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A First Assessment Framework on Public Spaces and Urban Resilience

By November 8, 2019December 3rd, 2021Learnings, News

The character of a city is also defined through its public spaces: from squares and boulevards to neighbourhood gardens and children playgrounds, these spaces constitute a fundamental characteristic enabling communities to express and build a “sense of place” and identity linked to their private life. However, most of the resilience literature, actions and projects address infrastructures, the built environment or specific dimensions of urban systems (greening, air pollution, drainage etc.) but definitively less attention is usually given to public spaces as a potential enabler of generic urban resilience – how the design and management of space could be linked to (and a source of) resilience. Starting from this assumption, and proven that there is an incredible amount of literature from planning studies addressing urban public spaces, but there is any assessment or guideline linking public spaces and resilience in an holistic manner, the 1st edition of the International Master City Resilience Design and Management organized a workshop on the resilience of and through public open spaces.

The students worked for two intensive weeks hosted in the stimulating environment of Ca l’Alier (Barcelona Urban Transformation Lab), being supported and receiving feedback provided by the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Program, the Barcelona Municipality Urban Resilience Unit and BIT Habitat 22@ Barcelona.

The result was a preliminary framework to examine the benefits that public open spaces provide, the spatial and temporal scales at which those benefits could happen, but also the trade-offs and synergies that exist among them. This is the what and how we did it. Our work started through a literature review, aiming to explore functions, qualities, values, benefits, and characteristics of public open spaces. After scanning long lists of indicators we synthetized twelve key functions of public spaces, that you can see in the figure below, representing the slices of a wheel (how not to be a wheel for resilience, after the 100RC/ARUP framework?). Assuming these are all the potential functions expressed through a public space, and are framed around 3 main factors (economic, environmental, societal) placed at the core of the wheel.

Now, how does resilience enter here?

Well, if resilience is conceived as the set of capacities and characteristics for responding to different treats, we needed to define which are the potential treats. The literature suggested to start from classifying shocks and stresses (and their relationships). The 100RC provided us with a list of more than 100 challenges found through their programme and cities-partners, from which we ended synthetizing thirty key resilience challenges (which applied to public spaces only). The matrix that you can only overview (because too little, here below) was the results of crossing the 12 functions with the 30 challenges/treats, so to check each function to which challenge could host some responsive capacity.

After intense sessions of brainstorming and different trial prototypes, everything was condensed in the wheel posted above, in which (if you take again a closer look at it) each radius corresponds to a specific function, and for each function it can be numbered which are the resilience challenges that can be tackled by that function. However, since open spaces serve multiple functions at once, we identified potential synergies (a function enhancing others) and trade-offs among them – these are represented through the little arrows placed at the centre of the framework (if you download the full report of the framework here, you could go in depth about the matrix, the framing of the trade-offs and synergies and so on).

Nice, but still so generic, right? How to use it in practice and assess urban resilience ?

Well, through some fieldwork in Barcelona we gathered users’ perceptions about the functions of three public spaces (different from each other because of their design and socio-economic context) and run the assessment. Because the perception about the functions of a space varies depending on the person, we explored four social profiles to be interviewed: elders, disabled people, women, and children (men were too boring to analyse). Thus, we got the following profiles, showing the “perception wheels” – each wheel representing which functions were perceived from each public space, from whom, and how much the function was performed.

The four layers in each function sector, radiating outwards, indicate how frequently the performance was perceived. 

Interview questions were designed to uncover what brings these users to that place and what they value, determining in an indirect way which functions were perceived and interview results used for a brainstorming about the linkage between those functions and the potential treat/challenge reduction capacity. As it is necessary to show the individual results for each place, in order to highlight issues related to the specific contexts, it may also be useful to make a cross-sectional reading in relation to factors they may (or may not) have in common, from a comparison between the results.

As expected, we can see how functions falling under the social range were by far the most predominant user perceived ones: Identity, such as the sense of pride and belonging to the place was very evident, as well as all activities related to Physical and Mental Health, such as walking, exercising and even mundane actions like enjoying the sun on a Saturday afternoon. Targeted social profiles also addressed actions related to comfort, cohesion, and inclusiveness. As demonstrated by the overall aggregated wheel, there was a sever lack of functions falling under Safety and Security. Indeed, throughout the interviews, women specifically mentioned the need for better solutions, in order to feel safer in early mornings or late at night.

The functions related to  Accessibility & Mobility were often acknowledged by the users, as we can see in the specific case of La Rambla de Sants (see the report attached), as being particularly important in this context, considering one of the main objectives of this urban renewal project was to connect two different parts of the neighbourhood, previously divided by the railways. This function, developed as a design solution, showed to be very successful as it was one of the first ones mentioned by users, especially by community locals. In contrast, other types of environmental or economic functions were generally less perceived. As opposed to this, other kinds of functions falling in the environmental spectrum were not recognized. In the Joan Miro Park, even though the huge underground rainwater retention deposit plays a crucial role to prevent flooding in the city, this resilience capacity is not recognized by the users, who are generally not aware the specific design solution even existing. Neither the soil rainwater infiltration capacity, helping to avoid flooding, respect to the concrete soil sealing of the roads, was perceived, building the evidence that some key characteristics of resilience are invisible to people- at least until the moment they are needed and used.

This innovative conceptual framework, as said at the opening of this post, was developed to understand the relationship between urban public spaces and resilience – to assess and map how public open spaces manage to respond to difference resilience challenges, thanks to their design or processes hosted. By incorporating many socio-economic aspects, such as human perception, interaction and governance, the tool offers the unique opportunity for practitioners to make strategic use of public open space, to better design or manage those spaces and their dynamics.

Starting from last May, Jole Lutzu (a former Master student ad currently the Msc Coordinator) has been further developing the assessment through an internship at the Barcelona Municipality Urban Resilience Unit, conducting a more extensive field research. More specific insights, updates and follow-ups will be shared in this section of the blog. She is also available and ready to answer to all your questions/feedback at jolelutzu(at)

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