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Public Spaces for Community Resilience
7 Oct 2021
| By
Maurice Maurice Harteveld ,
Sahar Sahar Asadollahi Asl Zarkhah
Version 1
Urban planning (urban design)
Public Spaces
Community Resilience
Public Interiors


Metropolization And The Right To The City


This paper focuses on public spaces for community resilience in their ‘response-related abilities’ and which can be improved. Comparative studies of communities, places, and/or disasters after the unforeseen impactful events are indicators to quantify the level of resilience. Within the broad scope of literature, in this line, 'community networks', 'people-place connections', and 'community infrastructure' are consequentially attributes that come out strongly in studying the resilience of community during change events. In other words, people, and spaces, in their social and physical interconnectivity, contribute to the level of community resilience. In this context, the aim of this paper is to take a closer look into the relation between community resilience and public spaces and specify those public spaces which enhance resilience by means of its design. Based upon reviewing literature and identifying similarities in reasoning community resilience as well as adherence in the discussed spaces as support for community resilience, these public spaces have been specified and some examples from Rotterdam are given to make an accurate image of them.

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`Type of the Paper: Peer-reviewed Conference Paper / Full Paper

Track title: metropolization and the right to the city

Public Spaces for Community Resilience

Thinking beyond the dichotomies of public and private as well as exterior and interior

Maurice Harteveld 1, Sahar Asadollahi Asl Zarkhah 2*

Names of the track editors:

Caroline Newton

Lei Qu
Names of the reviewers:

The Evolving Scholar 


Submitted: 07 October 2021



Citation: Harteveld , M. & Asadollahi Asl Zarkhah, S. (2021). Public Spaces for Community Resilience. The Evolving Scholar | IFoU 14th Edition.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY (CC BY) license. 

©2021 [Harteveld , M. & Asadollahi Asl Zarkhah, S.] published by TU Delft OPEN on behalf of the authors. 

1 Delft University of Technology;;

2 Delft University of Technology;;

Abstract: This paper focuses on public spaces for community resilience in their ‘response-related abilities’ and which can be improved. Comparative studies of communities, places, and/or disasters after the unforeseen impactful events are indicators to quantify the level of resilience. Within the broad scope of literature, in this line, 'community networks', 'people-place connections', and 'community infrastructure' are consequentially attributes that come out strongly in studying the resilience of community during change events. In other words, people, and spaces, in their social and physical interconnectivity, contribute to the level of community resilience. In this context, the aim of this paper is to take a closer look into the relation between community resilience and public spaces and specify those public spaces which enhance resilience by means of its design. Based upon reviewing literature and identifying similarities in reasoning community resilience as well as adherence in the discussed spaces as support for community resilience, these public spaces have been specified and some examples from Rotterdam are given to make an accurate image of them.

Keywords: Public Spaces; Community Resilience; Public Interiors, Domestication, Rotterdam

Under the international banner of sustainable development, resilience-building efforts at the community level have been increasingly put forward to cope with environmental, economic, and societal crises. Community resilience may not only be a given, rather defined as the ability to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations. So, next to all kinds of definitions focussing on 'ongoing process of change and adaptation', or 'abilities to maintain stable functioning', also definitions of community resilience based on 'a broad collection of response-related abilities' come in. (Patel, Rogers, Amlôt, and Rubin, 2017) Hence, community resilience can be engaged and improved. Particularly through the lens of planning, community resilience is seen a social undertaking that starts with collaboration between people to protect the valuable things in their community (Lerch, 2017). Whereas indicators to quantify the level of resilience are generally based on the comparative studies of communities, places, and/or disasters after the unforeseen impactful events (Saja, Teo Goonetillekea, and Ziyatha, 2018), this process of thinking thus brings together people and spaces. Within the broad scope of literature, in this line, 'community networks', 'people-place connections', and 'community infrastructure' are consequentially attributes that come out strongly in studying the resilience of community during change events. (McIean, Cuthill, and Ross, 2014) In other words, people and spaces, in their social and physical interconnectivity, contribute to the level of community resilience. In this line, Astrid Ley, professor for international urbanism and sustainable design, confirms in her work on public spaces the findings of the United Nations. These specify that “a) well-organised communities are better prepared for both the occurrence of disaster events and their aftermath (UN, 2014; Rahman and Kausel, 2013) and b) community relationship-building is positively influenced by the existence of public space that allows for social contact” (Ley, 2019, p. 169). Still, apart from the verification on this level of resolution, its less explicit which specific public spaces play a role as affordance for communities and community places, and thus community resilience, is underexposed. Let alone, the response-related abilities of such public spaces as embedded in their design. Therefore, this paper aims to be more accurate in the relation between community resilience and public spaces, by explicating those public spaces, which (could) engage and improve resilience by means of its urban design. These public spaces have been specified by reviewing literature and identifying similarities in reasoning community resilience as well as adherence in the discussed spaces as support for community resilience. As such, this paper shares findings, which provide content desired to know what should be in the scope of urban designers working with community resilience. Thus, it fills in the recently emerged knowledge gap and achieves a more accurate scope of community places essential for resilience-building efforts.

Public Spaces organising Community Networks

First, public spaces are valuable for organising community networks, as networks of people within a community working in partnership with other groups of people and/or organisations. To understand this the notion of 'sense of community' reoccurs. People must have a "sense of belongingness, fellowship, 'we-ness,' identity, etc., experienced in the context of a [geographically based] collective" (Bruckner, 1988, p. 733), before affiliating as community to others. Following the early empirical findings of community scientist David Chavis and community psychologist Abraham Wandersman (1990), a sense of community in the urban environment is a catalyst for participation and community development. For all of types of community, including those embedded in e.g., neighbourhood organisations, professional associations, and churches, there exists a process for improving the quality of community life as portrayed in such terms as 'community development', and 'community building'. Participation in such communities has been viewed as a major method for improving the quality of the physical environment, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, already since the 1970s. (e.g., Ahlbrandt and Cunningham, 1979; Altshuler, 1970; Hallman, 1974, 1984; Mayer, 1984; Morris & Hess, 1975; Perlman, 1976; Yates, 1973; Yin, 1977). The presence of neighbourhood-focused community organisations goes hand-in-hand with physical-space attributes. The idea "that physical aspects, particularly the built environment of a geographic locale, can influence the attitudes and behaviours of its residents", and thus relate to a sense of community (Kingston, Mitchell; Florin, and Stevenson, 1999) is directly linked to a deeper understanding of public space. In fostering community bonds, the importance of locating public spaces appropriately, comes from urban theorists in the design tradition. In their view too, open public spaces, essentially pedestrian as well as natural spaces, and other public gathering places are important for social interaction as a premise for a sense of community. (ff. Talen, 2000; Lund, 2002; Bow and Buys, 2003; Kim and Kaplan, 2004). Urban designers started to call this 'public useable space' or 'publicly-used space'. With this they describe spaces for social interaction which facilitates incidental social contact. Such spaces include privately-owned spaces that are open for public use and accessible. (Carmona, Heath, Oc, and Tiesdell, 2003; Harteveld, 2014; Fugmann, Karow-Kluge, and Selle, 2017). These public spaces add to the sense of community, and thus facilitate community networks. For instance, libraries can play a key role in community resilience. As "a physical place in the community", the library can for example provide space for the community networking, access to computer terminals, training services, or simply a room for people to connect. (Bajjaly, 1999) To improve community resilience, the (re)design of all public spaces, relevant for communities, should be considered as integrative response-related ability within larger networks.

Public Spaces for Place Attachment

Second, by matter of course, public spaces are essential for 'people-place connections' or place attachment, hence human relationships with spaces, interfered with significance and meaning. The human geographer Ted Relph, who introduced a phenomenological account of places in understanding cities, comes to the conclusion that emotional bonds become stronger when embedded in a relationship between a community and a place. Each person reinforces the identity of the other, and people share communally held beliefs and values of interpersonal involvements. (Relph, 1976, p. 33-34, 57-58) From such a place-based approach, community resilience is mainly linked to public space and its condition as a place that encourages social contact. Community resilience is recently also most explicitly associated with phenomena like 'place-making', communal actions which allow informal use through temporal appropriation of outdoor public space. Again, also here the focus within community resilience lies on response-related abilities, in which the liminal zones with what is considered private play a dominant role (Melis, Lara-Hernandez, and Thompson, 2020 ff. Turner, 1982). So, enhancing community resilience through improving people-place connections includes interventions which allow casual and spontaneous events even if these happen for a limited time. Within this scope, informal use mainly refers to the occurrence of unplanned activities in public spaces as urban practices. Following social scientist Jessica Montserrat Fonseca Rodriguez (2015) frequent occurrence of such activities by communities leads to appropriation. Hence, the communal use of public space for a limited time to undertake individual or collective activities aside from the original purpose of the space is important for people-place connections, because accordingly people can rearrange and redefine urban space based on their desires. Jose Antonio Lara-Hernandez, Alessandro Melis and Silvio Caputo (2017) argue in addition that temporal appropriation can also be defined as “the interaction between citizens and their city expressed through certain kinds of activities occurring in public spaces” (Lara-Hernandez, Melis, and Coulter, 2020, p. 65). Emphasising liminal zones in this leads to the connection of communities to these phenomena (Turner 1967, et seq), and to certain interior public spaces. It is a close fit with the observations of urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who directs his eye to the cafes, coffee shops, and among others community centres. These casual gathering places host informal, yet socially binding, association that is the bedrock of community life. (Oldenburg, 1989, p. 284) Also the architect and urban designers emphasise the importance of such places (e.g., Sola Morales, 1992; Carr, Francis, Rivlin, and Stone, 1992). Emphasising liminal zones also relates to domesticated public spaces, or any threshold of public and private in general. From the angle of Dolores Hayden, professor in architecture, urban design and urban studies, the spaces in the city have to engage with domestic standards of amenity and safety in order to create places for everyone. Within communities the model of a 'collective home' may apply for such urban spaces. "Small, common-sense improvements in urban design can be linked to larger ideas about nurturing to help end the split between private life and public life" (Hayden, 1984, p. 209-214, 224). This viewpoint is shared and stretched by other disciplines. Examples range from established community gardens to spontaneous appropriated ‘no-man’s-lands’ to courtyards serving as living rooms. (Armstrong, 2000; Groth and Corijn, 2005; Amin, 2009) The United Nations Human Settlement Programme particularly emphasises the idea that “public space provides a 'living room' that allows for social interaction and encourages identification and feelings of belonging — along with the associated social and economic benefits for vulnerable communities in dense living environments — (UN-Habitat, 2016: vii)”. In line with this understanding, place-making can be seen as a community resilience effort focus on fostering social bonds beyond the physical infrastructure (Ley, 2019, p.168-169). To improve community resilience, the (re)design of all public spaces, meaningful for communities, should be considered as integrative response-related ability within place-based human relationships.

Public Spaces as Community Infrastructures

Last, public spaces are critical as community infrastructures. In fact, all infrastructures, as basic facilities, services, and installations, are needed for the functioning of a community. Yet, when it comes to community infrastructures basically small-scale structures are critical. Learning from response and recovery approaches to community infrastructures "rehabilitating and revitalizing public space is a crucial part of building socially integrated urban environments". Both community access roads networks and other connective infrastructure as well as common urban space must be incorporated in plans to promote community resilience (GFDRR, 2014). Communities need proper public spaces, fostering the living community. Schools, vocational institutes, various organisations, and clubs have traditionally received public recognition and governmental support in their role as community centres. For over a century, governments encourage the institutions which are responsible for these spaces to offer opportunities to community members to better prepare to be responsible citizens. (e.g., Jackson, 1918) Today, this role has been extended to the provision of all kinds of spaces for community meeting and sharing, including tool libraries, community kitchens, and for example swap meets. Community infrastructures extent to abandoned buildings, public libraries, and community gardens, which can be found in parks but also vacant city lots. (Cooper, 2017, p. 268-269) Learning from the above this includes interior public spaces, like cafes, coffee shops, and community centres, as well as domesticated public spaces, like community gardens or temporally appropriated spaces within neighbourhoods. In general, several urban theorists claim that the traditional dichotomy between the public and private domains in cities is notably changing, and urban public spaces are no longer limited to outdoor spaces (Harteveld, 2014 et seq). Conventional urban public spaces – streets, pedestrian zones, plazas, etc. – are generally framed by their surrounding build forms. The clear distinction between interior and exterior underlines a false separation of the two realms: buildings and public space (Rădulescu, 2017). On the one hand, alike the most crowded, publicly governed, and well-known interior public spaces, also the smaller but crucial community infrastructures show “that the boundary of public space is not always sharply defined” (Harteveld, 2006, p. 35). Within the context of everyday life in an urban neighbourhood, the inside and the outside could traverse each other’s boundaries. The increasing conjunction between the concepts of “public” and “interior” in the urban environment brought the important matter of relation and interaction of these urban spaces with their users. As a result of the significant change in the traditional dichotomy between the public and private domain, a greater number of buildings possess conditions that allow them to be claimed as interior public spaces. These interiors are publicly used and publicly known and therefore, publicly accessible, although it is not necessarily unrestricted. In other words, in everyday life, they are of or pertain to people in the sense that they belong to people. Public useable interiors, which are often privately-owned, may be limited in the accessibility in terms of time. Therefore, these interiors may be understood as permeable, being able to enter a space without hesitation and effort during specific times (Poot, Van Acker, De Vos, 2015). On the other hand, alike more remote, civically, or privately governed, and less-known domesticated public spaces, community infrastructures also show that the clear distinction between interior and exterior evaporates. In terms of resilience, most recently, we have seen how immediate responses induced by the COVID-19 crisis influenced traveling, gathering, and public live in general, and thus public space nearby have become important. Catalysed by crisis, “urban space becomes an extension of the living room, even the urban living room itself. And ‘domestication’ turns into a social value" (Harteveld, 2020). A wide range of contemporary public spaces play important roles in everyday urban life as places for community resilience. Public spaces, as such in their more extensive definition, have to be seen as both inside and outside buildings, hence interiors and exteriors, while playing roles in the daily lives of larger as well as smaller groups of people beyond dichotomies of public and private entities.

Some Examples from Rotterdam

The United Nations office for disaster risk reduction launched its ‘Making Cities Resilient’ programme almost a decade ago. Soon after, the World Bank came into act with ‘Building Resilience’. At the Rockefeller Foundation, the ‘100 Resilient Cities’ project has been highlighting urban hardiness around the world ever since too. In line with literature reviews, The Guardian addressed in an early commentary that the resilience lens can address very different issues at local levels, “as the needs of individual cities are not only varied but might be contradictory.” Despite differences, the common denominator in this network is formed by a dedicated commitment to build own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses. The city of Rotterdam is one of many which has “experienced significant setbacks that have tested their resilience”, and which have attempted to design programmes and procedures to help them come to terms with their vulnerabilities. (UNISDR, 2012; World Bank, 2013; Rodin, 2013; Watson, 2014) If, today, we want to design for community resilience, we have to shine the light to a wide range of public spaces, all playing a role as community infrastructures, being place-based and enhancing community networks. Within this context some everyday examples from Rotterdam give an insightful view on the wide range of public spaces which are important in the scope of community resilience.

A first range of public spaces work as community places at the city level. An example as such is the Rotterdam Central Library. It is an interior public space with no less than 2,6 million visitors annually. In accordance to literature, it plays a key role in community resilience. It provides space for community networking on the city scale by facilitating the conscious and active participation of Rotterdammers and facilitate the interaction of different social groups within the city. Residents can openly access to knowledge and information, participate in activities, access to computer terminals and Wi-Fi, or basically be there and connect with others. The place-based approach can be best seen in different activities in the field of language, culture, and society. There are organised events, performances, and activities focusing on different target groups such as youth, elderlies, migrants, etc. Therefore, besides reading, citizens can acquire skills, meet, and debate and get acquainted with art and culture. Central Library is placed in a Modernist building in the city centre since 1983. Although the architectural characteristic of the façade lacks visual connection between outdoors and indoors, it includes an extensive community infrastructure with a theatre, a bookstore, a reading room, open work and study places, lounges, a café, an information centre, internet terraces on the first and top floors, and lecture halls, next to shelfs with books, movies, newspapers, and magazines. (See Bibliotheek Rotterdam, 2021)

A second range of public spaces works at the neighbourhood level. An example is Verhalenhuis Belvédère (Stories House Belvédère), an interior public space in the heart of the Katendrecht neighbourhood. In accordance to literature again, it plays a pivotal role as community centre annex coffee house with a 25.000 visitors annually. Located in an Eclectic building, constructed 1884-94, it has been a café-restaurant, a stage for local jazz performance and a place for people who were not welcome elsewhere before, like Jewish. It also served as space for dancing, cinema, magic shows, wrestling, for performing myths and as a small museum. In its current form, Belvédère provides opportunities for open and inclusive participation and interaction among locals. Community networking extents by encouraging interaction between old residents and newcomers, for instance by ‘Cook and Tell’ events. People are being connected to each other, and to other communities across the city through art, culture, and stories. The place-based approach echoes through in different activities like the ‘storytelling’, aiming to store the intangible heritage of the community by collecting personal stories, histories of people, and city’s residents, and grasping urban change. Moreover, exhibitions welcome people from Katendrecht, Rotterdam South and the rest of the city. In terms of community infrastructure, Belvédère located at the corner of streets with the view of a green area and harbour, and thus intersecting places where people most likely congregate. Its facade is open and transparent at street-level with large windows and doors. As a meeting place, particularly the ground floor is most significant as welcoming space. Yet, all floors are open to public and freely accessible. (See Verhalenhuis Belvédère, 2020)

A third range of public spaces works at the very local levels. Paviljoen aan het Water is a pop-up culture stage and restaurant near the Maashaven in the Charlois neighbourhood, both an interior and exterior public space. With 2800 followers on Facebook and around thousand on Instagram, it creates a sustainable connection between locals, through temporal activities, since 2016. The pavilion provides opportunities for its community members to discover local music, film, and art through its ‘artist in residency’ programmes, emphasising local port-city identities, while interacting with each other, hence network, or eat affordable food from the neighbourhood. The place is open from May to September every Friday and Saturday evenings. Activities are mainly organised together with, of by locals. All activities echo through the place-based approach as described by theorist. As a community infrastructure, the pavilion is a popular meeting place for specific social groups and individuals. As stated online, this one-story, rather small structure works as a cosy and welcoming ‘living room’ for people living nearby. The outdoor domesticated public space is flexible and facilitates returning visitors as well as special events. Accessibility from the neighbourhood remains poor, though, as a seawall creates a physical barrier to the place. (See Paviljoen aan het Water (facebook page), 2021)

A last range of examples can be found at self-maintained places. For example, an appropriated place turned into a community garden, like Buurt Tuinderij ‘Hof van Heer’. It is initiated by local garden designers and supported by a municipal stimulus programme to increase community’s self-management of green, in 2020. As such it has enhanced or established community networks, with an estimate community of max. 200 people involved annually. It is a project that serves as an example of domesticated public space in Rotterdam. In the same manner elsewhere, neighbours take control of such pieces of public space nearby, but it could also be shopkeepers for example. In the Hof van Heer, the community gardens together from May to November. Gardening together, working together, harvesting together, sharing together, learning together and thus getting to know each other better is the explicit mission for the community network. By nature, such plans are also place-based, because communities appropriate a piece of public space in direct proximity of their premises by taking care of public greenery, making a community garden, or turning it into a playground for the kids living there. The relationship between local communities and these places increases their sense of community. This project facilitates bonding by providing the possibility of participation in appropriating an abandoned urban space and taking part of communal activities at this new community infrastructure. (See Buurt Tuinderij Hof van Heer, 2020)

Setting the Designer’s Agenda

The above examples illustrate that if we want to design public spaces for community resilience, we have to think beyond the dichotomies of public and private as well as exterior and interior. The range can include very different public spaces, working on very different scale levels. Yet in all, in accordance to literature, response-related abilities can be improved here most likely more than at artery roads. So, as designers, we have to take a closer look at those places and include them in our maps. We have to observe communities, and dive into all kinds of micro-stories while relating them to space, in order to discover and understand how communities use, appropriate, and experience such public space. The (re)design of public spaces should be considered if design, as integrative response-related ability within larger systems of facilities, services, and installations, can add to the need for the better functioning of society, hence when it can improve community resilience.


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Sahar Asadollahi Asl Zarkhah
Delft University of Technology
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