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10 Best Practices for Public Space Projects

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Improving streets as public spaces, creating squares and parks as multi-use destinations and building local economies through markets top the list of 10 recommendations in a study titled “Placemaking and the Future of Cities” by Project for Public Spaces, Inc. The study’s aim is to harness the power of public space for the common good. The report points out that by recognizing and developing the positive potential of their public spaces, cities can enhance safety and security, create economic opportunities, improve public health, create diverse public environments, and build democracy. The list of 10 best practices for public space projects includes the following:

1. Improve Streets as Public Spaces

Streets play a vital role in all cities. The concept of improving streets as public spaces is based on a simple concept: if you design streets for automobiles and traffic, you will get automobiles and traffic. If on the other hand, you design streets with people and places in mind, you will get people and places that promote pedestrian, bicycle, and other non-automotive uses. It is possible to find a balance, where cars are also included but do not dominate. With the right balance, streets can accommodate vehicles but still be places worth visiting. This should be the goal of all street design.

2. Create Squares and Parks as Multi-Use Destinations

Public spaces provide an opportunity for residents to gather and interact with others in the community. Parks are a good example as are public squares in more urban environments. However, public spaces do not need to be limited to parks and squares. Outdoor markets and performance spaces can provide other focal points for youth and families to gather and interact socially. Multi-use destinations combine many of these settings in one location, providing a sense of community and civic pride. These destinations are most effective when positioned around transportation hubs, making them accessible to whole communities.

3. Build Local Economies Through Markets

Markets have historically been a place for people to gather, not only to sell and exchange goods, but also a place to trade ideas and spend time together. This tradition has given way over the years to supermarkets and “big-box” stores that contribute little to the local economy and lack the social and communal qualities of outdoor public markets. While protecting local small businesses is important, a balance can be found that allows markets to thrive without disrupting local business. Often, these markets can serve as an outlet for small local businesses to reach out to new customers.

4. Design Buildings to Support Places

Buildings can have a major impact on communities. When well planned and designed, they can enhance the urban fabric. Buildings should be designed and built to create places. Successful buildings are designed with the human scale in mind. Architecture that is permeable from the street and engages with the city’s fabric helps promote places. Rather than being insular, architecture should relate to the places around it. This is particularly true of civic buildings and museums. Buildings that are designed to support places contribute to the livelihood of the immediate and adjacent neighborhoods.

5. Link a Public Health Agenda to a Public Space Agenda

Civic and government buildings have the potential to serve not only their intended use, but also to expand into the public realm by offering special events or programs that engage the surrounding community. Hospitals can provide special educational outreach programs for surrounding residents, libraries can offer educational resources, and schools and institutions of higher learning can provide extra-curricular sports activities or extended learning programs during non-teaching hours. Public markets, in turn, can offer healthy food that promotes healthy eating habits. These combined efforts can help promote a more active lifestyle and better eating habits among the public.

6. Reinvent Community Planning

Community planning works best when the local community works in tandem with local city agencies. Local community boards should make an effort to identify individuals who possess special skills and talents and help plan public places and the building structures that encompass their surroundings. Architects, city planners, traffic engineers, and transit operators are all professions that typically have a fairly narrowed focus on their particular role. Working with local government on public space planning efforts gives these professions an opportunity to work on a larger, more extensive vision, while at the same time providing the community with much-needed expertise.

7. Power of 10

The power of 10 is a framework that allows citizens to think on a larger scale and envision how to make their neighborhood a special place. While not a set number, it encourages people to think beyond just a single concept. If a park provides a special gathering place, what other nine factors can make it even better. If the park has a playground, an ice cream stand, a food vendor, a water fountain, and ample seating along with open space it begins to become more special. Add to that a library across the street with extended hours for storytelling and exhibits on local history, a merry-go-round, a nearby cafe, bus stop, and bike paths. Suddenly you have a place that most people would consider special.

8. Create a Comprehensive Public Space Agenda

A comprehensive public space agenda encompasses both a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach to planning. High public officials play an integral part in the formation of cities, but so can the general public if a bottom-up grass-roots approach is implemented as well. A comprehensive agenda has to look at not only what is working within a community, but also what is not working. Parks that are dilapidated, schoolyards that sit empty, squares that are underutilized and lifeless are examples. Often the residents can provide the best insight on these issues. With this information on hand, city officials can develop a more consensus-driven vision.

9. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: Start Small, Experiment

Creating successful public spaces takes time and extensive effort. It doesn’t happen overnight, and often times errors can be made in the process. The concept behind Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) projects, is that by implementing small scale changes within a community, in order to test them out. Examples of LQC projects include community events, sidewalk cafes, new places to sit, etc. LQC projects can be tested and, if necessary, scrapped or implemented in other locations depending on how successful they prove to be. 

10. Restructure Government to Support Public Spaces

Government agencies are inherently not set up to promote the creation of public places. Most government agencies focus on specific projects that, by their nature, do not include the spaces in between. The parks department is focused on developing and maintaining green spaces, the transit department is focused on transportation and moving traffic, etc.  In order to support public spaces, government agencies need to work together to create a larger vision where the community has a voice. A bottom-up approach where government agencies are open to discussion with the public on what projects work and which ones don’t work is important to ensure public places that residents will truly cherish and make use of. The five-year cooperation agreement between UN-HABITAT and PPS aspires to raise international awareness of the importance of public space; to foster a lively exchange of ideas among partners; and to educate a new generation of planners, designers, community activists, and other civic leaders about the benefits of the Placemaking methodology. For more information, you can view the full pdf report here: .

By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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