Urban Open Space; Paving the Way for Economic Opportunity

The following is a response to the Meeting of the Minds and Living Cities group blogging event answering the question: How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?

High quality public open space is the crucible where the creativity, identity, and aspirations of a community are manifest. While the cultural and economic zeitgeist of industrialized nations is ever more linked to our access and dependence on digital connection technology, it is important to remember that a true sense of community belonging and cultural identity is dependent upon face-to-face contact and real time physical interaction that cannot be experientially duplicated using digital technologies. Accordingly, well designed vibrant parks, plazas, public markets, and streets are the platforms on which we will continue to build access to cultural and economic opportunity for all citizens.

Since the dawn of recorded history, we know that cities, as urban markets, have been the linchpin connection for the exchange of local crops, products, and services, and the exotic goods that arrive from neighboring regions and/or distant lands. Municipal tolls, taxes, and tariffs have helped fill the coffers of history’s great empires, financing investment in monumental public works, civic architecture, and the centralized services that lure people from the countryside to metropolitan areas with the promise of economic opportunity, and a ‘better life’ through access to education, health services, stable banking institutions, and safe and secure locations for private investments in real estate and industrial infrastructure.

It is important to acknowledge that history is rife with examples of how this tantalizing promise of urban opportunity has, at times, deteriorated into a living nightmare of overcrowding, squalor, and disease. Dense urban centers of labor and industry, particularly since the rise of the industrial revolution, have also been home to frightening examples of socio-economic inequality, deprivation, and marginalization. Access to resources like decent housing, safe food, sanitation and health services, continues to be in issue in even our most modern cities. The health risks associated with deteriorating air quality in cities like Beijing is just one example of the pitfalls of city life. Curitiba, Brazil, is in many ways a showcase model of sustainable urban living, and actively markets itself as a global leader in generating solutions to complex issues related to transportation, immigration, education, waste management, and access to quality open space. But, Curitiba has also paid for its success with an overwhelming population influx from surrounding rural areas that perpetuates the existence of its favelas (slums). The urbanized population of the world is already over 50 percent, and is projected to reach 60 percent by 2030. Regardless of the potential downsides of urban living, the wealth of human resources and capital investment that concentrates in our cities still represents our greatest opportunity for solving the environmental, social, and economic challenges that humanity is facing globally.

With the emergence of modern digital technologies for marketing, payment, product tracking, and data processing, commercial exchange of products and services has never been easier. Wireless technologies and on-line payment platforms turn any park into a yoga studio or classroom, and any street cafe into a fully integrated office space. The “third place” phenomena of working in locations outside of either our home or office means that there are ever increasing reasons to pay attention, as a community, to the quality of our public open spaces and civic infrastructure. The design quality of lighting, furnishings, and plantings, as well as the maintenance of these elements, are the critical variables that can transform an uncelebrated (or even dangerous) street, parking lot, or park into a vibrant, safe, comfortable, and accessible community gathering space that serves the local population’s commercial and recreational needs 7 days a week, both night and day.

The City of San Francisco has successfully experimented with the permitting of urban “parklets”, transforming parking lanes (usually fronting restaurants or cafes, but in some cases also private residences) into carefully crafted gardens and seating areas that add to the overall quality of open space in the district. Public-private partnerships and progressive permitting regulations, like San Francisco’s requirement for building privately owned public open spaces (POPOS) as a part of new high-rise development in the downtown area, are helping to shift the financial burden of quality park design to the private sector. Publicly endorsed private development projects, like Forest City’s 5M Project in the SOMA District of San Francisco, are creating vibrant open urban campuses that help revitalize the neighborhood while also providing critical training and employment resources, like TechShop (a highly successful co-fabrication space), and the Impact HUB (one of many new co-working models popping up all over the city). In future phases of the 5M Project, the interior-block alleys and parking lots will be transformed into amenity-rich outdoor malls and plazas that activate the neighborhood; providing a third place context for community interaction, commerce, and recreation.

Active, safe, and attractive public open space (including flexibly designed roadways, sidewalks, parking lots, plazas, and parks) promote economic development by:

  • increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic that supports walk-in business;
  • providing a comfortable setting for outdoor dining and expanded retail sales space;
  • encouraging investment by private property owners in building and facade improvements;
  • providing an attractive and flexible space for events like farmers markets, craft fairs, and outdoor entertainment, which create a direct source of commercial revenue while also stimulating the district and city-scale economy;
  • creating a high-value public amenity that stabilizes and/or increases local property values.

While many open space improvements require multi-million dollar public expenditures, in some cases the active transformation of an underutilized street or alley can be as simple as the decision by local merchants and residents to pay more attention to the ‘living room’ right outside their doors; improving building lighting, investing in furnishings for outdoor seating, or encouraging food trucks or mobile vendors to frequent their neighborhood. Whether financing of open space improvements comes from public or private sources, it is a long-term investment that benefits the entire community, expanding economic opportunity, building local identity, and promoting the human interaction and exchange of ideas that are vital to a healthy, diverse, and dynamic community.

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