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Placemaking for Peacemaking

Afghan Refugees in Iran, 2013 | Image Credit EU/ECHO Pierre Prakash

Placemaking & Peacemaking: A Two-Way Approach for Promoting Inclusion and Interaction in Socially Fragmented Cities

Even though, by definition, public spaces are open and accessible to everyone, for refugees and immigrants they often become sites of danger and exclusion.

In 2015, the international community gave unprecedented recognition to the role of public spaces in sustainable development by including a target in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda to: "Provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities." The New Urban Agenda, signed in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, reaffirmed the importance of public space, recognizing the role of quality public spaces in driving social and economic development, enhancing safety and security, and facilitating social interaction and diversity—which can all positively impact health and well-being.

But in light of increasing global migration, internal displacement, and the world's intensifying refugee crisis, the topic of public space is especially relevant in today's cities—particularly those that are the most vulnerable and unstable. As detailed in the 2015 World Migration Report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), cities are the primary destination for the majority of the world's migrants, refugees, and otherwise displaced populations. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of the total 14.4 million refugees and 80% of the 38 million internally displaced persons live in urban areas.

With the ongoing crises in the Middle East and North Africa region, many refugees and otherwise displaced populations are often marginalized and forced to live in poorly maintained areas of cities—areas in which both their movement and their access to adequate shelter and basic human services are restricted. Many refugees and immigrants also face intense social, economic, and racial discrimination, which results in deep tensions between themselves and host populations. This fragmentation plays out in and inevitably alters, the public spaces of a city and the everyday social life that occurs within it.

A glimpse of street life in an old souk in Tyre, South of Lebanon | Photo by author

When we talk about public space, we often associate the concept with some sort of "social" function. Through community-centered urban design and planning, public spaces should indeed improve social life, enhance the social interactions between urban dwellers, and therefore build stronger communities within the city.

But are today's public spaces, especially those in socially fragmented cities, successfully performing this function? How can we use placemaking to foster inclusive public spaces and as a strategy to promote peacemaking in cities and regions facing instability?

Peacemaking is a process, not a final result

As defined by Project for Public Spaces (PPS), placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces that capitalizes on a local community's assets and potential. It involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions to the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover needs and aspirations for that place.

Placemaking is a process that has an end, a result. The result is creating a good public space that promotes a community's health, safety, peace, happiness, and well-being. A good public space is a place where people like to be. A place that people care about. A place where people feel at home. It is a safe, well-connected, accessible, welcoming, sociable, multi-use, multicultural and interactive place. A good public space promotes community empowerment and facilitates civic engagement.

So what is "peacemaking"? At the most basic level, conflict theorists define peacemaking as a process of forging a settlement between disputing parties—either through direct negotiations between the two disputants or through a third-party mediator who assists with process and communication problems. Peace negotiations test the sincerity and the willingness of parties to live with each other, and they indicate how well they can design a blueprint for peace.

Peacemaking is a creative process of engaging others to make lasting change, and it is most effective when it addresses the root causes of conflict and ensures the freedom from fear for all residents of a specific place or community. Peacemaking activities must be tailored to specific needs and based on local ownership. These activities include a range of efforts implemented by diverse actors such as local authorities, community members, and civil society organizations. And like placemaking, peacemaking is more than an idea—it's a process that aims to change people's attitudes and behavior, and to transform dynamics between individuals and groups in order to achieve a peaceful coexistence in a specific place.

Placemaking for Peacemaking a two-way approach  

Chapter VI of the UN Charter describes peacemaking by offering a non-restrictive list of peaceful means of resolving disputes that can mobilize the support of local interest groups. Supporting the implementation of peace-related activities is essential in establishing a commitment to promote human rights, as well as economic and social development.

Placemaking is not included among this list. But to create truly inclusive public spaces, we must do more than design for inclusivity. Instead, diverse groups—all members of a community—must be included in the planning and the design itself.

As Holly Whyte explains in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, "What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. Indeed, people need people. We all need each other, whomever that "Other" is. Placemaking—which is based on prioritizing people's needs, aspirations and well-being during the planning stages of design—provides a great opportunity for peacemaking efforts and activities. The placemaking process affords peacemaking efforts a physical space in which to enhance dialogue between different people. It welcomes and encourages "Others" to find a place where they feel welcome and respected, and it inevitably leads to peacemaking through community participation and mutual trust. In other words, the connections peacemaking hopes to forge can only succeed if the process is implemented in a physical place where people can express this connection in a practical way.

When dealing with public spaces in global conflict zones and unstable cities, it is important to assess how Placemaking could be a strategy for promoting social inclusion and participation of different demographics. This includes traditional users of public spaces as well as newcomers. Like placemaking, peacemaking requires courage, compassion, and collaboration, and as a step forward for the peacemaking mission, activists and practitioners must work to develop resources and tools that focus on placemaking as a strategy for promoting urban equity and social cohesion.

The difference between placemaking and peacemaking is only one letter. If we replace the "e" with an "l" in peacemaking, we can begin to work towards ensuring a sustainable peace among the different groups within a community.

A boy rides his bicycle in an informal settlement in Tripoli | Photo by author

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