Public Spaces as Promoters of Equity and Social Inclusion: Case Study of Libraries and Cultural Festivals

As cities grow and densify, access to well-designed pleasant public spaces has not only become an important asset but a challenge for the poor, minorities and vulnerable groups. These groups include urban residents lacking quality and comfort in their housing, and therefore in need of decent infrastructure and communal spaces for health, recreation and socialization (Garau, 2015). Socially excluded category often include, poor, migrants, refugees, transgenders, elders, etc. In this context, social equity refers to provision of generous and good quality public spaces in order to make it accessible to people of all socio-economic backgrounds regardless of their class, age, gender, race or ethnic differences. Public spaces act as promoters of equity and social inclusion by making space for people from all social classes to interact and thereby reducing the economic and social segregation prevalent in a society (UCLG, 2016). Informal economy nurture in these places and should be dealt carefully to provide space for entrepreneurship (UNESCO, 2017).

While planning for inclusive cities, adequate housing, well-connected public transport and accessible public spaces should be integrated. It is essential to focus on (UCLG, 2016):

  • Rebuilding districts in an integrated way
  • Providing disadvantaged urban areas with quality public spaces
  • Promoting mixed use land use
  • Encouraging social mixing in housing
  • Removing architectural barriers that isolate certain areas

In this article, we look into role of libraries and cultural festivals in promoting equity and social inclusion in public spaces through a few case examples.

Libraries as inclusive public spaces

Public libraries are traditionally regarded as information and resources centres. Since information is widely accessible online today, the traditional role of libraries has now changed to play an important role as community spaces (Tan, 2017). They are meant as a pivot for information, learning and cultural discourse (Civica, 2016). As show in the following figure, users perceive libraries as the heart of the community and a place to connect with people (Civica, 2016).

Figure 1: Role of public libraries in users’ perception. Source: ‘The value of libraries as public spaces’ – Civica[1]

Having a vast amount of users, libraries act as socially inclusive public spaces by engaging all excluded groups to the community. Importance of provision of public libraries is identified by many local governments as an inclusive planning strategy to revitalise and transform communities (Hin Man, 2007).

Case 1: Biblioteca Espana, Medellın, Colombia

Medellin, the capital of Antioquia province, Columbia, is often described as a violent city owing to the series of political and drug related events happened over the last two decades. It is home to many Columbians internally displaced by political violence who are socially excluded in terms of access to basic civic amenities and public spaces (Holmes and Pineres, 2013). Despite the city’s history of conflicts, Medellin also has been recognised for its proactive efforts to use public spaces as a tool for quality of life improvement (Sertich, 2010).

Image 1: View of Biblioteca Espana with the settlements in background. Source: architizer.com

Image 2: Front view of Biblioteca Espana. Source: architizer.com

Biblioteca Espana (Spain Library Park) was a part of the mayor’s social inclusion program that targeted two of the poorest and most isolated neighbourhoods of the city – ‘Popular’ and ‘Santa Cruz’. Both the neighbourhoods are densely populated with low standard of living. Statistics shows that (Municipio de Medellín 2010; Municipio de Medellín 2010a),

  • Quality of housing:  99.8 % of Popular and 99.9% of Santa Cruz are classified as low/ very low/ slum
  • Education: 61.1 % of Popular and 56.6% of Santa Cruz have primary or lower level of education attainment
  • Unemployment rate is 40% and average monthly income is 147,000 pesos (US$70) in both the neighbourhoods,

Bogotá architect Giancarlo Mazzanti designed the Biblioteca España complex with three goals in mind (Holmes and Pineres, 2013),

  • promote the creation of employment and economic prosperity
  • promote social integration and the revitalization of depressed urban areas
  • protect and improve the urban environment

The complex provides broader infrastructure improvements, such as a community center, an auditorium, art galleries, play areas, computer labs, and outside space. All are designed to improve the economic prospects of nearby residents, increase their integration to the city at large, and promote social capital. Residents gather in this oasis for readings, screenings, concerts and discussions (Tan, 2017). As per a survey conducted in 2011, the project had greater impacts on residents’ satisfaction on quality of life (figure 2)  (Holmes and Pineres, 2013).

Figure 2: Medellín Cómo Vamos QOL survey results for Popular/ Santa Cruz. Source: Medellín’s Biblioteca España: Progress in Unlikely Places

Case 2: The Idea Store, Tower Hamlets Borough, London, UK

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s most diverse boroughs with more than 37% of the population being British Bengalis facing high levels of unemployment and social exclusion. The library system in the city had potential to provide its residents with learning opportunities to improve work and career outlooks, a meeting place to encourage social cohesion and connection, and support for families and young people (Aitani, 2017). Acknowledging this fact, Tower Hamlets Council’s Arts, Leisure and Sports Committee undertook renovation on the existing library system after an extensive public consultation in 2002 (Citiesofmigration.ca, 2015). As a result, the ‘Idea Store’ was conceptualised as a new form of public library to incorporate the needs of customers and making it an attractive, accessible public space. Idea Stores provide core services of a library and functions as (Citiesofmigration.ca, 2015),

  • Clubs for homework, jobs, and books
  • Skill development centre
  • Children’s Centres which offer programs and support for families
  • Centre for cultural events and performances
  • Community meeting spaces

Image 3: The Idea Store, London. Source: adjaye.com

By 2009, the Tower Hamlets library system was ranked 3rd in London and 4th in England for percentage of residents using library services, based on the participation data for National Indicator 9 (Aitani, 2017The 2006/07 Public Library User Survey (PLUS) of users over the age of 16 demonstrated that Tower Hamlets Idea Store attracted  users of all ages from different background. 54.8% of the total users were from ethnic minorities and 32.9% from the age group of 20 to 24 (Tower Hamlets Council, 2009).

Social inclusion through cultural festivals in public spaces

Cultural festivals are public celebrations which demonstrate community values, strengthen community pride and sense of place (Jepson, Wiltshier and Clarke, 2012). They act as a medium of combining groups of people and communities together to produce meaningful insights, foster peace and create safer and friendlier neighbourhoods (Stern and Seifert, 2010).   When public spaces such as streets, plazas, convention centers, open grounds, etc. are used for festivals, it promotes equity and social inclusion in the city (Clover, 2006).

Case 1: Festivals in South Bank Parklands and Neighbourhood parks of Brisbane, Queensland

The indigenous Australians known as Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders account for 2.4% of the population of Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland. Refugees or asylum seekers from the Middle East and parts of Asia also contribute to a portion of Brisbane’s population (ABS, 2016). In a homogeneous demography, these two groups are constantly facing a threat of social exclusion. However, several initiatives have been taken by NGOs and local volunteers to establish their participation in public life through various programs and cultural festivals (Roitman and Johnson, 2014).

Image 4: The public park in the South Bank Parklands. Source: queensland.com

Image 5: A performance by tribal community in the Clancestry festival. Source: sibw.com

Image 6: A procession from the Luminous festival. Source: theweekendedition.com

South Bank Parklands, a 17 hectare riverfront public space with artificial beach and parks, is used as the venue for two important festivals namely Clancestry and Luminous festival. These festivals by the indigenous and the refugee communities are an attempt to establish their right to the city and its spaces. They enable them to interact with non-aboriginals through cultural and artistic expression in a shared public space (Roitman and Johnson, 2014).

The suburban neighbourhood parks of Brisbane also hold several cultural events and festivals such as,

  • Indigenous hip-hop
  • Styling up
  • Vietnamese moon festival
  • Chinese New Year
  • African day
  • World Refugee football tournament
  • Rohingya youth day, etc.,

thereby promoting equity and social inclusion in the public spaces of the city (Roitman and Johnson, 2014).

Case 2: Slum festival in Kampala, Uganda

Slums are typically characterised by overcrowding, high levels of unemployment or underemployment, deficient urban services (water, sanitation, education, and health) and widespread insecurity (UN-Habitat, 2003). Kampala, Uganda’s capital city has half of its population living in slums and socially excluded from the society. The Slum festival is conducted in 2014 with an aim to activate public space in the Kampala slum through artistic interventions, construction of stages, the use of performance and new media, and audience participation. Artists, audiences, residents, local initiatives and organisations are mobilized to participate in the shaping of their public space and to make it a reflection of their identity.  This initiative enable slum dwellers for better public interaction and social engagement as well as empowering the economically disadvantaged to develop within the creative economy (Lubega et al., 2014).

Image 7: A performance from the Slum Festival in 2015. Source: streetangelsuganda.com

Conclusion

The case of Spain Library Park in Medellin shows that libraries can be a place of revival for socially excluded low income groups in a society. In London’s Idea Stores, a library system served a multitude of opportunities for the public such as meeting place, space for cultural expression, etc. and increased participation of people from multiple ethnic background and age groups. Similarly, cultural festivals in the public spaces of Brisbane and Kampala helped integrate migrants, indigenous people or slum dwellers to the public realm, thereby promoting social inclusion.

Since public spaces are particularly important for marginalised groups, planning for quality public spaces to foster integration between different socio-economic groups becomes relevant. Investments in streets and public space infrastructure improve urban productivity, livelihoods and allow better access to markets, jobs and public services, especially in developing countries where a large proportion of the urban workforce is informal. Public spaces can thus be a powerful tool to improve equity, promote inclusion and combat discrimination. However, engaging the community in design, management and maintenance of public spaces is also relevant to attain an inclusive city.

[1] Survey results from the research conducted by Civica group ltd. and University of Technology, Sydney, on the value of libraries as public spaces