Virginia Small is a Strong Towns member from Milwaukee, WI. Today she shares a guest article on the topic of public spaces.


Milwaukee residents walk along the cross-town Hank Aaron Trail in Three Bridges Park, a new park created through grassroots efforts in the Menomonee Valley on a former brownfield. The event was one of several community walks led by Mayor Tom Barrett.

Milwaukee residents walk along the cross-town Hank Aaron Trail in Three Bridges Park, a new park created through grassroots efforts in the Menomonee Valley on a former brownfield. The event was one of several community walks led by Mayor Tom Barrett.

Every great city has great public spaces. And those places create value. They range from legendary commons such as Manhattan’s Central Park to well-loved neighborhood parks, plazas, promenades, trails and preserves. In addition to driving economic development, high-quality public spaces set the stage for people to experience nature, respite and community.

Public gathering places also facilitate democracy—where everyone can freely assemble, speak and interact. We have Frederick Law Olmsted to thank for steadfastly advancing social reform through parks– what he called “a democratic development of the highest significance.” He believed enjoyment of nature was restorative and especially crucial for urban dwellers. He wanted parks “to furnish healthful recreation for the poor and the rich, the young and the old…” Olmsted is often called the father of America’s public parks movement and urban planning.

Most of us have favorite public spaces—and ideally they are close enough to home or work to enjoy on a daily basis. I live two blocks from Milwaukee’s Lake Park, what many call the “crown jewel” of our county park system. It was designed by Olmsted and boasts all the hallmarks of a great public space. As such, it’s well used for strolling, varied sports, enjoying lake vistas and hiking rustic ravines. It’s beloved by visitors from near and far.

So why are public spaces valuable? What makes a good public space and how can you tell if you have one? Today, we'll answer these important questions.

The Worth of High-Caliber Public Space

Jan Gehl, a renowned Danish urban design professor and author, told On the Commons that “the quality of public spaces has become very important. There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance.”

Gehl’s research underscores the fact that outstanding common spaces spur economic vitality. Adrian Benepe, an executive with the Trust for Public Land and former New York City parks commissioner told the New York Times, “What separates a great city from an O.K. city are great parks and public spaces.”

One key issue is whether local leaders view public places as valuable anchors--or as budgetary drains. While parks enhance any community, public space is especially needed in urban settings. The City Parks Alliance, a nationwide network of administrators and advocates, makes a strong case for the “creation, revitalization and sustainability of parks and green spaces that contribute to dynamic cities.” The alliance’s website explains why that matters:

Urban parks are dynamic institutions that play a vital, but not fully appreciated or understood role in the social, economic and physical well-being of America’s urban areas and its residents.
— The City Parks Alliance

Urban parks are dynamic institutions that play a vital, but not fully appreciated or understood role in the social, economic and physical well-being of America's urban areas and its residents. Dating back to the 19th century when Frederick Law Olmsted introduced the first large-scale urban parks to this country, these green spaces provided relief from urban intensity for residents and brought people together across social, economic and racial divides. In the postwar years, when the population shifted away from urban centers, our nation’s parks suffered enormously from disinvestments and many are still experiencing it.

As cities across the country are attracting millions of residents again, the centers of this sweeping urban renaissance are newly revitalized parks. They are not only safe and beautiful, but also serve as green engines to help address nearly every critical urban need from health to housing, to education and environmental justice, and countering sprawl to combating crime.”

An in-depth report from the American Planning Association also shows that parks have a significant positive impact on property values and municipal revenues. That’s significant bang for the buck. Nonetheless, it’s more likely that a community will cultivate and maintain exceptional public spaces if there’s some consensus about standards and strategies for achieving such goals.

Parks aren't just for playing or walking. They're also a location for community events. In this photo, O'Donnell Park provides a venue for viewing the annual Independence Day fireworks over Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, WI. You can also see another public amenity in this photo - the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

Parks aren't just for playing or walking. They're also a location for community events. In this photo, O'Donnell Park provides a venue for viewing the annual Independence Day fireworks over Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, WI. You can also see another public amenity in this photo - the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

How Are Great Spaces Defined?

Does your town have great public spaces? What makes a public space great? Is their appeal in the eye of the beholder? Many experts insist it’s not. Research shows that people intuitively agree on what makes places worthy of our affection.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization “dedicated to helping create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.” PPS says vital public spaces have four key qualities: “They are accessible; people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.”

They expand on those attributes:

 ACCESS and LINKAGES: You can judge the accessibility of a place by its connections to its surroundings, both visual and physical. A successful public space is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. The edges of a space are important as well: for instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Accessible spaces have a high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit.

COMFORT and IMAGE: Whether a space is comfortable and presents itself well, has a good image, is key to its success. Comfort includes perceptions about safety, cleanliness, and the availability of places to sit. The importance of giving people the choice to sit where they want is generally underestimated.

USES and ACTIVITIES: Activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place, and return. When there is nothing to do, a space will be empty and that generally means that something is wrong.

SOCIABILITY: This is a difficult quality for a place to achieve, but once attained it becomes an unmistakable feature. When people see friends, meet and greet their neighbors, and feel comfortable interacting with strangers, they tend to feel a stronger sense of place or attachment to their community, and to the place that fosters these types of social activities.

Public spaces can also be evaluated on their sustainability. Criteria include environmental benefits, healthy natural habitats and small carbon footprints. While those aspects can vary from park to preserve, ideally a city’s public-space portfolio has a mix of “green” attributes.

Trying to qualitatively assess all of a town’s public places would be daunting. However, individual spaces can be judged by the above criteria with an eye to improving them. PPS offers suggestions about how to do this. Even minimal investments, in concert with meaningful programming and citizen engagement, can create big impact. Ultimately, great public spaces serve myriad community needs.

How Do Your Parks Rank?

The Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) annual ParkScore ranks the 100 most populous U.S. cities for their parks. The index reflects overall quality.  Minneapolis ranks first, followed by St. Paul; Washington D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; San Francisco;  Portland, Oregon;  New York City, Irvine; Boston; Madison and Cincinnati.

Graphic from ParkScore. View the full analysis.

Graphic from ParkScore. View the full analysis.

More than a beauty contest, ParkScore measures nuts and bolts. For example, what percentage of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park—their benchmark for walkability? TPL has interactive maps that pinpoint exactly where new parks, trails and playgrounds are needed to achieve that standard.

ParkScore also assesses total park acres, their percentage of city land, and numbers of playgrounds, senior centers and even basketball hoops. Another key indicator is how much a city spends on park facilities and services, both in operations and capital investments. You can view the in-depth rankings here and read TPL's 2016 City Park Facts report here

Far-sighted civic leaders in many metro areas invested in parkland legacies that enhance quality of life and quality of place. Cities nationwide are also creating new parks by reclaiming vacant lots, brownfields and abandoned rail beds.

If your city has inherited enviable parks, the main challenge is to maintain and enhance them. It’s also possible to transform mediocre and deficient public commons by smartly addressing their drawbacks—sometimes with even modest outlays of cash. Collectively valuing all public places—and adequately supporting them—is essential to fostering livable and prosperous communities.

(All photos courtesy of Eddee Daniel)


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About the author

Virginia Small of Milwaukee, WI has written for publications throughout the U.S. She draws inspiration from landscape and urban visionaries.