One of six global trends in health equity

Making Public Spaces the Connective Tissues of Urban Areas

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a redefinition of public spaces, with communities calling for more equitable, healthy public spaces. The healthy use of public spaces can increase social connection and promote healthy habits.

Global Trend

What is changing?

  • In response to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, cities looked toward public spaces for safe socialization and recreation. For example, many cities, including Buenos Aires, Dublin, and Melbourne, altered the allocation of street and sidewalk space.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an increased demand for urban green spaces of up to 70%.

  • Quality public spaces provide increasingly recognized health benefits through opportunities for physical activity, play, stress reduction, and social engagement.

How are specific groups impacted?

  • While residents with high incomes may have access to private yards or clubs, for residents with low incomes, public spaces may provide critical areas for play, community building, and economic activity.

  • People with disabilities may feel excluded from and face barriers to accessing public spaces that are not designed for inclusive use and that lack physical infrastructure, effective signage, and/or community support.

How is this trend reflected in the U.S.?

US Context, Public Spaces Desktop

The creation of new public spaces in the U.S. often displaces communities of color. For example, the development of Atlantic Yards in New York City, which included eight acres of public space and an indoor arena, displaced many residents of a predominantly Black community.

Quick Facts

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, over 30 of the largest cities in the U.S. adopted “slow-street” or other public space projects. However, many communities with low incomes and people with physical disabilities did not experience the benefits of these interventions.
  • Neighborhoods with low incomes have access to 42% less park acreage, fewer playgrounds, and half as many sidewalks, compared to neighborhoods with high incomes in the U.S.


  • Exclusionary zoning, or the separation of land uses by type, limits how public spaces are used. For instance, most zoning in the U.S. does not allow for mixed-use public spaces, resulting in limited integration of different types of public spaces.

Solutions From Around the World

  • Public Spaces
  • Alphabetical Listing

Crosscutting Themes

Multisolving for Climate Change

Equitably Leveraging AI

Multisolving for Climage Change icon.


As climate events become more frequent and severe, public spaces can integrate climate resilience solutions. For instance, a new “climate park” in Copenhagen can prevent flooding by capturing up to six million gallons of water during sudden storm surges. How else might public spaces be leveraged to foster community climate resilience? 

Frequent use of unhealthy public spaces can expose individuals to air pollution. To combat this, the World Athletics Air Quality Project monitors air quality and identifies routes where runners can train with low air pollution, providing an incentive to reduce emissions and raising awareness about the impact of air pollution on health. What other opportunities exist at the nexus of emissions policies, health, and public space use?

Equitably Leveraging AI icon.


AI–based tools such as publicly-available renders, can aid the design of public spaces and empower citizens to advocate for transformations. For example, Dall-E AI produces realistic re-imagined cityscapes from text and image prompts and encourages citizens to use it to advocate for infrastructure changes. How else might AI be best used to solicit active input from communities on public space design?

AI can be used to parse data on the demographics of public space users to understand how spaces are used by different groups. How might this be leveraged to better tailor public spaces to the needs of a community?

Connections to Nutrition Security


Urban farming, community gardens, and farmers’ markets all use public spaces to grow or provide nutritious foods to their local communities. This can increase equitable local food distribution by bringing nutritious foods into neighborhoods with low incomes.

Related Content


Six Global Trends in Health Equity

Explore the full analysis of six health equity trends emerging across the globe to learn how communities and decisionmakers are responding to them and their implications for the U.S.