I have been back home in Kenya for close to six weeks now, four of which I have been a patient, in fact, my feet have mastered the directions to all the health facilities I had to seek medical attention from, even blinded I can make it to those places as long as no one is wheeled to the morgue right past me along the corridors again! Mortality has never been too real and too close to ‘home’ especially when you become resistant to a certain approach of medication and you see panic in your health care provider’s eyes. I couldn’t wait to be able to sit, wear my headphones playing some old people’s rhumba music (not in a bad way, this kind of music is way older than me but I swear by it) and write about public spaces which for a very long time to me have always been about parks and ‘swings’ until I happened to experience British Columbia and read wider. I am not the best at introductions, so I will leave this as is before I run over it like a bulldozer.
Have you ever asked yourself if Morgues are public spaces? What about Cemeteries? Who plans and designs them? Tell you what, during my sixth year of Architecture school, while we were writing our theses, one of us, Kevin Ahenda took a very daring path of research and design: Cemetery! About two months into the research we lost Kevin. May his soul find untold rest. No, I am not insinuating that the thought of death can kill you, I am just saying, I never got the chance to read Kevin’s work. Maybe I could have built on it. While these thoughts crossed my mind, a friend in Canada sent me a picture of a swing at a hospital where she had gone for her routine checkup. She wrote, “Agnes, look! I found a swing! There was an elderly lady on it. I took a photo for you when she stepped aside. I don’t think I will ever look at swings the same way as before, they remind me of you.”
Swings, hammocks, waterfronts and sunsets are my thing, not cemeteries, so I will pass on that with the hope that some brave mind takes it up. Those who know me can attest to my cowardice, after all they say cowards live long. Come to think of it though, I have survived a snake bite and a dislocated hip bone while in the purported public spaces back in the day. In my country, public spaces are more of a luxury than a basic need and this is why I enjoyed the right and freedom of such places while in Canada. Micah Makworo & Caleb Mireri (2011) in their article titled ‘Public open spaces in Nairobi City, Kenya, under threat’ submitted to the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management acknowledge the abandonment of the 1948 Master Plan for Nairobi City, which was rooted on the neighbourhood concept with ample provision of public open spaces after Kenya’s independence in 1963. They go ahead to explain that this was due to rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation which has led to the public open spaces in the city to suﬀer from degradation, overcrowding and insecurity, thus denying city residents access to the much needed recreation and leisure facilities. Being a village girl trapped in the city, one of the busiest in the universe, I can tell you Vancouver was a village! Try walking your dog at downtown Nairobi or riding your bike! Nightmare would be an understatement!
The only time humans don’t fuss when you call them animals is probably when referencing the renowned phrase by Aristotle ‘Man is by nature a social animal’. Public spaces are therefore a basic need for social interaction. They are places that make possible cultural and social development. It doesn’t take yoga to understand that urbanites are guided by the human spirit, and in the words of (Zukin, S. 1995) “Public spaces are a window into the City’s soul.” What are we without souls? Without a definite demarcation of the meaning of public space due to the broadness of the concept, many authors such as (Hajer and Reijndrop 2001) reasoned that the broad review of the definition of the public space is a treacherous territory. Kishore Rupa, Charita (2015) concludes that Public space is a space that allows and facilitates a coexistence of different categories of people. These are spaces of everyday use such as streets, sidewalks and subway platforms to spaces such as a public library, not necessarily a typical square or garden. This drives away from the notion that public spaces are gathering places.
A while back I shared how I was arrested some ten years ago for using a swing at the Nairobi Central Park. I was barely 18! I mean, if you asked me, I was a child; the swings were apparently reserved for children. I had a few concerns. Why wasn’t it clear on the swings that they have been reserved for children only and what ages? The city council officer pointed at an eroded signage that could attract no one’s attention which made me think this was deliberate to trap the unsuspecting citizens. Why weren’t the officials dressed in their uniforms? This to me was to camouflage in order to catch more ‘offenders’. Why didn’t the officers issue a warning instead of threatening to arrest me? Was it such a grave offence to use a swing that was deserted? I lost $5 that day. If you live in Nairobi, you probably can calculate that as transport to and from the city for a week! The result of this encounter was me living in detest of public parks. Ten years later, in another territory up North of the globe, I saw a swing while in the company of my host Simran Bains and Colleague Veronicah Kisilu, my face lit and I ran very fast towards it only to stop and ask Sim if it was legal. She burst into laughter, looked at me and realized I was still waiting for an answer. “OH, you weren’t kidding?” She asked in disbelief. I explained to her, that where I come from swings are for children and I may be little but not a child, I couldn’t afford to go to jail in a foreign country. I also thought $5 may not be adequate considering the inflation over the years and the economic differences between Kenya and Canada. It made me wonder, what our leaders here fly thousands of miles to go benchmark abroad using taxpayers money if they swing in those public parks then leave it all on the landing platforms at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport(NBO), save for the Governor of Machakos , Governor Alfred Mutua who introduced the Machakos People’s Park. Don’t think it went down easy, he received criticism for providing a park instead of creating jobs, providing water and food for his people but today they boast the best public park in the nation, they ask us how we will get back to Nairobi before it’s dark. All because they walk from their homes to the park and leave at their own leisure while us Nairobians are coerced into leaving by the sunset. I know a lot of Nairobians who drive to that park every weekend!
In the second Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) Annual regional conference 2019 held in June at Sarova Whitesands Mombasa, themed “A Gendered Approach to Unlocking the Potential For Sustainable Development” the examples of public spaces are given as: on way to and from schools, health facilities, markets, water points and work spaces, which are largely in agricultural settings, hospitality industry and others. This is in sync with (Kishore Rupa, Charita 2015), refuting the thought of public spaces as solemnly gathering spaces. Matthew Carmona (2018) emphasizes on the importance of getting the strategic decision-making framework for public space right before worrying about the detailed execution in order to attain the success level of cities such as Barcelona. He draws the conclusion that successful public spaces are: Evolving, Diverse, Free, Delineated, Engaging, Meaningful, Social, Balanced, Comfortable and Robust.
My certificate of village-ism has long expired and my urbanite crown is more of a helmet striving to protect me from various urban challenges including but not limited to inadequately planned public spaces. It is hard to tell if it shall withstand the tear and wear, for now I am grateful to have had the opportunity to swing in anything swing-able everywhere in the Province of British Columbia, Canada. A country where almost every space first belongs to the public before individuals (Private), even Institutional Libraries! At what cost? For Free!