Urban public space is the physical space and social relations that determine the use of space within the non-private realms of cities. It is the setting for panoply of human activity and a fundamental determinant of the character of towns. Urban public space is a key element in the livelihoods of the urban poor, but its importance in development policies for cities is largely ignored (Brown, 2006). In Nigeria today, urban public spaces, such as open spaces, nature reserves and right of ways, have become assets for livelihoods.
Thus, urban public space is perceived as a physical asset which is used to sustain the livelihoods of the urban poor. Street Trading is a visible and controversial component of the urban economy and traders operate their businesses in areas that can be classified as public spaces and are originally unintended for trading purposes. Street traders do not locate haphazardly in the places from which they ply their trades and certain areas offer greater locational advantage than others (Harrison and McVey, 1997; Yankson, 2000).
With the advent of modern retailing fixed retail operations, departmental stores and malls many expected that street trading would go away, yet today, in most countries of the world, it persists even where local regulations seek to ban or restrict it (ILO, 2002). The street economy forms a component of many low-income cities and depends on the innovative use of space to survive and flourish.
In recent times, street trading has presented new challenges for urban administrations charged with the management of space in the country. In reality, there is no shortage of urban public space for trading, but the most profitable locations to trade are at the busiest locations where competition for space is acute (Brown, 2006).
Most urban space has been preoccupied with the problem of street trading for many years
Street Traders operate on pedestrian walkways and on streets, thus impeding both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and causing congestion, especially in the city Centre. Only a few traders are lucky to secure stalls in the markets and some of those, who have market stalls, have either partly or fully moved their activities onto pavements and streets, especially in the central business district. However, the majority can neither secure stalls nor have the financial means to do so.
Street Traders move from one site to another in the city as and when they are chased away by the city authorities (Yankson, 2007). The major problems associated with street trading, in general, include congestion as a result of the ever-increasing number of street traders operating on sidewalks and on the streets.
Consequently, there is an intense struggle for space between the traders and the pedestrians on the pavements and most of the pedestrians are, therefore, forced onto the streets, resulting in a conflict of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Another major problem is poor environmental sanitation, largely arising from littering of the streets and sidewalks and dumping of garbage in open drains (Yankson, 2007).
Also, the makeshift structures of the street traders mar the urban environment and degrade the aesthetic quality of urban settlements and this has been worsened by the fact that the Metropolitan authorities have not been able to provide secured sites within the city where trading could be controlled. The problem is that, over the years, various attempts have been made by Planning Authorities to address the problems associated with street trading without much success.
Both persuasive and brute force measures were applied in the past without achieving the desired impact and, in spite of continuous harassment and decongestion exercises, street traders returned to the streets after a short time. Urban authorities, such as the Town planners, have tried unsuccessfully to keep the traders off the streets. Directives have been issued to traders to relocate to the various markets in most Nigerian states, but this has not been adhered to.
There is significant literature on urban public space of cities to examine to know how these can be better designed to enhance urban vitality. Brown (2006) explores the concept of urban public space and its importance to the poor. She concludes that, although urban public space is a common property resource, it is not static, but a shifting resource whose boundaries may change quickly over time as a result of social negotiation.
Another issue is that government intervention towards the informal sector is particularly related to its business operation (Suharto, 2004). Street traders operate their businesses in areas that can be classified as public spaces and are originally unintended for trading purposes. As most street traders occupy busy streets, pavements or other public spaces, these activities are often considered to be illegal. This status makes traders victims of harassment and threats from police and other government authorities.
Harvey (1973) argued that, to understand cities, it is important to understand how human practices create distinctive conceptualizations of space, and that only by exploring the concept of social justice and its relationship to urban spatial systems, the role of land as a commodity and the spatial implications of economic production, can people achieve an urbanization that is not built on the exploitation of the poor.
He states that, in the city context, the question is not, “what is space?”, but rather “how is it that different human practices create and make use of distinctive conceptualization of space?”
It is also apparent from the literature that studies have been carried out which have expounded on the rights to the use of public space. For example, according to Mitchell (2003), unlike other spaces of the city, which are increasingly being created for people rather than by people, public spaces are important in that they are sites for the articulation and demand of rights and citizenship.
Lynch (1981) states that, even though much of the literature assumes that urban public space is a common property resource to which everyone has equal and free rights of access, in many instances, this is not the case, because it has competing uses.
Urban researchers like Roy (2005) have specifically focused on the way street vendors in New York, although a public nuisance in the eyes of city authorities, in fact, produce safe public spaces and enhance the quality of life in the neighbourhoods in which they work. In Indian cities, such as Mumbai, there is ample evidence too that street traders’ vigilance over public spaces enhances the safety of all city residents (Anjaria, 2006).
A case study of public space planning in a peripheral neighbourhood of Barcelona (Garcia-Ramon, et al., 2004) demonstrates that the public nature of such spaces holds city planners and urban authorities accountable because they have to answer to the community since the citizens are able to exert a voice in the design and planning process.