Reclaiming Public Spaces: A Retreat Reflection

Have you ever wanted to read a book in the middle of a park, or maybe get some work done on your laptop in a cafe? These activities reflect community and individualism and as human beings we aspire access to both of these things. Public space can afford us with the opportunity to partake in our personal freedoms but within the company of others. 

Waad and other members of the 1st annual Muslim Women For retreat

Roads, sidewalks, and parks are a few examples of public spaces in which these areas may be accessed by anyone and there are few to no limitations on activity. These spaces are universal, made for everyone, but why is that I never feel comfortable in them alone?

As a woman, public space provides me with a limited experience– one where I am approached or yelled at by passerby’s catcalling or shouting in my direction. To me, public space instills feelings of hyper awareness and discomfort. Unfortunately, my experience is one that is well known to many women– a group that historically use public space the least. 

Retreat cohort discussing various topics in a large circle

Despite my experiences, I am an advocate for public spaces. These spaces have great potential to restore community engagement, build bridges and to enliven neighborhoods. The beauty in public spaces is their universalism and that unique ability to appeal to anyone. As a designer, I believe in reclaiming our public spaces. 

In order to provide a truly universal space, a few key elements must be addressed. Accessibility must be addressed first, meaning entrances, exits and paths that are easy to get to. The introduction of public art provides opportunities for placemaking, which is the ability to identify an area based upon a landmark or a memory. The provision of lighting in which all of those accessing a public space have clear sight lines is important to instill a sense of security. A space that is well kept is inviting and maintenance is also a huge factor in providing quality public spaces. 

“When Public Becomes Private: A Study on the Transition of Public Space” by Waad Husein. The document can be accessed on her site using this link.

Public space doesn’t discriminate. These should be areas where the loudest voices and the unheard can congregate. These should be areas in which those who have access to housing and those who do not have a means to enjoy a public area. These should be areas in which men and women are equally comfortable. 

While I believe the catcall may be a reflection of a larger issue in society, the power of well designed spaces can warrant respectful attitudes. Designing spaces that attract different groups of people is the first step to community bridging. Public space is the catalyst to understanding one another which in turn provides areas where we can all exist. Everyone has a place in public space, it is just a matter of providing ones that people want to be in.

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About the Author: Waad Husien

Design has a huge role to affect positive change within the world and I intend to be a part of this change. My time at the Muslim Women For D.C. Retreat has further inspired me to approach design from a social justice lens.

The concept of universal design is utopic but it is achievable. The retreat taught me that my identity as a woman, a person of color and a first-generation immigrant is instrumental in shaping the narrative of designing a better world. I am an advocate within my field of architecture, to fight for social design, accessible spaces, and healthier communities.

Thank you Muslim Women For for an engaging and unforgettable retreat that continues to inspire me throughout my journey. 

To check out more content on urbanism and public space or to see my other projects, visit http://waadhusein.com/urban-studies

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