Vibrant, Welcoming Public Spaces

Posted on August 2, 2018


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This is the next installment in AJ Fawver’s Planning & Shaping Cities blog series.


If you’ve been part of a city or county budget discussion, or tried to undertake a project related to green space, then you’re familiar with the common rhetoric that parks and public spaces aren’t top priorities. After all, it isn’t public safety. It isn’t water. Perhaps that’s true, but that doesn’t make these spaces inconsequential.

It’s also a common assumption that, when we talk about public spaces, we are talking about parks. It’s not just a conversation about the financial capability to maintain them. It’s not just a conversation about requiring dedication of them via the development process.  

It’s a recognition that public space also includes squares, beachfronts, sidewalks, plazas, trails, parklets, street-lined streets, rain gardens, and spaces between buildings. There are many opportunities to benefit citizens, at scales large and small.

Recognize that there are many types of parks – a commitment to acres of grass or sports fields isn’t the only way to make an impact. The recent surge in popularity of tactical urbanism demonstrates how much impact the activation of boring, unused space can be.

Now, a word of caution. Requiring strips of grass between buildings, or massive front setbacks that lead to spacious manicured front lawns is not the same thing.  

It is laziness masquerading as beautification, and serves no real purpose. Strategy must be part of choreographing the layout and placement of public spaces within the rural or urban fabric surrounding them.  

To have that strategy, comprehensive planning needs to incorporate a community-wide greenspace plan, a transportation network (not wholly dependent on the automobile), and communication. Communication with citizens of all ages, communication amongst governmental departments (like planning, community development, parks), communication with local groups, and communication with the development community.  

This approach can provide invaluable benefits to citizens and visitors alike, though at times those benefits may be overlooked or undersold. It is imperative that key staff members provide information and messaging to elected and appointed officials that articulates why. Also, they must look for creative solutions where possible, and help these officials see the possibilities.

Even in the early 1920’s, awareness of the lack of recreational areas for children prompted discussion.  Below is an example of a 1922 cartoon entitled, “’Their’ Playground”, summarized this sentiment.Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration via https://dp.la/exhibitions/urban-parks/types-parks/neighborhood-parks.

The irony is, 96 years later, children still face this issue in towns and cities across the nation.  As development prioritizes space for vehicular traffic over space for walkers, cyclists, children, and families, unintended consequences emerge. The current public health crisis is an example. A lack of connectivity and the dangers attached to a simple walk or bike to a destination contributes to the health issues plaguing our nation.  

The level of detachment from a neighborhood can come from the lack of opportunities to rest, eat, or linger in public spaces. A variety of studies have shown a link between the strength of a community, the level of involvement of its residents, and placemaking efforts.

The transformation of unused and forgotten space into vibrant, welcoming space can impact neighborhoods, safety, property values, community character, and help small businesses in close proximity. It can be a unifier. Let’s also not forget about the important contributions neighborhood gardens can make in this context.

We could talk about the benefits all day, but here’s what I want to emphasize.

First – we have to rethink our city ordinances. Communities aren’t primarily about uniformity. The one size fits all approach doesn’t always produce the unique, eccentric, culturally significant places that visitors remember and residents love to showcase. That doesn’t mean throwing all rules out the window. It means taking a fresh look. Really talking to people who live in each area, and listening to what they have to say is crucial. Understanding the history and culture of each area, and incorporating that into the public spaces nearby creates interest and authenticity.  

Second – equity is of the utmost importance. Be wary of tools that exacerbate inequity by creating grand, elegant parks and gazebos in affluent areas and ignore everything else. Be mindful and aware of the distribution of these areas, and remind decision makers that all residents of a community benefit from parks and other public spaces. In fact, one could argue that they can be even more necessary in neighborhoods of transition or where fewer amenities exist. Public spaces of high activity can help address safety and social inclusion in neighborhoods.

Third, a fresh take is needed. Creativity in funding, forming private-public partnerships, working more closely with residents and businesses, idea sharing, reimagining overlooked corridors and corners, celebrating the successes – the current approach needs some refinement.  It is up to us to lead that refinement effort.

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