Re-inventing Public Space through co-creation
August 22, 2022
“Public spaces are an important asset to our cities. They provide people many opportunities to come together and engage with the community. If public spaces are successful, they are inclusive of the diversity of groups present in our cities and create a social space for everyone in the society to participate in.” - Thejas Jagannath [i]
To achieve sustainable urbanization one of the components is to ensure that we create livable cities for everyone. Public spaces need to be open and accessible to all citizens as these places have a deep potential of inspiring interactions and collectivism, promoting innovation and well-being, and at the same time strengthening local identity and our sense of a shared history. The absence of participatory practices often leads to situations where public spaces end up being underutilized or abandoned and degraded. The adoption of such practices has not yet been widely adopted in Guinea Bissau, although many actors are working to introduce the methodology. Top-down approaches to planning and decision-making by local authorities generates poor and uncontextualized design and the current trend is that the gap between decision-makers and residents is getting bigger, leaving many citizens with a feeling of disempowerment. A bottom-up approach based on co-creation, tapping into historical memory, local knowledge, and skills, has the potential of improving design, function, local ownership, and sustainability in public spaces.
In the beginning of 2022, the Accelerator Lab Guinea Bissau started a learning experience focused on public space, in collaboration with the Municipality of Bissau, UN Habitat, Lusófona University, and the Architecture School of KTH The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The collaboration is exploring different topics such as the possibility to open an Architecture education in Guinea Bissau to contextualize the build environment from a local and human centered approach, how academia can play a role in generating proposals to improve housing and public space and how maintenance issues can be tackled by a greater involvement of the citizens.
During the two first phases Sense and Explore, the Lab and the students from KTH and Lusófona, interviewed citizens in different parts of Bissau to learn more about their thoughts and feelings when it comes to public space as well as how they can be improved. Some of the main challenges presented were:
Lack of public space and amenities
Lack of maintenance of public space ( due tolack of funds and time from local governments)
Lack of citizen action and ownership
Moving into the testing phase, the Lab designed four hypotheses in order to prototype, test and learn more about what works and not:
Hypothesis 1 “IF… if awareness is created through storytelling and nudging, THEN … citizens will care more for public spaces”.
Hypothesis 2 “ IF… academia is involved in re-designing public spaces based on participatory methods, THEN… more innovative and viable proposals will be developed”
Hypothesis 3 “IF… public spaces are maintained through a godfather system, THEN … we will achieve cleaner and more well-maintained public spaces”.
Hypothesis 4 “IF… crowdfunding campaign is launched, THEN … the Town Hall will be able to implement more projects with greater citizen ownership.
“How might we improve public spaces and at the same time incentivize users to maintain them?”
In the light of one of the main challenges being “lack of maintenance and care” of public spaces, we wanted to test our first hypothesis by understanding if storytelling could change the behavior of the public space users, making them care more for the environment and the infrastructure. We set up a team together with the Municipality of Bissau, the Municipal Police, the Ministry of Public Works and the local cartoonists Fernando and Manuel Júlio, creating a storytelling campaign with posters encouraging citizens to be the change through their own behavior. ex. not throwing trash on the ground but using the waste bins and using the park benches in a sustainable way, leaving them clean and pleasant for the next user.
Jardim de Alfândega, once upon a time the most beautiful public space of the city of Bissau but rapidly degrading due to poor use and lack of maintenance, was chosen as the ground for our test. The Municipality made an initial profound cleaning of the space and the Lab introduced elements that had been requested by citizens during the exploration phase such as benches, waste bins and hand washing stations, and two people were hired to spend one week in the public space, observing the behavior of the visitors.
Results week 1: amenities
The initial cleaning of the space triggered a change in the visitors who reacted with positive comments and suddenly seemed to think twice before throwing trash on the ground, both looking for, and using the waste bins placed on site. There were still some incidents of visitors throwing trash on the ground and people using the benches in an unfavorable way putting their feet up on the seat. The handwashing stations were used frequently, especially by street vendors working close by.
Result week 2: storytelling posters
The second week, we added the storytelling posters to the space, nudging and encouraging citizens to be the change through their own behavior by for example encourage the use of waste bins instead of throwing trash on the ground and using the park benches in a sustainable way, leaving them clean and pleasant for the next user. Users of the public space showed great interest and curiosity in the story told with the national cartoon Ntori Palan (described as the Tintin[ii] of Guinea Bissau by its authors). Many people stopped to read the posters, taking photographs, and it was possible to notice a positive change in their behavior. Fewer people threw waste on the ground and street vendors even came from the other side of the park just to throw trash in the waste bins instead of on the ground as previously. Undesirable behavior like putting feet on the benches, decreased by 50% when the storytelling posters were introduced and some users even intervened against each other trying to correct undesired behavior asking if the person hadn’t seen the storytelling posters. Visitors always showed a great interest for the handwashing stations which were used frequently during the two weeks.
How might academia play a role when it comes to generating innovative and viable proposals for public spaces?
STINT Initiation grants by the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education [iii]are given for the implementation of short-term projects and is a great opportunity for universities targeting the building of new and strategically interesting international relationships. Applying for the grant in 2020, one of the objectives of KTH and the School of Architecture, was to be able to offer their students a Master Studio addressing the challenges of international development in the urban global South, and a long-term partnership with Lusófona University in Bissau seemed to be a great opportunity to fill a gap within the existing supply of different Studio orientations given at the School of Architecture in Stockholm.
The successful application of the grant aimed to initiate and develop cross-cultural collaboration and mutual learning with the common objectives presented:
1) to promote exchange of knowledge and practice-related experience in architecture, urban planning and design, and sustainable development of high quality.
2) to build a long-term collaboration for knowledge exchange and learning through the development of common educational activities as well as research projects and outputs.
3) to bring together universities with both local and international organizations such as UN Habitat, UNDP and NGO’s, such as Architects Without Borders, to situate architecture and sustainable urban development closer to the informal reality big parts of the world are facing today.
The partnership between the School of Architecture in Stockholm and Lusófona University in Bissau unfolded along the course of the year and aims at building a new Master Studio at KTH in Stockholm and possibly a new Architecture Program at Lusófona University in Bissau. The collaboration has provided the students from KTH School of Architecture with cross-cultural experience and competence and insights from different contexts, developing their skills and abilities in integrated participatory design practice, interdisciplinary knowledge development and to reflect on the ethics of their own projects and professional roles. The benefit of Lusófona University has been through idea sharing, educational resources and knowledge with KTH for building an architectural education. The students from both partners are getting an unmeasurable learning experience by sharing knowledge and interest with each other and the partnership with international organizations such as UN-Habitat and UNDP in Bissau, further opened up for new collaborations with local stakeholders providing community-based strategies to urban development.
During some intense days in February 2022, the Lab and the students from KTH and Lusófona, interviewed citizens in different parts of Bissau to learn more about their thoughts and feelings when it comes to public space as well as how they can be improved. The students focused mainly on the public space of Jardim de Alfândega. Based on a participatory process, taking into account local craft, skills and history, the students later developed proposals re-thinking the design of the space.
Student proposals re-thinking the public space of Jardím de Alfândega in Bissau
One of the main challenges presented by the Municipality of Bissau in relation to maintenance and lack of public space, was namely time and resources. This activity, which invited students to think and design around challenges faced in public space, showed that academia has the possibility to invest a good amount of time into a specific challenge without necessary raising costs. Compared to existing proposals of how to develop and re-think public spaces in Bissau, the students brought a large amount of creativity and contextuality to the table, basing their proposals on inputs from the users of the space. It stands clear that academia has the potential to play a role when it comes to developing innovative, viable and sustainable proposals for public spaces, and ways of how to bring academia closer to local governments, international organizations and NGOs must be further explored.
Insights and Conclusion
Through this learning cycle, the Lab generated a few major insights which could benefit similar interventions in the future:
- Basic maintenance of public space can generate a positive behavior change in users
The initial cleaning of the park made by the Municipality of Bissau, triggered a change in the visitors who reacted with positive comments and suddenly seemed to think twice before throwing garbage on the ground, both looking for, and using the waste bins placed on site.
- Storytelling is a way to effectively trigger behavioral change in users
The use of storytelling posters with the local cartoon Ntori Palan triggered great interests as well as a positive change in behavior among users of the public space.
- Strong collaborations with local authorities and stakeholders are crucial to carry out successful initiatives
Local context and relationship are essential for viability of initiatives, without the support and buy-in from the Municipality, this initiative would have been difficult to carry out.
- Academia can play an important role when it comes to designing innovative, viable and sustainable proposals for public space
Compared to existing proposals of how to develop and re-think public spaces in Bissau, the students brought a large amount of creativity and contextuality to the table. It stands clear that academia has the potential to play a role when it comes to developing innovative, viable and sustainable proposals for public spaces, and ways of how to bring academia closer to local governments, international organizations and NGOs must be further explored.
- Choosing the right season for the intervention
The test was carried out during the rainy season, creating a lot of challenges and obstacles on the way. The work was delayed many times due to storms which destroyed the public space and some of the amenities, additionally some days it was not possible to work due to heavy rain fall.
- Co-funding and co-implementation of projects to ensure scalability
To ensure scalability and continuation of initiatives, it is crucial to work closely with other UN agencies or other programmes inside UNDP as well as building on their existing relationships with national partners.
This fall, the Lab is planning to share the insights with concerned partners and continue exploring this learning cycle by testing how crowdfunding can support the implementation of the student proposals as well as how a “Godfather system” can address maintenance challenges together with partners such as the Municipality of Bissau and the Angolan architecture and urbanism office DO LADO B[iv]. Stay tuned!
[i] The Importance of Public Spaces. “A good city is like a good party —… | by Thejas Jagannath | Interviews and Articles on Art & Public Spaces | Medium
[ii] Tintin — Tintin.com
[iii] Initiation Grants - STINT[iv] Tua, Minha, #NOSSAGINGA (@nossaginga.ao) • fotos e vídeos do Instagram , do lado b | Angola