What do public spaces and places have to do with equity?
I was honored to be a part of a working group as a part of the American Planning Association to develop a policy guide on Planning for Equity. As part of the group planners and practitioners from across the country, I was asked to author the section on public spaces and places and the role they play in improving equity in our cites.
Public spaces and places in our cities function as the connective tissue that binds people together and anchors neighborhoods. Public spaces are typically made up of parks, plazas, sidewalks, trails, streets, bike paths, public buildings, and parking areas. They vary in size, scale, and function, ranging from large urban parks, public plazas, and citywide bicycle networks to small libraries and recreation centers to building courtyards, intimate pocket parks, and hidden alleys. The sidewalks along our streets create the connective network of the public realm and they too can include public space for retail vending, pocket parks, and small gathering spaces. How public space is designed, managed, and operated has the power to improve the lives and experiences of residents, employees, and visitors to downtown.
Inclusive, safe, and accessible public space can help tackle inequities that exist within our cites. Public spaces are a shared resource and are sometimes the only option for shared social gatherings. When they are intentionally designed to be welcoming to everyone, public spaces can offer opportunities for social, cultural, and economic development. Public space is shared spaces for people to gather with friends and family, places for personal and political expression, opportunities for rest and relaxation, and centers of community. Functioning public space can create opportunities to forge social connections and strengthen community bonds. When equitable access is provided to all members of a community irrespective of physical abilities, age, gender, race, ethnicity, income level, or social status, public space promotes inclusion and improves equity. Equitable public space sets the stage for different socioeconomic groups to mix and interact and can enhance tolerance and diversity cognition.
Through increased interaction among varying socioeconomic classes, public space can increase upward mobility. Open and shared public spaces, and the face-to-face interactions they engender, are the tools for increasing cross-cultural communication. Time spent face-to-face with people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds engenders more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction. Research has shown the connection of proximity among socioeconomic classes and upward mobility. Functioning public space creates the shared space for interaction among different groups that can lead to innovation and connections improving opportunities of marginalized groups.
Public space can also increase civic identity and engagement through greater connections and social bonds created from the interaction stimulated by the space. Well-designed public spaces have been shown to increase safety and lower rates of crime and violence, creating space for formal and informal social, cultural, and economic activities that contribute to improving mutual trust and safety.
Through connection to space, a greater connection to community is gained along with more robust social networks, associations, and community relationships. These relationships increase social capital and social cohesion. Robert Putnam, a political scientist, described social capital as “social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness.” Higher social capital is associated with positive outcomes in many areas, such as health, education, employment, child welfare, and compliance with the law.
Functioning public spaces must be convivial in nature and be places where one can be social and festive. Such spaces form the foundation of public life and are the essence of urbanity. Public spaces are the glue of our communities, without them, we are likely to drift further apart from each other.
However, it takes intentional design of public spaces to achieve these outcomes. Not all public space functions as true shared space due to inequities in the planning and development process. Public spaces often exclude certain demographic groups either explicitly or implicitly through their design, lack of public input, and historical or current discrimination in operational practices. The following is a list of design and programming features and/or attributes that can discourage use of public spaces and act as real or perceived barriers to inclusive and thriving public spaces:
- Lack of places to sit or gather
- Lack of flexibility and customization
- Overly rigid with limited opportunities of interaction
- Discourage opportunities for local art, events, greenspace
- Poor safety and comfort
- Poorly designed edges
- Lack of access for people of all ages and physical abilities
- Hostile features such as fences or signs that detract from a convivial atmosphere
- Overly policed with overwhelming presence of police, security, curfews, cameras, or other restrictions
- Failure to reflect local cultures and values
The above failures in public space design tend to create sterile and hostile environments that send the message, “Don’t stay here! You’re not welcome.” Public spaces that are not intentionally welcoming do not function as shared spaces and they limit social interaction, exacerbate cultural divides, and contribute to lack of community engagement.
Poor design and programming impacts the vitality and well-being of our communities and ultimately harms the economic and social well-being of the entire community. Effective strategies are needed in the planning, development, and maintenance of public spaces to ensure that they can function as shared space and contribute to the social and economic well-being of our communities. High-quality and functioning public spaces have the ability to improve equity in our communities and provide spaces that are indiscriminate of the socioeconomic standing of their users.
The key to creating quality inclusive public spaces and places is through a people-first design and the co-creation and stewardship of the public space. I was honored to author the following strategy and policy recommendations assist in creating inclusive public spaces that The American Planning Association, its Chapters, Divisions, Interest Groups, and Student Organizations officially supported through the adoption of the Planning for Equity Policy Guide.
- Broaden the Conversation
- Measure Impacts
- Utilize Pop-Up Designs and Activations
- Prioritize a Welcoming, High-Quality Environment
- Promote Inclusive Activation and Programming
- Encourage Creation of New Public Space
- Ensure Authentic Spaces Connected to Community
You can find details on each of these policy recommendations in the linked policy guide where we expound on them each in turn. I use them to guide my daily work at the Partnership as we plan for and design spaces downtown. Recently, we followed through on the steps as we created a new pop-up park at 16th and Welton called The Outer Space. This also guides our work for the Skyline Park Redesign and the 16th Street Mall reconstruction.