Measuring the Immeasurable — A Public Space Profile of Skopje

The United Nations has established a number of key goals and targets in recent years to address the challenges of rapid global urbanization. In addition to the objectives set at the World Summit in New York 2015 and the Habitat III Declaration of the same year, the UN’s 2016 Sustainable Development Goals include SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, a commitment to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030, with universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, especially for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Despite these commitments, a new pilot project carried out by UNDP in the Municipality of Centar in Skopje has found that the capital city has so far failed to incorporate the UN goals adequately in its urban planning provisions.

The pilot project was tasked with conducting a Public Space Profile of Skopje, exploring an ambitious and innovative approach to assess current practices in public space development and management in Skopje and to develop a profile of the extent and quality of the city’s public spaces.

The pioneering Public Space Profile assessed a wide range of previously unmeasured parameters, including quantitative and qualitative profiling of the institutional, technical and human dimensions of public spaces in Skopje, using publicly available data, cadastre data, innovative GIS-tools and field research. The Profile research and report were developed according to a methodology developed by UN-Habitat for measuring progress in achieving the UN’s SDG 11.7.1.

Analysis of the results and findings of this research has established a sound basis for a number of key recommendations to improve urban planning and inform policy-making on public space development and management.

With a current population of 45,412 in an area of 752 ha, the Municipality of Centar has experienced growing pressures on local government services and urban infrastructure in recent decades, with a resulting decline in quality of life and the loss of public space.

These pressures have led in turn to a dramatic increase in civil initiatives calling for government authorities to take immediate action, especially to tackle the problem of pollution.

Part of the Profile project assessment methodology included detailed monitoring of citizens’ engagement with the urban environment. This meticulous approach, designed by UN-Habitat in collaboration with the Architecture Faculty of the University of Skopje, enabled the project to
identify the needs of different groups, such as young people, the elderly and people with disabilities.

A key aim of the project was to survey the extent and quality of public open spaces in the city. This task proved particularly challenging because the City of Skopje has not developed a clearly defined concept of public space. For this reason, the Profile project undertook an extensive and detailed review of all relevant international documentation on the definition, development, regulation and maintenance of urban public space.

The GIS survey of public space showed that the two sample spaces have a different average share of public spaces, the first one with 38% and the second with 48%. However, both were very different. The first one mostly represented by streets, while the second by green spaces and rest areas. But, the figures do not tell us a lot, where comes the field work, where we were able to go more in-depth and understand the quality of these spaces, and how they are used by the citizens. And the survey identified some worrying inadequacies in Skopje’s urban planning and management practices, including:

  • a lack of separation of public surfaces such as pavements and roads, with poorly managed and hazardous parking.
  • a lack of information about the city’s greenery, parks, squares, children’s playgrounds and sports fields.
  • a lack of capacity in the Municipality of Centar for undertaking detailed and layered GIS surveying for planning future sustainable development.

Additional field research found that urban equipment is uneven in quality and distribution across the city, with a lack of integration, leading to major problems in traffic circulation, pedestrian and cyclist safety, poorly managed waste facilities and parking spaces.

The report of the Profile project highlights the need for the city to incorporate the UN’s SDG 11, prioritizing improved planning and sustainable development of public urban space. Key recommendations include:

  • Incorporation of the goals in the strategies for spatial and urban development of the cities in the Republic of Macedonia;
  • Compliance with the legislation in the field of spatial and urban planning, as well as the landscaping and communal activities; At a local level, recommendations include:
  • Further assessing the existing situation, using modern IT tools to improve the conditions for mapping and analysis as the basis for public space strategies.
  • Establishing mechanisms for monitoring the situation, communicating with citizens, informing, taking actions, in order to provide better public spaces.
  • Training and building central and local capacities to maintain public spaces and improve the quality of urban life.
  • Providing opportunities for greater citizen involvement in decision-making and the creation of sustainable urban policies.

Finally, it is highly recommended to support and to promote the involvement of the academic community as the most prominent advocate of advanced ideas in urban planning policies.

As next steps, we hope to be able to develop this pilot into an initiative to measure the indicator for the whole City of Skopje and then all other cities, but also go step beyond, to develop a training module on urban public spaces planning for municipal councilors, that will capacitate them in adopting better urban plans.

Last but not least, we hope this blog will serve to initiate a debate on measuring this indicator, how other cities are doing? At what level they have set their baselines? And how they are setting their targets? Have there been any other experiences in using this methodology? Looking forward to hearing from as many of you as possible.

For more insights into the process read the entire “Public Spaces Profile Skopje Research report” on Piloting the methodology for measuring the Sustainable Development Goal 11.7.1. Indicator: “Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities”, a report prepared by Faculty of Architecture University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje.

You can also head to our previous blog and find out where the initiative came from!

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UNDP used the Skopje Lab platform to partner with the Faculty of Architecture, the Municipality of Center, experts and field researchers to test the methodology for measuring the SDG 11.7.1. Indicator: “Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex,
age and persons with disabilities”.

The research and piloting has been undertaken as part of the “Measuring the Unmeasured/ Venturing Into the Unknown: How Can We Measure SDG Tier III Indicators?” Cross-Regional Project led by UNDP Regional Hubs in Istanbul, Aman and Bangkok. The project is supported through the UNDP Innovation Facility 2017, which is funded with generous contribution of the Danish Government.

Ognen Marina, Divna Pencic