The Power of Public Space
Over the last several decades, I’ve been privileged to provide planning and design services to scores of cities and towns all over the Pacific Northwest. It has been a true pleasure to work with so many city managers, mayors, city councils, staff people, and citizens. Most of the time the recommendations I offered were followed; a few times they were not. As the saying goes, “Ya can’t win ‘em all.”
In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve noticed that a number of communities have come to discover something quite stunning. That is: investment in great public spaces can reap tangible economic benefits. In fact, I would submit that you can actually measure the success of a city by what it has done to make the shared spaces of the community especially good.
What Is a Public Space?
By public spaces, I am not just talking about traditional parks. Indeed, those are important in American communities and always have been since the beginning of the country. Human beings simply enjoy being near living plants and natural areas. It’s a primal, visceral, virtually universal need. For many decades, cities have purchased or dedicated land for parks. That is not a particularly new phenomenon.
What I am seeing is an interest in two specific types of public spaces, types that we used to build well but forgot about during the post-World II expansion of suburbs with private yards. The two types are sidewalks and public squares within downtowns.
Both of these spaces are the shared public living rooms that we all use. But for years they had been neglected as the emphasis was placed on building streets and roads for vehicles. In recent years, I have been seeing the pendulum swinging back in favor of caring for places where people spend time on foot.
From Sidewalk to Main Street
There are probably several reasons support for sidewalks is growing. One of them is the increase in the number of people who are living longer, in many cases well past the time when they can drive. Moreover, considerable literature has focused on the health benefits of simply walking every day. Older people also appreciate the sociability that walking about offers; it’s more nourishing to the soul than being isolated in a home or retirement center.
The other end of the age range is another reason. The preferences and behavior of younger people have dramatically changed in the last decade – something that many in the Boomer Generation perhaps find hard to believe. Millennials (people between 20—35) have dramatically less interest in owning cars. They look for places to live and work where they can take transit, walk, bike, or use ride share. This is a huge shift. And like many Europeans, younger Americans seem to thrive in public spaces. They value the presence of other people and the collective energy. They are not looking for respite from urban life; they revel in it.
So I have been seeing a distinct revival in main streets. Where before they might have merely been stretches of concrete dotted with parking meters, they are now becoming linear parks, if you will. They are planted with trees, have places to sit, and are filled with artwork, café tables, unique signs, and special lighting. And the sidewalks do not “roll up at night” as the saying used to go. Rather, they can be active and animated well into the evening hours.
The Growth of the Town Square
The other type of space is the town square. Often covered in paving but surrounded by trees, this kind of space is ideal for concerts, farmers markets, seasonal festivals, and all sorts of activity ranging from ping pong to dancing to busking, as well as the occasional wedding. Cities have also learned that it is not enough to merely design and build these spaces; they must be managed, maintained, and programmed with activities.
I have been seeing these spaces develop and mature, not just in larger cities like Seattle, Bellevue, Spokane, and Tacoma, but in smaller towns as well. Washougal built a delightful town square (Reflection Plaza) that has helped stimulate reinvestment in its downtown, which now has new shops, cafes, and housing. Port Angeles has added a waterfront esplanade that helps to attract visitors from the Victoria ferry who used to bypass downtown on their way to other destinations.
Occidental Square in Seattle, WA. Photo courtesy of the author
Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver is a revitalized urban square that is a beehive of activity, flanked by hotels, restaurants, and dense residential buildings. Redmond’s Downtown Central Park has attracted development on all sides – even when it was being planned and designed—and the transformation of Redmond’s center has been astonishing. New town squares and urban public spaces are being designed for Edmonds and Bellingham, while Spokane’s Riverside Park is getting a complete makeover.
All of these communities are seeing new private investment. Indeed, the best developers go to cities and towns where there has been a deliberate effort to build or upgrade the public realm. They want to see a corresponding expenditure in the character and quality of public spaces.
It’s clear that many cities have figured out that financing and building public spaces in their downtowns is a sound economic development strategy.
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