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Copenhagen’s Public Spaces: the relevance of everyday urbanism in a global context.

For a capital to stay on track in the “Premier League of Cities” several elements are necessary, but undoubtedly and as recent global events have shown us, growing with equality is key.  Whichever is the sector, from tourism to urban infrastructure, equality and enabling diversity is fundamental for successful societies.

In the recent years Denmark has been restraining or rolling back services that made the country and its cities what they are, reducing funding for higher education, limiting the amount of years of it (recently modified) and enforcing migration policies which are beyond rational and far from humanitarian.

“The homeless are people” Banner from demonstration 2019.

Beyond the influence that these policies have on human lives -which should be the first elements for policy makers to consider-, they impact the potential of Danish cities for change, innovation and development. The effects of blind market oriented policies do not only affect those who are newly arriving to the city, but also those who are and have been part of the urban fabric since ever; groups and people who have been systematically marginalized from Wonderful Copenhagen: the elderly, the unemployed, the urban poor and the homeless.

Copenhagen city in its race to the top, with ambitious architectonic planning and projections, has not addressed in an integral manner the needs of the excluded and marginalized, aiming more for an aesthetically and functional wonderful Copenhagen than a city that addresses its deficiencies.

On my research carried out in 2019, I analyzed Copenhagen’s ‘Urban Life Accounts’ and other municipal documents from 2009 to 2018, amidst the ongoing debate of the ‘zone-ban’ for people sleeping in public spaces -aimed and created initially with racial motivations against Roma people, but ending affecting the ‘local’ homeless population-. In these documents Copenhagen Municipality as a form of accountability mechanism, shows their numbers in relation to amount of events on the open air, new developments, new renovations, amounts of people walking to work or driving their bikes and surprisingly the number of privately own café chairs in their public plazas -which, by the way do not pay a permit since 2012-.

Why do I bring up the cafés with their tables and chairs in plazas? I do because they use of public spaces, where the blocking of free transit and movement for pedestrians for which the homeless and the idle have been accused historically and currently in so many cities, is bypassed by the private entrepreneur. This is not a shallow critique, but it speaks of our cities and public spaces as mercenary cities and public spaces, where the uses of space related to consumption are above others, and where drinking and espresso in Kultorvet is deemed as an act of higher priority than sleeping due to need in Købmagergade.

In a city where the debate is ongoing in relation to the effects of policies such as the zone-ban, but the focus is set in mega-projects such as ‘Copenhill’ and BIG’s ‘Hedonistic Urbanism’, it is absolutely necessary to circle back and take a minute to reconsider the micro scales of our cities, from benches in plazas to the nooks in our buildings, cities are made for people and those who depend mostly in our cities infrastructure -sanitation, rest, shelter- are being pushed away from the public spaces.

The mindless race to the top of the premier league of cities, prioritizing aesthetics and market transactions without addressing in a proper form the needs of the excluded is doomed to fail and pay in the long run the price of inequality, which builds up and breaks into a deafening scream.

State violence, direct action and the right to the city: Chile, not just the public transport.

Update: last night (October 19th) a curfew was enacted from 22:00 to 07:00. In response, many opened their doors to those who couldn’t make it on time home. The protests have spread throughout the country.

“There’s an opportunity, for those who wake up earlier, to save some money on transportation” stated Chile’s Economy Minister over a week ago, while referring to the price hike in public transportation in the capital city. Beyond, the obvious disconnection from the elites with the everyday life of citizens and the mediatic outrage this declaration caused, a series of concentrated but ‘massive’ fare evasions began the day the new price was enacted (October 6th). The direct actions were mostly led by high school students, whose solidarity towards families, friends and neighbours sparked the flame of revolt in the Metropolitan Area of Santiago.

Police forces in the main transport hub of Santiago, Estación Baquedano.

The following days as the demonstrations grew -particularly since last Monday-, policing and repression were exponentially enforced, whilst authorities questioned the motivations behind the actions undertaken by the students, in words of the vice minister of interior “If the student fare did not go up, I don’t understand why school kids are taking this as an opportunity to demonstrate, this is the not the way to show discontent”.

As the events developed, in October 18th an even higher presence of anti riot police was could be seen in different transport hubs of the city, students were shot with rubber bullets and subway stations were closed. Barricades expressing people’s discontent could be seen through the city, public spaces taken over by those tired of waiting for change. Now, there weren’t only students, but a widespread and diverse manifestation of Santiago’s population saying ‘No more abuses’.

Police agents detaining a student in a subway station.

As expected from a country with a history tainted by the blood of its own citizens, President Piñera announced last night (October 18th) a State of Emergency which limits the rights of free movement and assembly, leaving the local control to the Military, shifting the chain of command from internal security affairs (police) to a matter of national security.

Not just a hike in transport prices.

Public transport in the highly segregated Metropolitan Area of Santiago, with over 7 million people, is key in ensuring not only -of course- transportation, but in keeping on an average week day, over 2,5 million people on time to their works, where over million riders depend almost exclusively on the subway system. Here, the provision of a public service is key on keeping the cogs of the economic system greased, as no workers, no production, therefore no profit.

Price change in Santiago’s Public Transport since 2007 / FayerWayer.com

The price hike has been slow but steady since at least 2007 -as shown in the in graphic-, nonetheless, not the only obstacle limiting every day life possibilities for the working class. In a country where the minimum wage is roughly 423 USD monthly, a month of public transportation in rush hour means around 70 USD or 16.55% of that income. This is not the only daily expense, of course, taking into account that education, retirement pension and a considerable amount of health services have been privatized, housing prices are on the rise and rampant inequality is a staple of the country, the price raise is the cherry on top of a garbage smoothie, from which people have been forced to drink for too long.

The for profit mantra behind the provision of public services, has contributed to increase the inherent contradictions of capitalism in the Chilean society, a country ravaged by neoliberalism since the dictatorship. As public transport contributes to keep everything nice, tidy and on time, the hike in prices beyond a threshold has pushed people to question the logic behind it, they are not riding the subway for leisure, for a weekend scapade to the center of the city, but they use it to survive, to produce and income and to have enough money to ride again to work the coming month .

Not the first revolt.

This is not the first time Santiago is witness of civil disobedience in relation to public transportation. In August 16th and 17th of 1949, a price hike of 20 cents of a peso or a ‘chaucha’, was enough to motivate students, supported by workers and public employees to take over the streets, demonstrating against the decision.

A group of protestors tipping over a bus in Santiago in the ‘Revuelta de la Chaucha’ 1949

The demonstrations were met with police brutality, leaving around 300 wounded people and 8 deads. Even though the protest lacked the support of strong political figures at the moment, it achieved a reduction in the bus fare for students and settled the ground for the creation of the ‘Comité Unido de Obreros’ (workers union), as well as consolidating in history the power of civil disobedience.7

The Right to the City: An ongoing Struggle.

Even though rankings and articles define Chile as a strong democracy, beyond the institutional elements comprising liberal democracy, events such as these highlight the fragility of such concept. Civil disobedience in key in ensuring that our rights are respected, structural violence has been permeating our society for too long, and rage has been accumulating. Rage which has not been met with effective policies nor redistributive measures.

The decision to declare a state of emergency and leaving the military in charge, beyond recalling memories of the dictatorship, shows the lack of empathy of the ruling class with those who are crying and demanding the right to their cities, the right to enjoy their everyday life without the burden of how they will pay next month’s rent.

Again this week, students are being the ‘adults’, showing solidarity with those who struggle, showing a deeper humanity than those make the decisions and a deeper understanding of the background of these demonstrations. This is not about 30 pesos, but about the dignity of those whose backs are aching after a 45 hour work week.

Panhandling bans: A worrying trend in Sweden’s Municipalities.

Following the municipal decisions on prohibiting panhandling in several Swedish municipalities (Vellinge, Eskilstuna, Sölvesborg, Katrineholm, and Staffanstorp) the council of Lidingö, becomes the first to adopt such measures in the Stockholm county, forbidding the act of begging on 10 public spaces (see map), with a tight vote of 26 against 25 with the support of The Moderates, Christian Democrats, Swedish Democrats and the local Lidingö Party.

Lidingö Municipality is characterized for being one of the administrative areas of Sweden with the highest income as well as one of the most economically right wing municipalities. In this scenario, it is easy to imagine the level of material abundance, where seemingly everyday life worries such as shelter, and food are not top-of-mind for the median citizen. Nonetheless, for those who are in the need of panhandling, these needs are very much real and banning this practice has an impact in their livelihood, creating a new burden for people who are already marginalized.

Photo: Lidingo Centrum / DagensHandel.se

Before this year, Sweden was the Nordic country with the ‘softest’ approach to panhandling, compared to Denmark where it is penalized with jail since 2017 or Norway where a regulation was banning panhandling until was dropped in 2015. Nonetheless, the local governments seem to have started an anti-panhandling trend during the last year.

The criminalization approach does not address the complexities behind panhandling and homelessness and it does not respond to the swedish reality, where issues such as housing -where in Stockholm only- officially the housing queue is almost 600,000 people, with the looming threat of homelessness, nor it offers an answer to the vision and goals of the city for 2030, where the aim is to create ‘a city without physical or social barriers’, whilst these bans aim to create in practice physical barriers for beggars and enforce already existing social prejudices.

Organizations such as Stockholm’s Stadsmission and Amnesty International have been emphatic on the fact that panhandling prohibitions do not work and do not contribute to solving the issues associated to poverty. Local bans on panhandling or homelessness only contribute to limiting the possibilities of survival for people who already at the margins of swedish society,

Photo: Homeless Fox (Hemlös Rav) of Stockholm / source: tramposaurus.com

Approaching panhandling and more broadly, homelessness with the ‘silver bullet’ of prohibition creates scenarios where what is understood as the problem is just a symptom of broader societal issues. The banning of panhandling from certain municipalities, will only displace the issue to other administrative units, acting as spatial fix which on the short term might seem effective but meaning in the long run not just a waste of resources, but a direct blow into people’s livelihood, deepening the already chasms .

Scaling up! cities and their role in achieving the IPCC 1.5°C goals.

Around 9 months ago, C40 Cities together with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change, convened the development of the Summary for Urban Policy Makers, a document which not only seeks to synthetize the 30 years of science sustaining the IPCC SR1.5, but as well, tries to frame these findings in an attainable way for city officials, governments, residents and different stakeholders in the urban setting.

According to the report, climate change (unsurprisingly) represents a critical threat to the planet, as the world has already warmed 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels due to human activity, in this stage every tenth of a degree matters as between 2030 and 2052, global warming will reach 1.5°C.  In such a critical scenario, what is the role of cities and urban systems?

A landscape image of Santiago de Chile.
Santiago de Chile/Hello! Magazine

Cities are central in achieving the necessary conditions for curbing the conditions leading to climate disaster. According to the IPCC report urban areas are home to more than fifty percent of the world population, are the site of most built assets, economic activity and by 2050, their population is expected to increase by 2.5 to 3 billion and comprise two-thirds of the world population. Cities are not to be seen just as the nucleus of environmental issues, but as vessels for solutions and potential change.

Climate action has to is more effective the sooner emission reductions begin and some communities and urban areas have already started their pathway to reduce emissions, nonetheless more drastic measures have to be taken, ambitions need to be raised if we want to hit the mark, as failing to do so (even for a short period) will lead us to a world of uncertainty or in the words of the IPCC report “an overshoot will push a number of natural and human systems beyond their limits of adaptation”.

The relevance of keeping the temperature below the 1.5°C, has very real benefits, such as curving the increase of human deaths and illness due to climate change related issues. Keeping the temperature below 1.5°C will curve water scarcity, limit the reach of food insecurity related problems, contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems and this is just what we know, as there is a significant knowledge gap which could be bridged with the help of local communities, governments and academics aware of their specific conditions and realities.

An image of Copenhagen from bird eye perspective.
Copenhagen/The Copenhagen Post

There is no one size fits all solution, climate change is not just pressing but it is a highly complex issue, with a lot of variables to considerer constantly interacting. The good part? complex issues can be addressed with complex solutions, with different pathways and different approaches suitable for different geographies. Not everywhere adaptation and incremental approaches will yield the best results, in some contexts transformational adaptation will be necessary -that is a deep and systemic change- therefore to achieve these change, there has to be synergy between different scales, from the international organizations to the local communities, as these multiple pathways to the future will in a big part be influenced by engaged stakeholders in each level of the process.

As cities keep growing, merging, building and changing they utilize resources which act in detriment of different ecosystems, therefore change has also to acquire a material form, such as green urban infrastructure, smart design, use of renewable materials and leaving aside carbon intensive ones. Infrastructure plays a key role, as it can contribute to shape low energy and emissions lifestyles, such as taking public transport, using non-motorized vehicles or walking.

So, are these changes attainable? Is the urban transition feasible?

As complex as these questions are, it is relevant to stress that there is not a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to it, here is where a multi-dimensional feasibility assessment is to be develop, so in this way urban leaders can evaluate and identify synergies and trade-offs as well as positive and negative effects of any mitigation and adaptation action or policy to be deployed. As an example, in the IPCC report, urban densification may enhance mitigation by reducing emissions, but increase adaptation challenges by intensifying heat islands effects and inhibiting restoration of local ecosystems.

The best analysis is worth nothing if the strategies analyzed can not be applied, and even after being applied, their value questionable is they cannot scale up and spread. To achieve this, it is necessary to foster strong and effective multi-level governance frameworks, to enable the adaptive and mitigation capacities. Here well-rounded legal frameworks with clear, mandates and responsibilities are central in implementing the actions and policies, as lack of institutional capacities can translate into inaction.

Furthermore, governments have coordinated and developed effective local responses engaging and including communities in participatory decision-making processes, which at the same time in several cases, have scaled up into several transnational climate governance initiatives to share experiences and articulate joint climate change responses.

Addis Ababa /TheNational.ae

On a final note, but equally as fundamental than the other dimensions, is the the question: How can this be paid? This might generate fear in administrative units where finances are managed at regional or national level, leaving certain local governments between a rock and a hard place in relation to budget allocation. Nonetheless, just like in the previous section scaling up, innovating and searching for alternative solutions is the way to go in financial matters.

As the report states, new forms of public-private partnerships need addressing as they can help ameliorate financial risk -even at the subnational level- nonetheless, the key element in this matter is being able to re-imagine the current financial structures al local and global scales and find new ways to be able to redirect the necessary funds to limit warming to 1.5°C

Now it is time to act, the IPCC report and the summary for policy makers, have had input from local government from all over the world who are stating that this is possible, as successful city-level climate action strategies are at work today, and are being advanced regionally and internationally through city networks. It is indeed a tough task as mitigation and adaptation strategies need to be properly articulated, nonetheless, there is space for improvement and cities have a primary role in this endeavor.

Where are our priorities? On the Amazonas fire and capitalism.

Originally published 22/08/2019.
Picture: Amazonas burning: Bruno Kellys/Reuters. Notre Dame Burning: Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images

The Amazonas is burning, and one of the most common analogies I have seen the last days is how fast the billionaires, media and governments acted when Notre Dame “burnt to the ground”, and now that 500 thousand hectares of rainforest have been burning for 18 days (4 football fields a minute, according to The Guardian), people are just getting to know about the extension of such disaster and seemingly, no one is doing anything about it.

Why is this? and why are we comparing the Amazonas to a fire in a building?

First of all, the comparison falls beyond short, The Amazonas is home to thousands of species, hundreds of millions of trees and comprising 10% of the world’s biodiversity (according to WWF), as well as being the dwellings of 35 million people, of which 2,6 million are indigenous people, Notre Dame was a beautiful church, but a building nonetheless. Having said this, I will continue.

The value of the rainforest is (wrongly) seen in terms of its exchange or market value, which values the land and its productive potential, in this case in relation to the yield of for example: soybean to feed cattle for human consumption. In comparison, the use value of the Amazonas is -in market terms- lower than that of production, therefore there is no major interest in protecting it under the current political scenario. As the economic value of agriculture is easier to ponder in short term, this is prioritized under the engrained Ordem e Progresso mottotaken almost literally by the Bolsonaro administration.

On a forced comparison to Notre Dame, it represented the crown jewel of Christian western culture in France, a seat of symbolic power, an example of the human capacities and a source of income due to the tourism it brings/brought to Paris, different to The Amazons, which is framed under the potential value of the land, Notre Dame’s value was literally set in stone. Here the exchange or market value, is limited and completely dependent on the conservation of the built environment. On the other hand, what the building was actually built for, its use value, was “mixed” or “confused” with its market valuation, where the religious ceremony was a secondary event, losing its actual “spiritual” significance becoming a mere spectacle which ensured a steady flow of international currency for the stakeholders.

Having developed this crude comparison, it is relevant to stress that nature does not strictly belong to humans, the land of the rainforest goes beyond the national borders of Brazil, occupying parts of Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and other national territories, becoming an ecosystem which by definition goes beyond the human imposed structures. The damage done in the Amazonas, is the conflation of western-centric understanding of it as a landscape for consumption, the need of compound growth of capitalist production and the recent rhetoric and policy approaches pushed by Bolsonaro, which ultimately articulated into this tragedy.

Indigenous firefighters in Arariboia Indigenous territory, Brazil. Source: Guajajara.
Indigenous firefighters in Arariboia Indigenous territory, Brazil. Source: Guajajara.

Therefore, the (de)valuation of the Amazonas is a combination of the aforementioned factors, as well is the valuation of Notre Dame. We must not forget that, the first is merely necessary for every form of life on the planet to continue, the second a symbol necessary for the perpetuation of what is understood as western cultural supremacy.

What to do in the Meantime: Public Spaces as ‘First Places’​

Originally published in Linkedin 17/07/2019
Featured image: Wenceslas Square, Prague.

At times when housing shortages are a rule more than an exception, several local governments have adopted ‘radical’ but effective measures to limit the influence of hedge funds or venture capital in the housing market, such as Barcelona and Berlin, fuelled by the organized discontent of the local population. Nonetheless, is to be seen in the near future what is the outcome of such approaches and how effective they are in the long run.

Outdoor Gym, Lund, Sweden.
Outdoor Gym, Lund, Sweden.

What do we do then, in an scenario in which housing shortages are still a reality and socialized housing is still several kilometers away? An answer could lie in public spaces, which are usually seen as the source of moral panic under outdated approaches such as the broken windows theory, in spite of that, the public holds the potential for alternative spatial practices, it has the essense to become a ‘first place’ more than a ‘third place’ (Oldenburg, 1989).

The existing public spaces might need to be revamped, but what they need the most is to be opened to their community, allowing them to create their sense of home, allowing uses -which are in the current paradigm- reserved to the private. Nonetheless when the private (house, apartment, etc…) is limited in size or simply does not exist, where do social reproduction, leisure, socialization or simply slacking take place? In my opinion, they should take place in public spaces, but for that, we need to ask again what are public spaces? who is the public? and what do we want from them?

Architecture museum, Oslo. Occupation of empty houses in the 80s
Piece of the Architecture Museum of Oslo.


In no way this seeks to take the attention from the fundamental struggle for housing rights, but seeks to open spaces for communal organization, politics, enjoyment and the improvement of tomorrow’s cities without missing the importance of the here and now.