Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow Tommi Laitio says cities can foster innovation, build local pride, and create efficiencies by including residents in the ownership and governance of shared spaces
By Colin Murphy, Senior Writer
Public spaces in cities can have the extraordinary impact of promoting equity and dissolving power imbalances while spurring innovation and community connection. This is possible only when a diverse group of people simultaneously share ownership and management of a public space.
Tommi Laitio, Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins and an expert in library and public park design and governance, shares that cities can intentionally foster environments of equity and shared ownership that support a flourishing life for residents and community members.
“Cities are made by their people, and collective action in cities can be a force for equity and a rich and vibrant experience for all,” says Laitio. “For a public servant like me, the great thing about working in cities is that you can do something real about real issues like parks and public spaces.”
After a recent research visit to Fortaleza, Brazil, the Center’s team had the opportunity to connect with Laitio on his learnings from his time with the city’s leadership, staff, partners, and residents.
In this Innovation Conversation, Laitio shares insights on the model of shared management and the impacts it is making for residents in their public spaces.
I know you did a lot of listening in Fortaleza. Can you talk about what you heard around the concepts of shared management and convivência?
What I learned was that Brazilian legislation actually requires the cities to do what they call shared management: the idea that residents need to have a say not only in the planning of public spaces, but also in taking care of them. At the same time, the Brazilian City Statute gives a diverse legal toolbox for cities for local innovations.
In Fortaleza, they are developing models of shared governance structure for the city’s squares and parks. What I heard both from residents but also from city staff is that a public space is only successful if there is an element of civic engagement, joint responsibility, and joint agency. They are developing this idea of a governance committee that combines neighborhood associations, local residents, and the city hall to have a shared ownership of the space.
This links to an important notion, this word that was used very much in the interviews that I had, which is convivência. In English you would talk about conviviality, but convivência in Portuguese seems to have a slightly different meaning, closer to coexistence with a recognition of friction. The governance models and the shared management models are built on the idea that we are different, and that creates friction.
Quite often in government we build our models and see friction as a problem. In many of my discussions in Fortaleza, I think there was an understanding that you need to build models based on friction, so that there are elements of mediation and conflict de-escalation. You build governance practices while understanding that the capability of sharing space and assets with other people requires structures and intentionality – it requires that people want to do it – but it also requires skills. Approaching living with difference as a skill is really exciting to me. The whole question of how we build government practices and public space governance practices around this notion of convivência is the primary focus of my research here at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation.
In Fortaleza, how do these concepts play out in real examples that positively impact the city?
Two that were so exciting for me were called Reading at the Square (Leitura na Praça) and Microparks.
Reading at the Square is an initiative started by Funci, the childhood and family foundation, where they take abandoned kiosks in town squares and turn them into small children’s libraries, which are then opened a couple times a week for events and reading for children by local residents. Having this active space that’s run by someone from the community also creates the incentive and ability for the whole community to care more about the place. Suddenly these people who are running these kiosks, these volunteers, become sort of like the guardians of the square. I talked to residents in one of the communities where they said having a kiosk was like heaven compared to the way the squares were previously, when they were unsafe for kids to play in. It’s a very low-cost innovation that’s not a pure public service, but it really relies on the active involvement of the local residents. This comes to the notion of shared management. There’s a very good understanding at Funci that they need to give quite a lot of agency and freedom for the local residents to tailor their volunteering for their specific neighborhood, and also to keep their motivation going.
The other project I found really exciting is called Microparks. Here you really see the city’s capability for innovation. They have a lot of these small, vacant pieces of land throughout the city that have basically just become landfills – people dump their garbage and construction site waste on them. They are all around the city. They started taking these very small pieces of land and turning them into parks with very low-cost investments. What’s exciting about the approach is that they partnered up with a Dutch foundation called Bernard van Leer Foundation that linked them to a Brazilian non-profit called Alana that advised them on using natural materials for public space development. Tree trunks and branches that would otherwise cost the city money to get rid of were instead used as building materials for these public spaces.
Again here you have the same idea that the city takes care of some of the maintenance, and then the residents take care of some of the maintenance, because it’s in their community. There’s this idea that we will jointly take care of this. They have two parks now as prototypes, and they are scaling it up to doing 30 more parks over the next 20 months with the support of the World Bank. What is really incredible is that there’s again very strong ambition to get this done, but also the humility that when you really want to do this idea of sharing power and responsibility with the residents, you don’t get it right immediately. You have to be adjusting the model, and then tailoring it to the differences between different neighborhoods.
What makes Fortaleza well-equipped to innovate in these ways, and how might other cities replicate this approach?
This goes back to my research on the need to institutionalize your innovation practices. Many people in Fortaleza told me, for example, about how the traffic safety work the city did in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies not only created more bike lanes and pedestrian safety while reducing traffic, but it also helped build the city’s capacity for proper innovation projects in other policy areas as well.
Fortaleza’s structure is set up to be able to meet challenges and seize on opportunities. The city has an innovation foundation. They have a childhood foundation. They have a planning institute. All of these are what I would call quasi-governmental agencies, so they are strongly aligned with the government’s agenda, but they are separate legal entities, which allows them to join projects and accept grants often quicker than the standard city government anywhere could. This allows the city to prototype, pilot and scale things up.
Because they have a clear idea on where they want to go and what kind of a city they want to be, they also have the boldness to seize an opportunity for partnership with international funders or other partners when those opportunities arise.
This was my first visit to Brazil, and before I traveled, a Brazilian colleague of mine told me how Brazilian culture champions resourcefulness and future-mindedness. In my exchanges with people, I understood very well what she was talking about, and it was clear that Fortaleza seeks to have innovation as a continual commitment always taking place in the city.