Resisting, Reclaiming and Asserting Democracy in Public Spaces
Public space By Julia Clement 8 months ago
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us how crucial our public spaces are for democracy. Strong public spaces promote the resistance and resilience of local communities.

How can we continue to advocate for better public spaces based on the human need for prosperity, sociability and security, in the days when a new urbicide is taking place in the heart of Europe? Flowery streets and theatrical squares of Ukraine were once symbols of national identity and culture. These places have been suddenly deserted, transformed into spaces of violence. The Independence Square of Kiev – which used to be a place of social gathering and meeting – is now used to allow the passage of tanks. In the midst of this destructive fury, it seems very challenging to continue to promote sustainable cities and public spaces that are suitable to welcome and support our desires of a collective life.

Alongside this brutality, however, there are photos that give us an inkling of hope, notably those of the Comfort Town District of Kiev.

With its buildings painted in red, green, yellow, blue, the emblematic Comfort Town District, designed by architecture studio Archimatika and completed only in 2019, illustrates a new vision of the future for the city of Kiev where new forms of public space organisation are possible. Away from car traffic, the public spaces and buildings of this neighbourhood have been metamorphosed in a surreal play of heights and pastel colours. The transformation of this former industrial area into a playful neighbourhood, model of experimentation, has given the world joyful images of children in the street, playgrounds and green spaces between houses, public spaces for sports. The pastel colours, that seem to come out of a storybook, give a glimpse of the desire for a positive and happy coexistence in Ukraine. 

Comfort Town in Ukraine by Archimatika

Beyond the symbolism, the Ukrainian cities carry the hope of resisting the Russian invasion thanks to their resilience and their intrinsic adaptability. According to Shlomo Angel, professor of urban planning, “Cities “work” because of their innate resilience; they have an inexhaustible ability to reinvent themselves, to regenerate their civic spirit, to fashion and refashion innovative solutions to crises, and even to rise from the ashes.” Today, to fight the Russian invasion, Ukrainians are turning their cities into fortresses and labyrinths, using them as a technology of war. The tunnels of the metro are used as mass shelters, the streets are full of hiding places for local fighters but also traps for enemy troops. This crisis teaches us that a strong public space promotes the resilience of local communities.


"Every square is going to be called 'Freedom Square' in every city of our country." President Zelensky


Not only Ukrainians are defending their territory, they are protecting their connection to public space. The Kyiv Independent journal reported that some volunteers placed sandbags around one of Odessa’s landmarks, the monument to the Duke of Richelieu, to protect it from potential Russian bombardment.


The monument to the Duke of Richelieu in Odessa. Odessa City Council

Around the world, public spaces have been transformed in honour of the Ukrainian resistance. Since the tanks crossed the border, graffiti and anti-war street art, collectively called “Conflict Graffiti”, have multiplied. No public space seems to be untouched by this type of urban art to assert the international community’s opposition to the conflict: anti-Russian and anti-Putin graffiti has been seen across the European Union, and as far away as Israel, the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Many citizens have also taken to the public space to protest politically in support of Ukraine.

by seth_globepainter

The war in Ukraine has led to numerous population movements across Europe. In one month of conflict, more than ten million Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes creating not only big challenges, but also opportunities, for the host regions within and outside Ukraine. The capacity to welcome migrants with dignity plays out in, and inevitably alters, the public spaces of a city and the everyday social life that occurs within it. Placemaking, which prioritises the needs, aspirations and well-being of people in the design of a public space, offers an excellent opportunity to support efforts to welcome and socially include immigrants.  A good public space promotes community empowerment and facilitates civic engagement.

In the City at Eye Level Book, Rony Jalkh explored ways to support displaced and post-conflict communities in Beirut, using the placemaking approach as a peacebuilding strategy. In the current context, activists and practitioners need to work on developing resources and tools focused on Placemaking as a strategy for promoting urban equity and social cohesion in European cities and regions facing the refugee crisis. 

If you have specific interests or are connected to initiatives that enable a better reception of Ukrainian refugees, please send us your examples and stories so that we can continue to share and reflect together on how best to address these pressing issues.