Understanding Homelessness’ Role in Urban Development


Undeveloped space at Canterbury Street serves as home for the street community of Cape Town

The street community has raised many questions about homelessness’ causes and possible solutions. Yet the biggest and most important question of all is related to reducing the amount of street individuals by reintegrating them into society. Governments continuously try to implement reintegration programs in which individuals would get the tools necessary to overcome their current situation. For example, “Housing First” is an initiative started by the State of Utah of the United States of America, which consists on giving houses to the homeless. Handling mentally ill substance abusers that fell into homelessness the keys to a new place was contemplated as waste of government capital but showed great success in reintegrating street individuals into society. However, regardless of its outcomes, many street communities have refused to accept their help because they are afraid to be institutionalized into the government’s system.

Among the most recent approaches explored by governments to reduce homelessness’ presence is including street people into their neighbourhood’s everyday dynamics. This is achieved by creating public spaces with wider sidewalks, and urbanizing and creating greener areas to foster social interactions among each community member. Nevertheless, as Jim Nicholls explains, the success of such an approach to integrate the street community depends on three criteria:  inclusivity, resilience and authenticity.  Inclusivity speaks to the involvement and commitment of all stakeholders. Resilience refers to a design that demonstrates best practices that will endure over a long period of time. Finally, authenticity, dependent on a shared history and culture, cannot be fabricated and consequently is the crucial element, argues Nicholls (2004).  Alongside, Lynne Manzo, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Psychologist at the University of Washington, believes that the community affected by the improvement of a public space should be taken into consideration in the design and projection of the project in order to have a better understanding of their needs (Manzo, 2006). Achieving inclusiveness in a public space is a challenge that not only involves the present community but its history and the links that joins each of its members.

Each person has an innate need to belong, regardless of the physical quality of that entity. In her studies of place attachment in different communities, Manzo explains how the interaction between the place and its community and history makes a difference when planning and developing public spaces. Public spaces can have a positive effect on communities since they are meant to be informal-gathering places where visitors exchange experiences and create new ones. In 2006, Manzo confirmed this theory and found how notions of home and community cause difficulties when they are contrasted with one’s everyday experiences, or when ideals about community are challenged. Given that conflicts among various community members are likely to emerge in the planning process, exploring how place attachments influence motivations and behavior is crucial for a smooth communal planning process. It is the involvement and interactions of community members and the flexibility of design to incorporate diverse ideas that moves the development of urban spaces forward.



Manzo, L. (2006). Finding Common Ground: The Importance of Place Attachment to Community Participation and Planning. Journal Of Planning Literature, 20(4), 335-350. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0885412205286160
Project for Public Spaces,Inc. (2012, September 1). Placemaking and the Future of Cities. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
Muller Ph.D., R. (2015). Homelessness as Trauma. Psychology Today. Retrieved 8 September 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201308/homelessness-trauma-0