I live across the street from a large, urban park in my city’s core. It’s a space that plays host to plenty of people-centric activity, from festivals and running groups to political rallies and ice skating. On any given day, you can witness people utilizing the space — lingering with a book in hand, meeting up with friends for a picnic, or breaking up their workday with a leisurely stroll. In an urban setting that doesn’t have a lot of green space, it’s hard to imagine our neighborhood without this park.
Public spaces have a way of telling the story of our neighborhoods. They do this, in part, by revealing not only the people but also the values, needs and hopes that exist in our localities. In the absence of these spaces, the distinct, contextual realities of our neighborhoods become harder to discern. Even though our city budgets don’t always reflect it, we need these spaces more than we might think.
Here are four reasons why we need to invest in public spaces:
1. Public spaces move us into closer proximity with our neighbors
In a recent blog post, my friend, Sameer Vasta, argued that — because neighborliness is largely influenced by urban design — we should “design our cities for serendipity.” He’s right. Public spaces that are designed and programmed for serendipitous encounters keep us from becoming isolated from our neighbors — and can, over time, lead to more interconnected, resilient neighborhoods. Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, says it this way:
People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructures — not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.
Public spaces, like parks, flex streets and libraries, are worth the investment, in part, because they are spaces where we can discover who we share proximity with; what passions, resources and capacities they possess; and how we might together leverage who we are for the sake of our neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the will to meet our neighbors is not enough; we need spaces that are designed to move us toward our neighbors, so that meaningful connections can occur.
2. Public spaces remind us that enjoyment is not always synonymous with private ownership
In some sense, public spaces reinforce what so many of us are trying to teach our children: namely, that sharing is important.
When we spend time in a public space, we are forced to recognize that we don’t own it any more than our neighbor does. We can’t control who’s going to be there, nor can we dictate all the activities that will go on while we are there — and yet, we can still enjoy the benefits that these spaces bring to our communities. Whether we are hosting an outdoor movie night in a local park, participating in a book club at our local library, or leading a jogging group through a public trail system, public spaces are there to be leveraged for the well-being of our localities. Through these spaces, we gain resources that, on our own, we may not have access to and that, together, can be used in ways that foster community, inspire learning and impact our neighborhoods for the better.
It should be said that, unlike other spaces, public spaces are not partial to people with money to spend. Take, for example, the public library. You can walk in with no money and you can enjoy internet access, books, community programs, a warm atmosphere, and a place to call your own. You aren’t pressured to spend money, and you can linger for as long as you’d like. In these spaces, you are a citizen who contributes to the animation of the space, not a customer who offers money in exchange for goods. These kinds of spaces — which do not demand money in exchange for belonging — are increasingly rare, and communities who lack these spaces run the risk of missing out on the local voices they tend to draw.
3. Public spaces teach us to relate with others
While we can curate the voices and ideas that we encounter in our friend groups and on our social media platforms, public spaces force us into a close proximity with people that we might not otherwise encounter.
It’s in public spaces that we are given the opportunity to reclaim the art of civil conversation as we seek to better understand the neighbor who is in front of us, not the neighbor that we would choose to socialize with.
These spaces have a profound way of humanizing people through proximity. It’s easy to misunderstand, disparage, and vilify our neighbors from a distance; it’s harder to do so when you are sitting on a bench next to them, watching your kids play with their kids on the local playground. Public spaces provide us with an opportunity to discover the humanity that we share with our neighbors — even the neighbors we have come to see as different than us.
4. Public spaces engage our senses — inspiring place-based attachment
Think back to a time where you were visiting a new city, and you thought to yourself, I could live here. I’ve experienced this feeling several times. I had it the first time I visited New York City’s Washington Square Park. For those of you who haven’t been to the park, it’s a captivating space that beckons you to sit, to observe, and to stay a while. Between the bustle of people, the live music that was playing, the dynamic architecture, and the local food that I was eating while I sprawled under a large, old tree, I was certain that I should move to New York and live near this park — neither of which happened, by the way.
When our senses are fully utilized, as they are in well-designed public spaces like Washington Square Park, we start to find ourselves more attached to our local context. Our senses are powerful tools that help us create memories and experience, in holistic ways, the places we find ourselves in. The more present we are in our cities — experiencing them with all of our senses — the less likely we are to dream of being somewhere else. If we want to attract people to our cities, and have them stay for the longterm, we need to invest in public spaces because they provide a context where place attachment can occur.
Public spaces are not a remnant of the past. If we allow them to, they will continue to improve the well-being of our neighborhoods and cities. The benefits of well-designed public spaces are well-worth the investment, and we — citizens, businesses, and governments — would do well to fight for them.
Top photo of Washington Square Park via Paulo Evangelista.
When Steve MacDouell is not teaching history and professional communication at Fanshawe College, he's instigating place-based projects, hosting workshops, and inviting everyday citizens to leverage their time, their ideas, and their creativity for the sake of their neighborhoods. He's the co-founder of Good City Co., a civic organization that creates projects, platforms, and activations to help citizens take greater ownership over the places that they call home.
He lives, dreams, and conspires in Woodfield — a neighborhood in Central London, Ontario.