together the most are market places, interaction through their children, diverse joint activities and involvement of locals in public space maintenance and management.

Furthermore, in order to improve chances for social mixing, public spaces should be as inclusive as possible and user friendly for a wide range of people including children, women, the elderly and people with disabilities, regardless of their social, racial and ethnic background. In the same vein, these spaces should be highly flexible allowing multiple uses for a variety of purposes in different time settings (Madanipour, 2004).

Although it has been demonstrated how local public spaces in different contexts and from different societies can influence social cohesion in similar ways, those examples were chosen to highlight basic, common underlying principles. Thus, there always has to be the awareness that what seems to work in one place does not necessarily work in another. A ‘one-size-fits all’ approach will never be effective. Therefore, in order to emphasise local public spaces’ potential for fostering community social cohesion, they should be carefully designed/developed and maintained in accordance to local conditions and the actual needs of each and every local community.


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