UN-Habitat is supporting cities to develop evidence-based public space policies and strategies through a community-led initiative.

UN-Habitat is supporting cities to develop evidence-based public space policies and strategies through a community-led initiative.


Quality public spaces are a vital business and marketing tool as cities increasingly compete to attract investment, new residents, businesses, and visitors. As urban population grow, the effective management and sustainability of this growth including the needs and demands of the citizens especially the most vulnerable becomes critical. While cities and local governments recognize the importance of public space and have made efforts to use public space to transform their cities and neighborhoods, these efforts have been primarily site based. These site-based approaches can be scaled-up to many sites across the city but cannot provide distribution, connectivity, accessibility, or programmatic diversity of public spaces. Little effort has also been made towards developing city-wide public space strategies[1] and particularly involving the public in the development of policies. Without this city-wide approach to public space, there has been a growing trend on privatization, grabbing of public land, disappearance of public spaces and eventually creating inequal and segregated cities.

National and local governments need to recognize the role of good quality network of public spaces as a promoter of equity and prosperity. It provides the best means to manage urban growth, support economic development, protect the environment, and promote overall well-being of communities. However, this can only be achieved when cities correct imbalances in public space supply, distribution and quality in different neighborhoods and settlements within the city. Notably, during the COVID 19 pandemic, public and green spaces have become critical areas for containment, testing and for decongesting crowded markets. They offered the much-needed refuge where individuals can be in public, while safely practicing social distancing measures outdoors. More than ever, it has become critical for cities to understand the state of their cities in terms of the spatial distribution and quality of their public and green areas

To support local governments to include a network of public spaces as part of their development plans, UN-Habitat developed the city-wide public space inventory and assessment tool. This tool has been designed as a flexible framework to aid local governments and partners working in public spaces to assess the network[2], distribution[3], accessibility[4], quantity[5], and quality[6] of their public spaces in a cost-effective way. The tool takes a participatory and communityled approach that aims to determine priority areas and sectors of intervention – both spatial and non-spatial– that government and private entities can take to address them.  

“The global community agree that public spaces play a key role in achieving inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements. This means that interventions in public space can support achievement in several other targets within the 2030 Agenda and commitments within the New Urban Agenda. Since the monitoring of SDG 11.7[7] and the public space commitments in New Urban Agenda are done at the city level, this city-wide public space assessment tool also supports local governments to report their progress towards achieving these commitments.”

About the tool

The city-wide public space inventory and assessment is a digital tool developed to assess public spaces in cities and identify gaps for the development of long-term public space strategies and policies. It utilizes a digital questionnaire that can be contextualized to fit different contexts and priorities. Therefore, the assessment could either be formulated to capture the broad and diverse aspects of public space or it can emphasize certain thematic or geographical areas. Application of the tool provides a basis for the actual state of public spaces in the city; that includes the state of public space, the problems, and their causes. Mapping of the supply, quality and distribution of public spaces are important, in order to determine priority areas and sectors of intervention, this included institution,financial and regulatory frameworks. It also identifies where public spaces may be lacking, areas where there might be over provision, poor quality public spaces or poorly located public spaces and where there are opportunities for improvement to meet the local needs. This approach supports the development of evidence-based policy, regulatory and spatial strategy development as well as provides a potential to reorganise institutional set-up and financial mechanisms within the city.

A city-wide public space assessment can be commissioned by a local government due to several reasons, which could be:

  1. A city might not have an inventory of their public spaces.
  2. A city would like to develop a new public space strategy or update an existing public space strategy[8].
  3. A city would like to revise their institutional, legal, and regulatory frameworks and understand where to allocate funding more efficiently.
  4. A city would like to tackle emerging issues such as climate change, safety, biodiversity loss, unplanned urbanization, encroachment of public spaces, heritage loss, accessibility among others.

Once the objective of the assessment has been developed, it is crucial to understand the spatial scale of the assessment within cities. The public space assessment could cover 2 different scales: the administrative boundary[9] and the urban extent[10]. In some instances, the assessment could be designed for specific neighborhoods/geographical areas within the city. This could be in the case where the city would like to pilot and test the public space assessment tool and methodology in the city or where the neighborhood has an independent government body and would like to develop strategies for their neighborhood. The geographic scope and the overall objective of the assessment are set prior to undertaking the assessment.

The Approach:

UN-Habitat works with different city governments and partners in conducting city-wide public space assessments in their respective cities. The model is flexible and dependent on the capacities of the local government and partner.  The city-wide public space assessment tool ensures the active participation of the community through the process from formulation of the reference group, development of the assessment to proposing policy and strategic recommendations for the city’s public spaces. 

The process of conducting a citywide public space assessment has been designed into four parts that are progressive with outputs that are as important as the process and social inclusion being considered at all stages of the process. The process includes (i)pre-field work, (ii) data collection, (iii) reporting and (iv) post city-wide assessment. Each of these parts has steps that should be followed with activities, tools and inspiring cases that are drawn from partners and UN-habitat’s experiences working in cities. UN-Habitat recommends that each city follows the process to guarantee long-term appropriate provision, quality and accessibility of public spaces. However, it recognizes that cities are different with different capacities and are at different stages of development. Therefore, depending on the objective of the city and the level of public space provision there are certain steps that are not mandatory to undertake.

Figure: City-wide public space assessment process.

NOTE: The process is modified depending on the needs and capacity of cities. 


Since 2015, the tool has been regularly updated with feedback from its application in a variety of urban contexts. It has been applied in 30 cities and engaged approximately 1,750 data collectors with every city having different thematic entry points such as children, safety, markets, women, heritage etc. 

Through the application of the tool, 40 training sessions to local governments, community members and volunteers have been conducted on the use of the tool but also the importance of public space and the need for data and participation for policy and strategy development. There have been over 25 visioning workshops to develop recommendations and strategic interventions for the cities. There has also been a keen interest by other cities to use this tool for their own citywide public space strategy work. The tool is also key in monitoring and reporting on SDG 11.7 as well as toward the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Protecting public spaces in Jianghan, Wuhan, China

In 2017, UN-Habitat supported Wuhan Lands Use and Spatial Planning Research Center to undertake a district-wide open public space inventory and assessment. This came at a time when public spaces in the district were being commercialized and threated by the expanding city structures. A training was done for the local government, Wuhan Land Use and Spatial Planning team and data collectors. The result of the city-wide public spaces assessment showed that Jiaghan district falls short of standards set by the National Ecological city of 11m2/capita as well as the international standard of 9m2/capita. Total green public space was just 2.2m2 per capita. Being the densest and least spacious district in Wuhan, Jianghan has to find innovative ways to counter this trend. Moreover, the increase of urban environments in Jianghan District has left public spaces to be derelict and therefore decreasing public space’s function.

The city-wide public space inventory and assessment in Jianghan identified gaps in the safety, accessibility and inclusivity of public spaces. Therefore, in 2018, UN-Habitat identified public spaces that require upgrading and the areas within the district that needed new public spaces to be created. Spaces that required upgrading were identified through an aggregate of indicators and UN-Habitat prepared a map of priority public space for improvement. It was noted that 21% (29) of all public spaces require the most improvement while 29% (41) require the least improvement measures. A spatial analysis of the distribution of public spaces in Jianghan was done and the areas that required new public spaces were identified to be at the periphery of the district accounting for 18% (4.9 km2) of the total area of the district.

These results led to the development of a public space strategy for the district, with an ambitious vision of having “Public Spaces in Jianghan District to be of High Quality, More Accessible, Unique and Diverse.” This vision came with clear goals and objectives to achieve it. To achieve these goals and objectives, a phased implementation was proposed, combining near-term (2017-2022) and long-term (2023-2030) development projects. These was to ensure that upgrading of public spaces to enhance their quality was supported by a long-term green network plan in the district. One public space was selected for upgrading and was implemented in 2018. UN-Habitat together with WLSP will monitor and evaluate the achievements of this strategy.

Image: Data collector interviewing older persons in a public space in Jianghan, Wuhan, China © Wuhan Landuse and Spatial Planning Research Centre. 

Case Study 2: HAYA” Programme “Eliminating Violence Against Women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

To support the “HAYA” Programme “Eliminating Violence Against Women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip”, UN-Habitat in collaboration with Ministry of Local Government, the community, academia and private sector to conducted city-wide public space safety audits in five cities in Palestine; Khan Younis, Jenin, Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem Cluster of Ad Doha, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Bethlehem. The aim was to understand women’s and girls’ safety concerns in public spaces and to develop city-level public space strategies that will feed into the national public space policy development process. 

 Through the participation of over 150 active members of the local community including women associations, journalists, local NGOs, International NGOs, handicapped related associations, Ministry of Education, and youth activists; in addition to UN-Habitat, municipality, other municipalities, and representatives of local universities, recommendations were made for each city. Public space strategies that are proposed for Palestine Territory to promote safety and enhance social cohesion include; 1. spatial (reducing spatial inequality by ensuring public spaces are equally distributed within the cities),  2. social (re-integration strategies such as improving public spaces and creating shared spaces by reducing car movement, promoting diversity and social programming in public spaces to reduce perception of unsafety and increase “eyes on the street”, improving infrastructure to support the active use of public spaces) and 3. promote good governance (provide for rules of use in public spaces and apply penalties for all forms of violence against women in public space and ensuring maintenance of public spaces in order to avoid them being perceived as abandoned and thus attracting crime and antisocial behaviour). Public spaces were also prioritized for upgrading based on these assessments and it will lead to the development and regeneration of five safe and inclusive public spaces in the targeted Palestinian Cities.

Key Lessons and Transferability

Through working in these cities and towns, UN-Habitat has considered how the city-wide public space can deliver more value for cities. Preliminary generic approaches that a city can take prior to conducting a city-wide public space assessment includes:

  1. Securing political support to provide the mandate to execute the process for buy-in and allocation of both financial and human resources. UN-Habitat has found that without the support from the local government, the public space assessment reports remain a shelf report without informing the public debate or influencing the development community. The success of the public space assessment conducted in 5 cities in Palestine and in 4 Provincial Districts in Kabul, Afghanistan was a result of direct endorsement by the local and national government. 
  2. Enhance synergy among actors in public space, including municipal government agencies, the private sector, NGOs, women’s groups, community members and others. The city-wide public space assessment is not a task for one individual stakeholder and an inclusive partnership is an important mechanism for its implementation and success. This should be built upon a shared vision and principles that places public space and people at the centre of planning. In all the cities we have worked conducting the assessments, a training is organised for targeted city officials from different departments within the local authority, representatives from academia, NGOs and community members. This orientation provides them with an overview of the activities and how they can align it with their already existing or planned activities. In Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa the Social Affairs department and the Police saw the importance of conducting hot spot analysis for safety to understand where and what type of safety concerns are present to be able to act upon them. In other cities, this continuous engagement has led to greater synergies among partners within the city eg, in Nairobi, Kenya, the process led to the creation of a Public Space Network that is active with over 60 members who support implementation of public space projects, leading urban design competitions and other public space initiatives.
  3. Build the capacity of local partners. We have found in cities where we have worked,there is little capacity to conduct the survey and report on the findings from the city-wide public space assessment. This leads to a lack of accountability and responsibility for taking the findings towards a long-term plan for the city or align it to already existing plans.
  4. Increase funding from sources other than municipal government, such as from the national and provincial governments, donor agencies, the private sector and the public. The task of conducting a city-wide public space assessment requires financial resources to conduct the field study and draw out findings that are useful for strategic and policy change. It also identifies public spaces that require upgrading and areas within the city that need prioritisation for the creation of new public spaces. Often, the cities do not have the financial and human resources to implement all the recommendations and therefore creating opportunities and incentives for private sector involvement could be an added advantage.
  5. Create enabling institutional and regulatory frameworks to accelerate public space development. In Nairobi, Kenya we supported the establishment of a public space unit under the urban planning department where the document and its implementation could be anchored. In other cities such as Kabul, we provided recommendations for institutionalising public space within the local government, to ensure its planning and implementation.
  6. Focus on the overall urban area rather than a small area of the city. In some cities, such as Durban, South Africa we supported in piloting and testing the methodology in the Inner City and Ward 21. However, the recommendations remain for those areas rather than the overall city. Therefore, these cannot be implemented at a city scale and long-term strategies cannot be developed based on findings from only those areas. It is recommended that cities plan to conduct the assessment for the whole urban area to provide comprehensive strategic recommendations. In some cities, however, where the small urban area has an independent local authority, e.g, Wuchang District in Wuhan,China the recommendations can be implemented within the geographical scope.
  7. Ensure an action-oriented process and connect strategic thinking to project implementation. In Jianghan, Wuhan, China, from the findings of the district-wide public space assessment and together with the local partner, we developed strategic priorities and made a road map for implementation. However, the recommendations were not synchronised within the municipal/district work plan and a detailed action plan was not developed, therefore, the implementation of these recommendations remains fluid. 
  8. Balance external influences (political, economic, environmental and social cycles) and long-term ownership of the process.  Without a clear vision for public space, it is difficult to minimise external influences. A written vision is important for the orientation of public space. The strength of it is the fact that it has been debated and discussed and aligned with city development plans and policies and the actual state of public spaces based on results from the city-wide public space assessment. This can help keep the city’s public space planning on track, despite political or other changes. It helps avoid priorities being set in an ad hoc way by reacting to external pulls and pushes


It has become evident, through the application of this tool in 30 cities, that the task of planning and designing city-wide networks of public spaces is not only to deliver equity in spatial distribution and gain from the wide benefits that public spaces have but must also simultaneously design frameworks that will allow those plans to take place effectively and democratically. The process must therefore be anchored on a firm understanding of the role of stakeholders and the socio-political context where these plans and designs take place, but more importantly, should stem from the voices of those these plans are supposed to serve.

Participation is one of the tools that can limit bias in the planning public space. The city-wide public space assessment tool has therefore been anchored within a flexible framework where local governments are able to design new relationships between civil society, the private sector and communities and understand the state of public spaces, gaps and opportunities in the legal and institutional systems, existing forms of partnership and financing mechanisms to develop inclusive and evidence-based city-wide public space strategies. The tool is also applicable in varying contexts and can be adapted to fit priorities of a city and has shown that the inclusion of communities as key stakeholders in the planning process is necessary if actions towards acceptable or desired outcomes are to be met.

[1] City-wide strategies: Compendium on inspiring practices

[2]  A system of public spaces

[3] Spatial balance of public spaces across the city

[4] Spatial accessibility of public space to the population within walking distances

[5] Proportion of urban surface devoted to public spaces

[6] Main design features, operation, and management (comfort, universal access, use, users, amenities and green)

[7] By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible, green, and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities

[8] Public space strategies can range from thematic ones such as public space and health strategy, by typology such as a park strategy, or an activation strategy for public spaces or public market strategy. They can also be ambitious and incorporate several themes and typologies. This is, however, dependent on the objective of the city

[9] In this case, cities are able to develop strategies within clearly defined jurisdictions. It also becomes easy both in terms of gathering statistics and politically. Additionally, administrative units are frequently those for which policies are implemented.

[10] It is important to note that in some contexts, urban extents go beyond the administrative boundary of the city and may include other cities/jurisdictions. Therefore, a clear governance structure needs to be set-up.