Co-designing publics: [re]producing the public realm via informal urbanisms in cities of the global south


The viewpoint introduces the concept of “co-designing publics” by examining what lies at the potent intersection of the public realm and informal urbanisms, within the specific contexts of the cities of the global south. I define the public realm as interconnected spatial networks of public spaces intertwined with political structures that weave a city together, while informal urbanisms are the transactional conditions of ambiguity that exist between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in cities. At their intersection are publics, who never simply exist because they are always created on an ongoing basis. In fact, publics are co-designed [i.e. co-created in inventive and multifarious ways] around common concerns or desire through volitional inquiry and action. I contextualise these discussions by paying particular attention to the cities of the global south, because place matters in shaping urban thinking and practice. There is an increasing interest in thinking and practicing from cities of the global south rather than just about them. The viewpoint then describes how these ideas were further investigated through grounded examples in different cities and articulated through interactive and collaborative events in the Co-Designing Publics international research network, funded through a grant awarded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. I then conclude with some thoughts on the implications of this work for urban theory and practice, which are applicable to cities in the global south as well as in the global north.


The twenty-first century is truly the urban century by any measure. There exist different ways of understanding and measuring what is the “urban”,1 but what they all share in common is the growing and increasingly critical significance of cities in our world. Given the multiple crises that cities currently face, such as the climate emergency, urban inequality, inadequate infrastructure, and the Covid-19 global pandemic, this viewpoint focuses on developing innovative ways in which ongoing processes of co-designing publics and producing the public realm can more effectively help address such crises (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Composite of Tahrir Square, Cairo before and during the Arab Spring. Composite by Aseem Inam from multiple sources.

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Three notes of clarification before I continue.

First, I deploy the term “urbanism” rather than “urban design” for several reasons. Conventional urban design has a long history of having an overly narrow and constrained definition as essentially architecture at a larger scale, with its attendant obsessions with aesthetics and three-dimensional objects while overlooking the larger political-economic structures and dynamics that actually shape cities. Urbanism from a design perspective connotes not only a significant shift in terminology but one in attitude towards a far more critical, transdisciplinary and engaged approach to the design of cities. Furthermore, a potent question to ask ourselves is not so much “What is urban design?” but “What can urbanism be?” because the second question leads to answers that are future-oriented, plural, and based on a much wider range of critical and creative possibilities.

Second, I utilise what I call “categories of convenience”. While some of them may appear to be false dichotomies, these categories also enable us to specify particular types of phenomena, to investigate them in their contexts, and to better understand their relationalities (see Figure 2), all the while acknowledging that such categories contain overlaps and fuzzy boundaries. Examples of such categories of convenience that are relevant here are the global south versus the global north, the public realm versus the private realm, and spatial versus non-spatial aspects of cities.

Figure 2. Dhobi Ghat, Mahalakshmi, Mumbai. Source: Aseem Inam.

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Third, I share images throughout this viewpoint that are suggestive about possible implications for urban practices from this theoretical discussion rather than making a one-to-one literal shift from theory to practice. The images are intended to be visual backgrounds that invoke the power of theory to reflect, to understand, and to suggest pathways towards transformative practice.

Public realm

Cities are amongst humanity’s greatest creations, and the public realm is arguably their most significant aspect. The public realm is what makes a city so rich, so complex, and so full of potential (see Figure 3). The starting point for examining the public realm is the fact that the city belongs to everyone, regardless of race, class, or gender. Rather, the city should belong to everyone. In reality, uneven access to resources and to power means that some are more privileged and influential than others, especially in terms of exercising their rights or actively participating in democracy (Holston 2008). As much as the current public realm largely reflects and embodies such imbalances of power, it is also the potent site of resistances, contestations and alternatives to the mainstream status quo. Such alternatives help to illuminate the full potential of the public realm and of a city that can be truly democratic, in every sense of the term.

Figure 3. Union Square, Manhattan, New York City. Source Aseem Inam.

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There is an argument to be made about a differing private realm versus a public realm. One way of thinking about the private realm is that it is largely the realm of the individual and that the essence of the private is the absence of others (Arendt 1998). On the other hand, the public realm is largely the realm of the encounter with the other and of the collective. Spatially, being inside one’s home is not the same experience as being on the street. Even online, one tends to have more of a public persona on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. While they are different, the private and public realms do intersect and interact.

What makes the public realm particularly potent is that it is the realm of the “other”, par excellence. The public realm consists of spatial networks constituted by places of encounter and interactions of bodies, cultures and ideas. Thus, the most significant aspect of the public realm is the fact that it is public. There are two aspects of the different understandings of the “public” that are most relevant here. One is that it is “of or relating to the people as a whole; that belongs to, affects, or concerns the community or the nation”, and the other is that it is “open to general observation, view, or knowledge; existing, performed, or carried out without concealment, so that all may see or hear” (Oxford English Dictionary 2020). From this perspective, the public realm is arguably the most significant aspect of the city because it speaks to the notion of the city as sets of overlapping and intersecting communities.

There are several schools of thought regarding the public realm (Watson 2019). One is the way in which Hannah Arendt thinks about the public realm as the space of politics, where people go to debate and exchange ideas as equals; they do not bring along their differences of class, gender, and race into public life. This is the Athenian agora or the city piazza. A second is represented by Jurgen Habermas, who proposes a similarly idealistic notion of the public realm as a space of rational debate and communication, though in his case this did not exclude private identities or distinctions of class. For him, the coffee houses and cafes of the late nineteenth century represented significant public spaces in the city. A third school of thought is most recently embodied by Richard Sennett, who describes the ways in which people express themselves in public, for instance through their clothes, customs, and rituals of eating, drinking, and greeting one another. The idea here is that differences can be overcome in public discussion through a style of public address and bodily behaviour that cuts across or disrupts social and cultural divisions.

From my perspective, the vast potential of the public realm lies in its capacity to act as a catalyst for interactively and collaboratively generating hope by deepening understanding, for building solidarity, for creating dreams, and for pursuing transformative actions. While the public realm is spatially grounded at multiple scales in specific geographic contexts, it is also constantly evolving because the urbanism of a city is constantly in flux (Inam 2014). My own investigation into the public realm begins with its spatial manifestations, but by no means do I end it there because the public realm reaches structurally into the dynamics of the spatial political-economy of the city and reaches temporally into its production and reproduction over time. Direct engagement with these aspects is what I mean by the spatial production of the public realm. Thus, space as a starting point, matters a great deal. For example, public life in streets and other public spaces is an inexorable part of a vibrant city culture. In addition, rather than being overdetermined in their specifications, the buildings, open spaces and infrastructures of urbanism should allow for flexibility and change.

Public spaces such as squares, streets and parks tend to be defined and bounded spatially and otherwise. The public realm speaks more to interconnected spatial networks that contain such public spaces and the flows that they enable (see Figure 4). The best example of this is the sidewalk [also known as the footpath or pavement], which truly embodies the everyday public realm because in most cities it is the most frequented public space by the largest variety of people. Even the most privileged have to make the journey from their limousine to the front door of their luxury apartment building when their chauffeur drops them off, thereby traversing the sidewalk in the process. The public realm also integrates less obvious and more informal public spaces such as farmer’s markets and skateboard parks into a city’s network of publicness.

Figure 4. Occupying Central São Paulo by Claire Bosmans and Kathleen de Beukelaer, 2016.

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I challenge the standard notion of public space as more or less simply a container for human activity, a notion that continues to pervade conventional design thinking. In fact, the exclusion of some groups from democratic processes via their failure to attain recognition in public space underlines the critical importance of materiality (Springer 2011). Although many scholars recognise the democratic character of public space, this idea is also contested, as public space has paradoxically long been a site of exploitation, oppression, and prohibition for women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, the elderly and young, the homeless, and people with disabilities. At the same time, public space remains the most important site where public claims can be made visible and contested. In order to fully understand this critical aspect of public space as part of a larger public realm, we have to view it as part of its spatial political-economy.

Spatial political-economy, in this context, signifies two key aspects directly related to urbanism. One is the set of power structures and dynamics that exert influence on how, why, by whom and for whose benefit the city is produced and reproduced over time. Second, within this set of power structures and dynamics, are the decision-making processes and outcomes – in the public, private, non-profit and informal sectors – that result in urban priorities and human, financial and material resource allocations towards urban interventions [or lack thereof, since often times silence on particular issues can be just as loud as interventions in other issues].

An understanding of the spatial political-economy comes out of a deep theoretical and empirical engagement with the urban process as a whole. Thus, the concept of the spatial political-economy acknowledges that the production and reproduction of space do not simply represent aesthetic, technical or policy interventions of conventional design practices; rather that they are profoundly ideological and political acts (Cuthbert 2011). Some of the vast untapped potential of design in the context of urbanism can be unleashed by more fully embracing and engaging with the realities of this spatial political-economy.

Ultimately, one of the most significant design issues for cities is the design of its governance (Frug 2011), which extends equally to the public realm. Who designs the public realm over time, and by access to which types of resources? Who controls its spaces? What is allowed? What is not allowed? Who benefits from it, and why or why not? Here, the question of power, examined through political-economic dynamics, is central to our understanding of the public realm (Dahl 2005). Power is not only embedded deeply and expressed spatially (Low and Smith 2006), but it is exercised on an ongoing basis through control. An especially significant way to examine the uneven distribution and wielding of power has been through the perspective of social justice (Mitchell 2003).

Informal urbanisms

A key aspect of my interest the public realm is an understanding of the role of informal urbanisms. I use the term “informal urbanisms” broadly to describe a wide range of informal strategies and outcomes in the spatial production of the city. Informal urbanisms are not marginalised forms of places and practices; rather, they are central to understanding the logic of urbanism because they constitute debates about what is legal and illegal in the city, what is legitimate and illegitimate, and with what effects (Inam, forthcoming). Specifically, I define informal urbanisms as the transactional conditions of ambiguity that exist between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in cities. In this sense, the informal and the formal are intertwined, with some clear delineations of coded regulations and mechanisms of finance [e.g. municipal budgets and bank loans], legality [e.g. planning regulations and public policies], and administration [e.g. institutionalised routines and procedures] (Inam 2019).

Informal urbanisms are both procedural strategies and tangible outcomes that are deeply intertwined and should be understood as such, rather than as separate and discrete phenomena. In design terms, spatial products such as buildings, open spaces and infrastructures emerge out of particular processes while further reinforcing those processes. In this context, what I mean by design is a direct and regular engagement and interaction with the material city – variously referred to as the built environment, urban landscape, or urban fabric – including and especially with its spatial political-economy, without which design would not be possible. For example, developer-led and profit-driven urbanism, in which land and property are primarily commodities to be bought, sold and invested in, reflects the capitalist system that so dominates the economy and the political structure that enables it both locally and globally.

I propose an investigative approach towards informal urbanisms about what we do know, how we know and what we don’t know. Cities are highly complex and constantly changing, so even if we know a lot, we need to know more by digging deeper and stretching our understanding of informality. In recent decades, three schools of thought have emerged, with informal urbanisms being positioned within a dualist [i.e. marginal economic activities for low-income households distinct from modern capitalism], legalist [i.e. excluded from the modern economy due to adverse bureaucracy], and structuralist framework [i.e. subordinated economic units adversely related to formal enterprises within a capitalist economy] (Banks, Lombard, and Mitlin 2019). In addition, Colin McFarlane’s re-conceptualisation of informality as critique opens up new ways of understanding how informal and formal actions relate to each other, allowing a recognition that informal practices extend beyond the urban poor to encompass the actions of different sectors including middle- and high-income urban residents, the state, and business interests. For example, while informality is often seen to be synonymous with poverty, in many countries of the global south and global north, the state – as represented in state-led urbanism, for example – can itself be an informalised entity, one that is a state of deregulation, ambiguity, and exception (Roy 2009).

One of the significant repercussions of such a theoretical and methodological approach towards informal urbanisms is to recognise that citizens are agents of urbanisation (see Figure 5), and not simply consumers of spaces developed and regulated by others (Caldeira 2017). They build their houses, neighbourhoods and urban districts step-by-step according to the resources they are able to put together at each moment in the process. Each phase involves a great amount of improvisation and bricolage, complex strategies and calculations, and constant imaginations of what a “home”, a “neighbourhood” and a “public realm” might look like (Silver 2014). I put these terms in quotation marks to signify that the meaning of home, neighbourhood and public realm may very well be something radically different from these concepts either theorised in the literature or in the practices of the global north. For example, these spaces are always in the making because they are never quite done, always being altered, expanded, and elaborated upon (Inam 2014).

Figure 5. Mural in the Ocupação São João in São Paulo. Source: Aseem Inam.

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Co-designing publics

The most potent aspect of the public realm lies in its capacity to co-design publics. Publics never simply exist; they are always created (Dewey 2016). Publics are co-created [or co-designed by citizens themselves] out of groups of people who are made and remade by the actions of other people. For example, when there is a common concern or desire [that emerges out a crisis such as urban inequality, lack of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, or the Covid-19 global pandemic], there is a call to action and groups of people are willing to act upon those concerns or desires, a public is created. A public is summoned into being (see Figure 6). My work builds on this phenomenon to better understand how informal urbanisms in the public realm can become catalysts for co-designing publics.

Figure 6. Puerta del Sol, Madrid. Source: Pedro Armestre.

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Co-designing publics is part of an ongoing process of designing and redesigning democracy with the city as its site and context (Purcell 2017). John Dewey claims that democracy is a continuous project undertaken by people to choose the kind of life they want to live together. Similarly, Henri Lefebvre says that democracy is nothing other than the “struggle for democracy as a perpetual mobilization” by people in order to take up the project of managing their affairs for themselves. In this manner, democracy is part and parcel of the everyday public realm of the city, which is a fantastically empowering aspect of a re-designed public realm and its ongoing contribution to the city. Thus, an empowering understanding of what democracy is, what it can actually be and what it means for the future of the city is as perpetually inchoate; that is, as a necessarily ongoing project that we carry out together into an uncertain future. That means democracy can be very demanding. Not only does it require that we perpetually resist the temptation to surrender our power to the state or to the market, but it also requires that we never stop improving our collective capacity to manage our affairs for ourselves.

As much as the design focus in urbanism tends to be on the creation of spatial products such as buildings, open spaces and infrastructures, equally – or perhaps even more – formidable is design as a process of creative brainstorming and crafting radical imaginaries in the context of issue-based publics. Issues are rarely given, and if they are given, tend to be so in the broadest of terms, still requiring further inquiry to make them apparent and known. Discovery occurs through the process of inquiry, which can be characterised by directed research, analysis, reflection, and synthesis, which produces a whole that is able to be made apparent and known. Design also aids discovery through engagement with everyday materiality of the city as a datum as well as the ways in which the action-oriented sensibilities of design reveal much through critical reflection on the issue, the site of action and its larger context. Even before that, critical design issues and problems are to be discovered rather than be given by a client.

The nuts and bolts of co-designing publics are far from smooth. Processes of co-designing publics draw citizens into vital urban realms [including spaces] where they encounter each other and engage in collective and meaningful negotiations about what kind of city they desire. These encounters build a shared sense of common purpose and solidarity among citizens. But the encounters also make citizens aware of the substantive differences among them, and they are forced to confront and manage these differences together. There are various of ways dealing with such differences. Anarchists are much more willing to see things work themselves out in the process of unfolding through our collective efforts, subject to ongoing revision and revitalisation, rather than following a set course towards some imagined end goal (Springer 2017). Pragmatists advocate open-ended collaboration where what matters the most are ongoing conversations in which participants figure things out as they go along, a process that can yield new ways of thinking and new ways of doing (Dryzek 2004). Such a radically democratic approach can be excruciating but ultimately liberating, and shares similarities with the iterative and reflective processes of design.

Such an intensive and collaborative open-endedness is the ultimate promise of co-designing publics through informal urbanisms in the public realm. Informal urbanisms generate new modes of politics through practices that produce new kinds of citizens, claims, and contestations (Caldeira 2017). These politics tend to be rooted in the spatial production of the public realm, especially in collective residential spaces and its attendant neighbourhood spaces. In many cities, social movements and grassroots organisations have created new discourses of rights and put forward demands that are at the basis of the rise of new citizenships, the formulation of new constitutions, the experimentation with new forms of local administration, and the invention of new approaches to social policy, planning, law, and citizen participation. Thus, informal urbanisms are both processes and product, which stems from my very definition of urbanism in the first place, as city-design-and-building processes and their spatial products.2 In fact, it privileges process over product not only because form and space emerge out of specific types of processes in particular contexts to the benefit of some more than others, but also because the city is always in process as buildings, spaces and infrastructures age and are demolished, newly built, repaired, modified, and so forth in a series of never-ending activities.

The ultimate goal of co-designing publics via the public realm is radical democracy. Radical democracy proceeds though an approach which recognises that latent energy is found in all cities, which is a vitality waiting to be set in motion though struggle and the contested politics of the street. Radical democracy is the very process of exertion, where a path towards social justice might be opened in place of utopia, as this is a passage without destination, a permanent means without end. Finally, radical democracy is about emancipation. Emancipation can be understood as an awakening, a [re]discovery of power that is deeply rooted in processes of mobilisation and transformation which is not a subject-object relationship of emancipators and the emancipated (Springer 2011). Rather, since the city belongs to everyone, then we are all in this together. Such is the promise of transforming cities by designing for the true poential of the public realm.

Global south

I contextualise this discussion by paying particular attention to the cities of the global south, because place matters in shaping urban thinking and urban practice. There is an increasing interest in thinking and practicing from cities of the global south rather than just about them. Looking from the cities of the global south provokes specific types of inquiry because of the particular nature of their urbanism (Bhan 2019).

The cities of the global south are mostly located geographically in the southern hemisphere in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The cities of the global south also tend to be historically the oldest occupied cities as well as currently the fastest growing cities in the world. These cities are also where one finds empirical conditions of precarity, in which large majorities of the population are politically, economically and ecologically vulnerable (Simone and Pieterse 2017).

Looking from cities of the global south, then, points to certain characteristics of urban practice in those contexts, such as fluidity, uncertainty and speculative action. These prevalent characteristics challenge all the certainties that evidence-based urban policy takes for granted: that systems will work as they should, that people will act predictably, and that the rules of the game are fair and stable.

In this manner, the view from the global south challenges dominant forms of knowledge and practice. This view especially pertinent at this moment because both the Covid-19 global pandemic and its policy responses reveal the precarity of its cities by exacerbating the class inequalities and structural racisms upon which many of them have been built, including through deeply rooted legacies of colonialism. At the same time, the cities of the global south are also filled the type of plural and overlapping collectivities and density of interchanges (see Figure 7) that are at the heart of co-designing publics (Bhan et al. 2020).

Figure 7. Muro da Gentileza, Rio de Janeiro. Source: Elahe Karimnia.

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Concluding thoughts

In the Co-Designing Publics international research network, we have been investigating and exploring these ideas by talking to, listening to, and learning from each other.3 The heart of this network is a series of interactive conversations in a collaborative voyage of discovery where words are tools of understanding and ideas drive modes of urban practice. We are fortunate to have a number of distinguished and passionate scholar-practitioners from universities around the world as the primary members (see Figure 8):

  • Dr. Aseem Inam, Cardiff University, UK – principal investigator
  • Dr. Charlotte Lemanski, University of Cambridge, UK – co-investigator
  • Dr. Melanie Lombard, University of Sheffield, UK – member
  • Dr. Neha Sami, Indian Institute of Human Settlements, India – member
  • Dr. AbdouMaliq Simone, University of Sheffield, UK – member
  • Dr. Simon Springer, University of Newcastle, Australia – member
  • Dr. Fernando Lara, University of Texas, USA – member
  • Mr. Juan Usubillaga, Cardiff University, UK – network administrator Figure 8. One can find more detailed profiles of the scholar-practitioners on our website: Source: full size

We are also extremely fortunate to have a number of extremely dedicated and highly accomplished activist-practitioners from 6 different cities in the global south (see Figure 9):

  • Ms. Nalini Shekar and Mr. Akbar A., Hasiru Dala, Bengaluru
  • Ms. Elisa Sutanudjaja, Rujak Center for Urban Studies, Jakarta
  • Ms. Evaniza Rodrigues, União Nacional por Moradia Popular, Sao Paulo
  • Ms. Sopheap Chak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Phnom Penh
  • Ms. Lorna Fuller and Mr. Gabriel Klaasen, Project 90 by 2030, Cape Town, working with Dr. Jiska de Groot, University of Cape Town
  • Mr. Alexander Lopez, Asociación Mejorando Vidas, Cali, working with Dr. Carlos Tobar, Universidad Javeriana Cali Figure 9. Our website also has links to our local partners in the six cities. Source: [scroll to the bottom of website].Display full size

The primary objective of this “Co-Designing Publics” network has been to bring together the unique of mix of scholars, activists and practitioners to discuss and debate discourses from scholarly research, case studies of grassroots activism, and design ideas for future action. The contextual grounding of these discourses in cities of the global south enables the network to focus on learning how socially innovative practices such as informal strategies and designing new publics operate around urban issues such as affordable housing and homelessness, non-violence and peace, sustainable and equitable energy systems, right to the city and cooperative models of property ownership, and the role of women in the informal economy. These stimulating conversations, which are a mix of workshops, podcasts and final symposium, are the core activities for building this research network (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. These screen captures are a visual record of our online activities, which were originally designed to be in-person but had to shift to Zoom due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. These activities included audiovisual presentations, online discussions and interactive exercises using Miro, an online whiteboard and visual collaboration platform.

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We investigated different interpretations and practice implications of co-designing. Several themes emerged out of our discussions, with each one being illustrated by our activist-practitioner partners in the different cities, as follows:4

  • Co-design as engagement with the city: Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia works with the urban poor and municipal government in the context of evictions and of climate change impacts. Through their experiences, one witnesses the fact that engagement with the city is not always about planning, that it requires unlearning and relearning, and that it is not just between residents and the state because there are other non-human stakeholders such as the materiality of the city and the omnipresence of nature.
  • Co-design as long-term process: Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru, India works with waste-pickers to challenge the stigma of waste-picking as dirty work carried out by uneducated citizens and renames them as semi-skilled entrepreneurs who provide a vital urban service. In their work, which is political, spatial and temporal all at once, building relationships and nurturing trust is a collective process over time.
  • Co-design as contestation of power: União Nacional por Moradia Popular in São Paulo, Brazil works with grassroots organisations to challenge systemic inequities by putting popular pressure on public authorities and enabling people to creative their own alternatives. They focus on communicating with society to highlight what is needed and training for capacity-building for engaging with complex issues in a diverse society and supporting groups to address issues that are crucial to them.
  • Co-design as resistance: Cambodia Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, Cambodia challenges the ordered stability of economic neoliberalism accorded by the state by embracing the public realm as a space for resistance that may challenge such so-called stability. They work with citizens to assert and express their human rights in a variety of arenas, such as resistance to the state’s crackdown on civic and digital spaces of resistance and to coastal development that is harmful to the environment.
  • Co-design as participation: Project 90 by 2030 in Cape Town, South Africa is a social and environmental justice non-governmental organisation that works through activist partnerships and youth mobilisation to infiltrate government decision-making. In the context of extreme inequality in which mediated participation is a constitutional right, they challenge the tokenistic and often exclusionary nature of such participation by collaborating directly with those who are the most affected.
  • Co-design against/with traditional structures of power: Asociación Mejorando Vidas in Cali, Colombia engages with the public realm by viewing public and informal spaces as spaces for mobilisation, especially in the context of urban issues amplified by national challenges, including the history of armed conflict, youth unemployment and the Covid-19 pandemic. They won the fight to occupy spaces such as the Barrio Charco Azul in Aguablanca and work formally with the state in order to access social institutions, good and services, and decision-making processes.

I now conclude with some final reflections on the ideas we have investigated thus far in this network. The real goal of producing and reproducing the public realm is to enable the ongoing co-design of publics, such that we move rapidly towards a far more just, equitable and radically democratic city for all, especially for those who are marginalised. Co-design – with its direct engagement in the spatial and non-spatial aspects of urbanism and its inherent creative thinking and interdisciplinary approaches – is ideal for discovering and articulating radical imaginaries for the public realm. Furthrermore, scholars from different perspectives agree that hope lies in the ongoing processes and informal aspects of the public realm. Hope for designing the truly equitable future of our cities might very well reside in this messy, multi-faceted and ultimately, political, nature of the spatial production and reproduction of cities, rather than within the limited conventions ofprofessionalised urbanisms (Hubbard 2019).

From such a perspective, we can see glimpses of a powerful new urban society in the midst of precarity. While they may seem fleeting and fragmented, they are still urban practices of social autogestion and spatial appropriation undertaken by real inhabitants. We can closely examine these practices in their specific contexts, compare them across contexts, exchange experiences and ideas, and try to extrapolate in order to generate common understandings and new knowledge. We can use this new knowledge as a lens to help us see better and further because such practices can be difficult to acknowledge in the current spatial political-economies of corporatism and neoliberalism. Moreover, we can – together, as co-designed publics – use these understandings and tools to move toward a new horizon of radical democracy. Such examples abound (see Figure 11). We have to learn – collaboratively – to see them, to understand them, to nurture them, and ultimately, we have to be them.

Figure 11. Images representing the work of [starting on the upper left and going around clockwise]: Project 90 by 2030, Hasiru Dala, Asociación Mejorando Vidas, Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Rujak Center for Urban Studies, and União Nacional por Moradia Popular.

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Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information


This work was supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.


1 For example, see:

2 As I explain in Aseem Inam (2014), the hyphens suggests that conventional design practices [i.e. intentions that are embodied in drawings and models] and conventional building practices [i.e. implementations that are embodied in construction and modification] are in fact continuous processes, and that conventional spatial products [e.g. buildings, open spaces, infrastructures] are outcomes of such processes.

3 For more information about the research network and its activities, please visit our website: and follow us on Twitter for recent updates:

4 Thanks to Charlotte Lemanksi for summarising our discussions at the Co-Designing Publics International Symposium on 16–17 September 2021 so succinctly and provocatively.

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