Inclusive public spaces for all are a central part of healthy, resilient communities. A new framework can help ensure that processes for shaping these spaces lead to design decisions that promote equity.
It has been said that inspiration comes when you least expect it. My visit to Melbourne, Australia, inspired me to take an international look at place-making. I was standing in Federation Square, restlessly waiting for my daughter to finish her shift. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. I was wearing my mom hat, not my urban planner’s hat.
Nevertheless, as my eyes swept the Square, I had the sense of being in a very special place. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I was not surprised to later learn that Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne has been recognized as one of the best public squares in the world. Fed Square, built on top of a working railway, comprises sculpted and natural elements; it has small spaces like fire pits; and large and medium-size open spaces for planned and unplanned activity. There is a large TV screen that broadcasts international and national sporting events (it is not always on). The Square is open 24 hours a day; has free Wi-Fi for all; rest rooms; and no signs prohibiting activity or lingering. Restaurants open their doors to it; and transit lines and shops surround it.
I visited Fed Square daily for eight days, and what impressed me was how well it reflected Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity; how seamlessly it connected to the streets, buildings and facilities on its periphery; and how welcoming it always felt. It is a place for people—the well-heeled, the not-so lucky—and everyone in between. I should note, though, that Federation Square’s value as an open public space and cultural hub is currently being tested. Controversial changes to it are pushing forward sans public review and participation.
Public spaces like these—parks, playgrounds, town squares, transit stations, streets and more—offer respite, a place to gather, socialize, and be active. They reflect history, culture and potential; strengthen communities and build social capital. However, not all spaces are created equally or equitably. Thinking back to a workshop I facilitated years ago here in the United States, I asked participants to describe a public place where they enjoyed walking or biking. Two students—leaders in a campus sustainability group—shrank when it was their turn, embarrassed to confess that they never had access to such a place.
A New Framework for Healthy Public Spaces That Support Equity
Building public spaces that welcome and enhance quality of life for all requires getting proximate to and working with communities. That’s why in 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partnered with the Gehl Institute. We wanted to better understand how planners design public spaces in an inclusive way that supports health for all.
We traveled to places within the United States and destinations ranging from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Coimbra, Portugal. We sought to understand how their institutions, practices and places reflect their values. We interviewed experts and observed successful public spaces in action, looking for ideas that can expand and reshape our thinking and practices in the United States. Each stop along our learning journey gave us additional context to think more deeply about inclusion, health and equity in real places where people live, work, socialize, and struggle.
Building Inclusive Healthy Places
Public spaces--our parks, playgrounds, town squares, streets--can bring people together and make communities healthier. From Sweden to Seattle, Gehl Institute is uncovering how communities abroad are shaping public spaces.
These insights informed an evidence-based framework of four principles to guide decision-making—The Guiding Principles of Inclusive Healthy Places. These four principles can help bridge the fields of public health and community planning/design to build and sustain healthy public spaces:
1. Know the Neighborhood
A first step for planners is to invite everyone within a community to help map conditions, strengths, and resources. Public data sets, resident surveys, and observation can help identify what to build on and what needs changing.
For a project in Toronto, for example, planners set up tents in local parks, recreation centers, and farmers’ markets to answer residents’ questions and help understand how the spaces were used over time. And in the South Bronx, community members brainstormed ideas for renovating Lyons Square Playground during a series of sessions held at a nearby community center. Participating in the urban planning process empowered Bronxites to share their own visions of how best to fix what they viewed as a historic site. During the session, community members discussed nuts and bolts of how to engineer a park so that dog walkers, aspiring basketball stars, senior citizens, and toddlers would want to spend time there.
Data collection doesn’t end with the planning process. Monitoring progress toward goals over time helps residents stay involved and identifies health and well-being goals for the neighborhood.
2. Gauge Trust, Build Trust, Develop Social Networks
It’s crucial to understand how people’s trust in civic institutions and in one another affects their engagement in the planning and design processes—and in their own community. Planners must create opportunities to work with communities and build trust among its members.
For instance, the city of Copenhagen tapped artist Kenneth Balfelt in redesigning Folkets Park. As he came onto the project, Balfelt noticed a “great deal of mistrust” that stemmed from several factors, including a culture where local officials would initially visit and ask for advice. Then a year later cranes and builders would move in to begin digging without citizens getting what they expected.
Balfelt approached the project as a mediator, and aimed to have the community share control of the renovation. He notes “through community involvement we would get a deeper understanding of their context, create local ownership, and ultimately make a public space in a true sense.”
3. Design Public Spaces for Equity and Dignity
Efforts to build trust in the Folkets Park renovation also helped foster an inclusive, equitable process that involved listening to diverse groups, ranging from homeless migrants to activists, to young parents, to the elderly. Accounting for diverse perspectives help inform design decisions that respect the dignity of all people. This process helped Balfelt and team understand and address concerns about how flooding the park with bright light at night left the homeless feeling exposed and vulnerable. As a result, he strategically planned softer lighting to illuminate pathways at night.
Design has the ability to reflect values of social dignity, respect, and empathy. Even small details can make a huge difference, like the positioning of a small shelf on municipal trash cans that allow people to deposit and collect bottles for refund without rummaging through the bin. Creating inclusive, healthy places demonstrates just how important compassion is as a community value. And this is standard practice in Copenhagen.
Here in the United States, at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York City, planners worked with the slope of the land and rolling terrain to ensure that people in a wheelchair could get around without the need for ramps. And in San Antonio, children with severe special needs play alongside other children in a water environment. The creator of the first fully-accessible water park was inspired to undertake the project when he couldn’t find an inclusive place where his autistic daughter felt welcomed and others felt comfortable interacting with her. He brought together parents, special-needs therapists, doctors, and both people with and without disabilities to advise and help plan facilities that accommodate a range of needs for all park goers. He views Morgan’s Wonderland and Inspiration Island as places of inclusion “where everyone can participate together. Visitors have come from 67 countries and every state.”
4. Foster Social Resilience
Places constantly change. Sustained inclusiveness relies on the capacity of communities and stakeholders to adapt to and leverage social, economic or physical changes around them. Fostering stewards of a space through participatory decision-making and other engagement means that when change occurs, everyone will continue to benefit from it.
For instance, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the government and university students held a national competition to redesign Gran Plaza Juan Gabriel—a large plaza that had been vacant for some time. Along the way, they gathered data from nearby residents about the best way to use the space. With participation and leadership from the community, the city hopes the redesign will better represent the needs and preferences of the neighborhood’s residents, who in turn will be more likely to use the plaza and benefit from it.
Whether a project involves a riverside promenade, a new transit station, a small park, a day worker meeting site, or an outdoor area where people come for free meals, there are many ways to foster health and equity in public places. This new framework is a starting point for pursuing an inclusive process that leads to accessible, welcoming public spaces for all in the truest sense.