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Public space and new urban compromises

Comparative perspectives from the Mediterranean
Serge Schwartzmann

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1From the 1980s, in a context of the spread of the urban environment, new issues and the reinforcement of earlier issues, diverse forms of reappropriation, recovery and repossession of public spaces began to emerge. A few decades later - with the development of globalisation and exchanges, urban tourism and competition between cities – the change would appear to be complete, moving public space from the shadow to the light, freeing it from the oblivion and disinterest it had been relegated to by the public authorities. In many cases, public space became the central element in public planning: economic, town planning and societal policy priorities placed at the core of interactions involving a range of actors, formal and informal, of widely differing status. An increasingly holistic and integrated concept of these spaces emerged, associating them with a broader range of issues – urban security, the right to the city, sustainable development, the construction of urban cohesiveness, gender, etc. –, attributing to them an increasingly diverse range of objectives – regulation of collective life, identity labelling, economic development, local redynamisation, etc. A demand from civil society for public spaces of quality also emerged for the purpose of practicing an ever-wider range of activities there. This served as justification for 'reappropriation' and embellishment schemes for certain specific spaces which are often showcases for local municipal policy. The interest these spaces aroused also whetted certain appetites and was matched by an increasing tendency towards enclosure and privatisation and the spread of private spaces 'open to the public', causing a certain confusion regarding the status of these spaces.

2Because of the diversity of its heritage, the Mediterranean region is rich in cities where public space has a long history. As well as numerous public spaces that are part of the patrimony, many new public spaces that have made their appearance with metropolisation and urban growth. But in these urban environments, which have been through phases of rapid expansion, there have also emerged urban 'blind spots', interstices overlooked by the processes of growth which give rise to new practices or new projects which open up new perspectives for urban life.

3The aim of this edition is thus to present a panorama of urban situations in the Mediterranean where various projects have emerged by highlighting the diversity of local modes of operation, by seeking to establish parallels between spaces, actors and practices. The idea is to highlight the complexity of these spaces, their place in recent urban dynamics, and the new issues that they raise in an urban context that is constantly reinventing itself.

4There are two major trends of investigation that colour research on public space: those dedicated to the development of new practices which explore the very definition of this type of space, the discourse on sharing and living together which are highlighted in the redevelopment schemes. And those that focus on ways of producing and managing these spaces with the increase in public-private partnerships and the profusion of modes of restriction and enclosure of all kinds. These two investigative approaches - on one hand, practices and discourse, and on the other modes of production and management of these spaces - structure the present volume.

New urban practices in public spaces?

5With the rethinking of the role of the automobile, the development of non-motorised forms of mobility and the emergence of new models of cities emphasising sustainable development, the interest of developers has focused not only on existing public spaces and improvement schemes, but also on the redevelopment of urban blind spots, while at the same time triggering a debate on the development of new modes of use of urban space. This movement for taking back possession of the streets, squares and certain empty plots in the urban fabric is based on the action of particular social groups linked to a particular practice (rap, street dance, skateboarding, etc.), festive events (street parties among neighbours). There is thus a movement of repossession of public space which is developing in very different urban environments, at different scales, supported by the deployment of new means: art finds here a new function, urban design is mobilised to create spaces for living, open environment new technologies are also solicited (geopositioning via smartphones, free wifi networks, etc.).

6At Lyon, Muriel Delabarre reflects on the reciprocity of knowledge, an operative entry in designing of livability of contemporary public spaces, taking as an example the La Duchère redevelopment project. Dr. Delabarre considers the way of perceiving livability, and of involving the inhabitants and all the actors of a neighbourhood in a redevelopment project, focusing in particular on the case of two public spaces to renovate as part of a GPV (Grand Project de Ville) operation. Recalling the origin of these concepts of 'inhabit' and 'habitability', Muriel Delabarre explains how they have progressively impregnated the sphere of urban studies. She reflects on the quality of public spaces and the way to implement it. At La Duchère, the project involves the organisation of public life around two spaces, enabling the local inhabitants, on the basis of a broad-based consultation process, to express their requirements relative to the project and to co-construct it with the help of professionals. In this way, she describes a real strategy for the renovation of public spaces which seeks to update the practices of production and utilisation of these spaces.

7In Morocco, taking a more operational angle, Abdellah Moussalih and Aziz Iraki examine the post-redevelopment practices of public spaces: the case of the Rabat docks and the Bab Lamrissa esplanade at Salé. These redevelopments, carried out along the Oued Bouregreg in accordance with the King's wishes, offer an opportunity to study the social practices associated with these spaces, and the ways they have changed over time. We may observe there both long-standing practices and new practices which develop in parallel with forms of appropriation specific to the space. This redevelopment project is at once part of a city development model where the public spaces play a role in urban marketing, and of a mode of functioning where the actual uses of the space go far beyond those planned under the project. Whether it is on the Bab Lamrissa esplanade or along the banks of the Bouregreg river, there is a transition from spaces that were hitherto little developed and poorly defined, to redeveloped spaces with a high degree of mixing of uses between different categories of user. Depending on sex and age, and the social time frame, differentiated uses of the space have emerged contrasting on one hand lower-class practices and on the other a range of new practices more related to the privileged social classes.

8In Naples, in the historic city centre, Christine Salomone investigates the improvement of a low-income neighbourhood of Naples, the Vergini-Sanità area, an endogenous improvement scheme, as well as the links between informal and associative networks and the reappropriation of a neighbourhood by its inhabitants. These new redevelopments, part of an already long-standing tourism-based improvement scheme for this heritage site, contribute to bringing change to perceptions and uses of the space by mobilising the participation of the local inhabitants in a process of co-construction of the redeveloped areas. Thanks to a dense network of local associations, aided by the local Catholic clergy, a heritage movement is in progress, enabling the development of cohesion and a transformation of the perceptions of local spaces in parallel with the development of the neighbourhood and of its own tourism-related resources. Using street art and the redevelopment of public spaces as tools for promotion and valorisation, these projects are part of an ongoing process of repossession of local spaces. The originality of the process is that it is deployed by local associations which play an intermediary role between the inhabitants and the local authorities, in order to achieve an enhanced appropriation of these spaces.

9With the case of the park of Porto Traini at Fiumicino (Rome), Dominique Rivière raises the question of "Making public" the heritage site of a metropolitan periphery, that is the question of existing issues related to the creation of new public spaces. This park, possessing a major archaeological heritage site, has the advantage and the drawback of being situated near Rome and Fiumicino airport. While the interest of the park seems obvious for the municipality, and even for the airport with a view to consolidating its image management strategy, 'publicising' it seems to fall foul of the confrontation of the divergent interests of the various stakeholders involved in the project, including local associations, municipalities, the nearby airport, the company Benetton and the State through the agencies responsible for the protection of the patrimony. The park thus offers an example of the confrontation of public and private priorities in which the balance of power between the actors is highly unequal.

10In Algiers, Fatiha Tamani-Djebra and Meriem Chabou-Othmani examine the public space of the Sablettes promenade, between political vision and emerging social practices. As part of the 2012 strategic plan, the Sablettes promenade was redeveloped to offer a new public space to the people of Algiers. The article seeks to understand the dialectic between on one hand the rationale of the project and its relation to the city, and on the other the actual reception and appropriation of the project by the inhabitants. Based on a logic of reoccupation, the public space of Sablettes is part of a broader project exploiting the qualities of the Bay of Algiers to provide leverage for local economic development through a plan for the reconstruction of the seafront in phase with the ambitions of the city at international scale. Based on the example of already existing models in other urban contexts, the redevelopment of Sablettes was an immediate popular success going far beyond expectations, and in the context of the end of a civil war, enabling the development of a wide range of urban practices, the regeneration of social links and social mixing. Through this redevelopment scheme, the aim of local economic revitalisation was matched by the revitalisation of urban life degraded by years of conflict.

Public spaces between privatisation and open use?

11From the practical point of view, the recovery of public spaces raise the primordial question of their production and their management. One part of the production of new public spaces involves public / private operations that are often based on diverse strategies for urban renovation, urban improvement, heritage enhancement, image management, territorial marketing or local development. In parallel, there have developed multiple forms of privatisation or management of space which reduce its accessibility and the diversity of uses, particularly in the neoliberal city where space is considered as a resource to be valorised. Ever more oppressive security injunctions, issued both by the authorities and by the users, give rise to diverse forms of situational preventive measures, video-surveillance, etc. The redevelopment operations themselves sometimes tend to close, to restrain or to control access to part of the public spaces, or to repurpose them as private spaces open to the public (shopping malls, gated residential estates, etc.), thus blurring the line between public and private spaces.

12At Rabat, Habiba Essahel tells us of new uses of space in social housing estates. This compulsory social rehousing scheme appears as a consequence of a process of neoliberal competition between cities in which Rabat is engaged. It has resulted in the redevelopment of spaces in the douars El Kora and Dlim, which benefit from a much coveted localisation beside the sea, by moving out and rehousing their inhabitants sometimes in the neighbourhood, sometimes in more distant areas in two social housing estates on the outskirts of Rabat. These removals have resulted in the reordering of local practices in which the role of public spaces and communal spaces has been completely disrupted. The randomness of the rehousing process has broken up former social relations and new social relations have developed. In these social housing estates, the inhabitants have gradually appropriated the public communal spaces, in particular the 'in-between' areas between private indoor spaces and outdoor spaces. New ways of sharing space have emerged as well as new practices which were not possible before, reflecting the dynamic of groups faced with occupied spaces.

13In Marseille, Elisabeth Dorier and Julien Dario describe the closure of streets in residential neighbourhoods, and the way the neoliberal context - succeeding that of 'informal arrangements' - has over the past twenty years enabled numerous closures of spaces. The strong dynamic of enclosure is accompanied by the closure 'a posteriori' of existing streets and roads: this raises questions regarding the perception and the design of urban public spaces, sometimes based on usageMichael Paul2021-05-02T21:33:00MP, sometimes on property rights. The originality of this work is that it is based on an exhaustive survey of the whole of the city of Marseille, carried out in the course of a long collective study, offering a basis for understanding the phenomenon in all its breadth and diversity, and thus to measure the impact of the uncontrolled closure of spaces at local scale and at the scale of the city.

14In France, on the Mediterranean coast, José Chaboche has studied the privatised public spaces of the large stadiums and 'arenas' of the French Mediterranean metropoles. The article focuses on the spaces open to the public such as the Orange Vélodrome stadium in Marseille and the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, as well as the Sud de France Arena in Montpellier, redeveloped by means of major public-private partnerships. Exploiting the accessibility of these semi-public spaces, their architecture and the urban marketing which enhances them, these redevelopments are part of a process of showcasing the city, justified by a rationale of local revalorisation which would have a positive impact not only on the immediate environment, but also on the transformation of the image of these conurbations. These vast projects encompass the areas outside the stadiums, allowing the renovation of private spaces open for public use, accompanied by major property development projects aimed at altering the local socio-economic mix. Representing a demand for standardisation leading to the sanitisation of these spaces, these structures are, however, far from living up to all the expectations that gave rise to them. The stadiums offer a typical vision of the commercialisation of public spaces, still promoted despite the financial débacle of these projects.

15In Beirut, Jihad Farah describes the public spaces of a city fragmented between arrangements and controversies, on the basis of the way access to many public spaces is controlled by different military and paramilitary groups, in parallel with a tendency towards the privatisation of these spaces. The question of public spaces is here related to the crisis for the society and for the modus vivendi which followed the war in Lebanon where a communal system of management of the city has been introduced, but it is also related to its opening to a neoliberal economy. The article attempts to describe more particularly two neighbourhoods in Beirut and the shared management of public spaces by municipalities, community actors and political authorities. At Aïn Er Roummané, a Christian neighbourhood, the space is staked out by a strong spatial delimitation operated by Christian communities - their churches, and their rites present in the public spaces - which reflects the balance of power during the war in Lebanon. At Haret Hreik, we find a similar sharing of the management with the Shia component of the space, essentially that of the Hezbollah, which dominates the space and plays a role both in the production of the space and in the everyday management of conflicts, in particular on the basis of local arrangements.

16In Barcelona, Paula ORDUÑA GIRÓ examines the temporary production of collective spaces between a common or co-constructed good and controlled low-cost redevelopment. On the basis of three examples from the Barcelona region, the article shows different schemes for the temporary production of communal spaces on urban vacant plots by analysing the discourse and the rationale underpinning these projects. These spaces appear as spaces with potential apt for urban experimentation, developed from vacant plots of varying status; what they all have in common is to tend towards the delegation of the management to associations or local communities, and to take as their goal the common utility and local redynamisation.

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Electronic reference

Serge Schwartzmann, « Public space and new urban compromises », Méditerranée [Online], 134 | 2022, Online since 28 June 2022, connection on 10 August 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Serge Schwartzmann

Serge Schwartzmannhas a PhD in urban planning and Urbanism from Paris-III Sorbonne Nouvelle, he is teaching geography at Aix-Marseille University and is a member of LPED (Laboratoire Population-Environnement-Développement),

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