Role of open spaces in the future of depopulated urban environments
Domingues, Maria Francisca Machado Lima
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The number of citizens living in urban areas worldwide is predicted to increase in future decades. However, this projected increase is mainly due to the magnetic power of so-called megacities. Worldwide, many intermediate cities, especially in the most developed countries, have had considerable population losses in the past decades and this trend is expected to continue. When a city loses a high percentage of its population within a short period of time, the traces of that loss become strongly apparent. Abandonment is followed by dereliction, such that the urban fabric can become randomly punctuated with uninhabited spaces where previously present human constructions have been destroyed, and social instability can ensue. The attraction of the city to newcomers then becomes increasingly compromised, and the cycle of decline is harder to overcome. Some cities have developed strategies to redress the situation, such as restricting urban sprawl, demolitions, urban agriculture, rightsizing infrastructure or permitting biodiversity sanctuaries. However, few academic studies have focused on the ways that residents, and potential newcomers, perceive this situation and react to it. Obtaining a deeper understanding of residents¹ perceptions might allow the development of targeted strategies to promote healthier, more attractive and safer environments for these communities, as well as enhancing their potential for newcomers. The research aim, therefore, is to understand the key factors that determine the attractiveness of these urban abandoned spaces for different stakeholder groups, namely, residents of depopulating, and growing, neighbourhoods, and house searchers. Three different methods were used sequentially to explore this quest: interviews with experts, focus groups and conjoint analysis. Conjoint analysis is one of the most robust methods to explore people¹s preferences, by presenting respondents with possible future change scenarios. The study was undertaken in Lisbon (PT) and Genoa (IT), two southern European cities that have experienced population decline, in some areas, in the last three decades. The results of the interviews and focus groups, for both cities, show that while people are naturally resilient to de-densification scenarios, one key concern, when discussing their neighbourhoods in this context, is related to community support. The results from the conjoint analysis corroborate the importance of having a close community for people living in depopulating environments, namely, in Lisbon. The results also show that good quality green spaces are an attraction factor for house searchers. These differences show how the provision of social support in depopulating urban environments might be a determining factor in the stabilization of these neighbourhoods and also, how the presence of good quality green spaces might enhance its attractiveness to newcomers. Social support, therefore, should be given serious consideration in any political, social, architectural intervention within depopulating contexts. Moreover, the presence of green spaces of better quality might be not only a key factor in attracting new residents, but simultaneously, play a crucial role in enhancing the physical and mental health of particularly vulnerable communities, and enhance social interaction.