Transforming roads into multifunctional urban assets

By Francesco Sarti and Charlotte Halpern, Sciences Po

In addition to fulfilling a functional role in cities, streets, roads and public spaces have a social, cultural and political significance as well. Yet the focus on motorised traffic when designing and managing road space has led to neglecting the critical role of the road network in urban life.

As of today, this one-dimensional approach to designing and managing the urban road network is increasingly challenged by the rapid development of alternatives to motorized traffic and road uses from traffic-enabling infrastructures towards multifunctional urban assets in which recreational and place-making activities should be developed.

In a number of cities around the world, this multidimensional approach to the road network that also considers health, climate change, urban planning or economic development objectives challenges the current distribution of road space. While some actors may promote this shift towards a city-as-place approach, others resist this transformation. Together, these claims contribute to re-politicizing the governance and uses of urban road networks.

By purposefully using the notion of street space contestation, the MORE report “Road space re-allocation. Streets as contested spaces” examines how socio-political claims about the future of roads’ functions and uses contribute to reshaping the politics of space allocation as well as the ability of existing institutional arrangements and policy processes to accommodate such claims.

What are these claims about? How are they mobilized? To what extent are these claims channelled by formal consultation processes and how are they accommodated by urban authorities? What similarities can be found across cities? How are these views represented at EU level? Contestation refers, in a broad sense, to the various repertoire (i.e., lobbying, protest, social media, politicization, etc.) that are used in order to make such claims and demands visible and to influence decision-making about road space re-allocation.

Findings from Malmö, Lisbon, Constanta, Budapest and London suggest that in all five cities, a large number of stakeholders and interests – public authorities, NGOs, private businesses, citizens – strategically engage in street space contestation in order to promote or resist proposed changes.

New forms of participation – round tables, task forces, consultation procedures, etc. – were introduced in order reconcile diverging interests and to balance socioeconomic interests with efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. Moreover, a large array of tactics and strategies are used in order to make claims about street space visible and legitimate, ranging from protest activities, such as demonstrations, flash mobs and sit-ins, to more institutionalized venues, such as working groups and consultation procedures.

Regarding the former venue, the youth-movement ‘Fridays for Future’ has contributed to shape the debate on sustainable mobility in Budapest and Malmö. As an example of the latter, instead, ‘memoranda of understanding’ were employed in Lisbon to regulate the cooperation between micro-mobility operators and the local administration.

Street space contesters all tend to rely on social networks and media campaigns, but this is never achieved to the detriment of other repertoires, especially in those cities were planning and policy processes allow for continued participation from organized civil society groups.

Nevertheless, street space contestations are able to shape local political agendas to a certain extent only. The ability to effectively promote a multifunctional approach to the urban road network at city level is characterized by a series of back and forth, and a combination between strategic planning and micro-managing change on the ground. In this regard, street space contestation represents a major opportunity for urban authorities to strengthen governance capacities and seek for regulatory change at national level.


The content of this article draws on the following deliverable: Halpern Charlotte, McArthur Jenny, eds., Roadspace reallocation. Streetspace as contestation. Deliverable 2.3 with annexes, MORE project, 2020. Read the full report here.

Contact: Dr. Charlotte Halpern : 

Credits: Ultramansk – Shutterstock.