Catalytic public spaces: UN-Habitat’s Global Public Space Programme

Catalytic public spaces blog

Author: Urban Hub Team at Save the Children International

The third blog in our ‘Public Space for Children’ series provides an overview of UN-Habitat’s ongoing 12-year Global Public Space Programme (GPSP) with a focus on interventions, tools and guidance that make public spaces better for children.

In case you missed them, the first blog of the series spotlights public space interventions by our member organisations and the second blog features the Her City toolbox to inspire action for safer cities for and with girls and women.

Global Public Space Programme (GPSP): What and How?

We spoke with Jose Chong from UN-Habitat, who leads the GPSP, to learn more about the programme and its accomplishments. The GPSP was launched in 2012 as a result of the Governing Council of UN-Habitat Resolution on Sustainable Urban Development through Access to Quality Urban Public Spaces. The resolution called for UN-Habitat ‘to consolidate agency-wide work on public space, to develop and promote public space policy, coordination, disseminate knowledge and directly assist cities in public space initiatives.’

The GPSP aims to promote safe, inclusive, and accessible public spaces worldwide. The programme has developed several participatory and capacity building tools to promote, assess, plan, design, build, manage and maintain public spaces at national, regional, city and neighbourhood scales.

Over the years, the programme has supported several child-friendly public space interventions like parks, child-friendly market spaces, inclusive playgrounds, playable public stairways, and community gardens in planned and informal settlements. These interventions are developed as catalytic projects. They raise awareness on the importance of public space, build local partnerships and capacities and inspire action at scale. Participation, partnerships and capacity building are core programmatic aspects of the GPSP.

Two key approaches which bring a child lens to the GPSP’s work are the Her City Toolbox and the Block by Block initiative. They use a unique methodology developed around Minecraft to attract and engage local residents, particularly children, youth, girls and women, to visualise, plan design and transform neglected urban spaces into vibrant and inclusive community nodes.

Two examples of innovative public spaces for children 

When urban practitioners plan or design public spaces for children their focus is usually on parks and playgrounds. But when children and caregivers are asked about what places are important to them, they stress the importance of close-to-home safe spaces where children can play and socialise. 

Particularly in low-income communities where caregivers are overburdened with chores and have limited indoor space, safe play places close to home are highly regarded. Additionally, in dense neighbourhoods where space is scarce, public spaces like roads and stairways can be repurposed to support children’s needs for play and foster a vibrant community life.

1. Proximate play for young children in Hanoi, Vietnam

In Hanoi, Vietnam during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the closure of schools, parks, workplaces and mobility restrictions placed a heavy burden on low-income families. The combined strain of cramped living, increasing care demands, and lack of access to public facilities was especially felt by families with young children living in small and crowded homes. 

Recognising the vital need for children to play outdoors and to support caregiver’s needs UN-Habitat and Block by Block Foundation partnered with HealthBridge and local partners to create five pop-up play places in five low-income wards. These play spaces were staffed with trained volunteer playworkers from the neighbourhood who facilitated children-led play experiences.  


Pop-up play session in progress at one of the intervention sites © HealthBridge Vietnam

The pop-up play spaces provided children and caregivers opportunities for inclusive play, meeting with neighbours, sharing stories and experiences, and being outdoors.

2. Playful public stairways in Lebanon, Beirut

The 2020 Beirut port explosion damaged several buildings and public spaces in the nearby neighbourhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh. As part of rebuilding and placemaking efforts in these neighbourhoods, UN-Habitat partnered with Catalytic Action to rehabilitate and activate damaged public stairways, as a part of the Her City initiative. Minecraft workshops and participatory planning and building activities were used to transform grey run-down and damaged stairways into vibrant, green and playful community spaces for children and other groups.

Children playing on the rehabilitated Vendome public stairs in Beirut, Lebanon © Catalytic Action

A slide, greenery, colourful paving, murals, playful railings, seating and shade were added to bring community life to the stairways and support children’s neighbourhood play. Further, place activation efforts like puppet shows, street parades, planting greenery and mural painting were used to engage local residents to increase the community’s sense of belonging to the space and create opportunities for community building.

GPSP: outcomes and impacts

Between 2012 and 2022, the programme completed 144 public space upgrading projects in 100 cities, engaging over 30,000 people including children and youth through Minecraft workshops, trainings, and events and benefiting directly 15 million people. Over 40 projects have a child, youth or gender lens. Many more are in the works. This interactive dashboard provides information on projects, interventions, partnerships and funding mechanisms by location.

Infographic on UN-Habitat’s Global Public Space Programme showing project locations, types of interventions, outcomes and impacts. Source: 10 years of Global Public Space Programme – Annual Report 2022 and reflections on a Decade of Public Space

The Global Public Space Network, comprising partners from local and national governments, civil society, academia, private sector and development organisations, was established to build and nurture a global community of practice. The network is open to multi-stakeholder actors active in public space planning, design and development, by signing a letter of intent with the Global Public Space Programme. Since 2016, the network encourages sharing of good practices, builds peer-to-peer support, and disseminates knowledge and information relevant to public space and placemaking.

Five GPSP resources to support public space making in your neighbourhood and city

  1. The Global Public Space Toolkit provides an overview of the importance of public space and guidance for developing city-level public space policies and strategies with real-world examples linking policies to practice.
  2. City-wide public space assessment toolkit: A guide to community-led digital inventory and assessment of public spaces: The city-wide public space assessment is a tool that supports local governments gather accurate data on the state of public spaces, identify areas to be secured for the creation of new public spaces, and develop future plans and strategies. It can be contextualized to fit different contexts and cities.
  3. Public Space Site-Specific Assessment: Guidelines to Achieve Quality Public Spaces at Neighbourhood Level: The Site-specific Assessment consists of a series of activities and tools to understand the quality of public spaces and influence, through a participatory process, the design of the site.
  4. The Block by Block Playbook: Using Minecraft as a participatory design tool in urban design and governance: The purpose of this playbook is to outline UN-Habitat’s approach to using Minecraft as an enabler to encourage community participation in urban design and governance
  5. Her City – A Guide for Cities to Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Planning and Design together with Girls and Her City platform support urban development from a girl’s perspective. They guide urban actors to implement projects through a step-by-step methodology to scale up and mainstream girls’ participation in urban planning and design to build inclusive and sustainable cities and societies


About the Author

This blog was written by the Urban Hub Team at Save the Children International and is based on an interview with Jose Chong from UN-Habitat. Special thanks to Huda Shaka, a member of ISOCARP for reviewing the blog.


The Public Spaces for Children series showcases ideas for action, innovation, programmes, policies and practices that make public spaces child-friendly. Read more of our blogs here.

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