Libraries – The Hidden Wealth of Cities: the World Bank Report on Public Space in Urban Development

At last month’s World Urban Forum, the World Bank launched a new report – The Hidden Wealth of Cities* – exploring on the importance of public space. Taking public space to mean all spaces in urban areas which are open to the public, both outside and inside, it includes a particular study on the place of (public) libraries.

Why focus on this, especially given the Bank’s reputation for being more focused on hard economics and major infrastructure projects? And why the interest in libraries in particular?

This blog looks to answer both of these questions, and to provide some key talking points you can use in your advocacy.

 

Public Space for Better Lives

As the introduction to the report sets out, cities are not only home to a growing share of the world population, but also account for a large share of the global economy. By concentrating workers, ideas and energy, they have allowed for new businesses to form and innovations to emerge.

However, the coming together of so many people and businesses puts pressure on available space, with competition between industry, commerce, residential and transport uses. Too often, public spaces – either outdoor ones like parks or riverfronts, or indoor ones such as libraries – risk being forgotten, given that they do not represent an immediate and easily measurable return on investment.

Yet losing or failing to create such public spaces brings costs. As the report underlines, the availability of public spaces and facilities can be a major factor in city and community attractiveness (p4).

On a purely economic level, this can lead to higher property prices and tax returns (p4). Taking a broader perspective, they can lead to greater trust, less social isolation, and more faith in government (p3).

The report provides a useful overview of the issues to bear in mind in including public space into broader urban development strategies. It highlights the importance of:

  • Inclusive planning (rather than top-down decision making by city halls);
  • Finding solutions for ongoing operation and maintenance (not just focusing on capital expenditure);
  • Resisting the privatisation of space; and
  • Developing a capacity to plan strategically

For example, it suggests that there is value in ensuring flexibility in public spaces in order to allow for responsiveness to need (p39), in creating clusters of services that help build a sense of space (p13), in recognising and making use of historically and/or culturally significant buildings (p18), and in ensuring that other rules and laws (on licensing, or potentially copyright) work to favour use of these spaces (p25).

The report is also firm in underlining that just because a space is public, it doesn’t make it accessible or welcoming. Factors ranging from criminality to distance or a lack of physical accessibility can reduce the quality of spaces, in particular for different groups (p38).

As the report underlines, ‘to unlock the value of public spaces, cities must adopt effective strategies across their life cycles within specific contexts to plan, design, develop, deliver, and maintain these assets—always prioritizing their value to people by making them accessible, inclusive, and attractive to diverse individuals and communities’ (p30).

 

Libraries as Public Spaces

The report’s inclusion of indoor public spaces is welcome, and certainly reflects the experience of the libraries themselves, where there has long been an understanding of the value of library spaces alongside library collections.

The positives it sets out also tally with reflections within the field about the contribution that libraries can make to well-being, a sense of community and solidarity, and to the vibrancy of an area.

From pop-up libraries or mobile libraries, which can represent a first step towards ‘reclaiming’ an area for public use (such as in Beijing, where creating a small children’s library meant that a new project became more attractive for families – p213) to opening institutions as new public spaces and hubs of activities, libraries clearly can be part of any public space strategy.

As an example of the latter, the report draws on the example of Gusandong Library Village, in Seoul, Republic of Korea (p321). In response to demand from residents, many of whom were families, a cluster of older buildings were repurposed to create a library alongside other services. In an area that had been culturally under-served, Gusandong gained a new centre which has proved a strong draw for youth in particular, and which has won prizes for architecture while preserving the character and shape of the area.

Other examples mentioned include that of Medellín, Colombia, where libraries alongside cable-cars and public outdoor escalators helped improve access to services and create a sense of belonging, and so turn Medellín into a model of ‘social urbanism’ and innovation (p6).

Yet there are also issues to bear in mind. Many of the issues and concerns mentioned in the previous section apply to libraries, both in terms of the way they are planned by local and regional governments, and in the way they operate themselves.

Responsible authorities certainly need to consider the need for ongoing support for libraries, beyond initial investments. They also need to ensure that libraries are able to respond to – and work with – their communities in order to provide the best service possible.

At a system level, they should work to give everyone as easy an access as possible to high-quality libraries alongside other amenities. While the report does not single library directors and librarians out itself, there is the implication that they, like other stakeholders, should be involved in decision-making.

Libraries themselves of course also have responsibilities to ensure that they are not only open, but also welcoming. The World Bank report indeed suggests that libraries are only semi-open, given the potential need for registration or other limits on access to and use of facilities (p49-50).

This is not a characterisation that is necessary particularly welcome – or even accurate – for many, but it is clear that there is a perception that may need to be addressed.

 

Conclusion

That the World Bank should recognise the importance of public spaces in general – and libraries in particular – is certainly welcome. It underlines that the need to consider not just short-term economic growth, but also well-being, social cohesion, culture and liveability is now in the mainstream.

In taking this approach, of course, the World Bank also underlines a number of challenges which will be familiar to libraries both in their own operations and in their advocacy to governments and other funders. The report, hopefully, will act to accelerate progress in both, and so better places to live for all.

 

Key Advocacy Messages

  • Public spaces – indoor and outdoor – are an essential ingredient in creating attractive, liveable cities.
  • Libraries can and should be part of this strategy, with the World Bank citing examples from Korea to Colombia to back up this message.
  • To achieve success, local and regional governments should give individual libraries the flexibility and funding to respond to needs, and promote library systems that offer equitable access across their territories.

 

* Kaw, Jon Kher, Hyunji Lee, and Sameh Wahba, editors. 2020.
The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1449-5. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO

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