1. Why a Fresh Look at Urban Public Spaces

The late developer Jim Rouse, creator of Harbor Place in Baltimore, emphasized that " water is magic"

Times Have Changed

In the past decade, American tastes in living, notably how and where we choose to spend leisure time, have changed greatly, as has our understanding of what “urban” means and how urban places are regarded. These changes are sufficiently well underway to underscore that they are not of short term or limited applicability. Consider the contrast with the experience of the past two generations.

Metropolitan areas expanded, densities  declined, cities  shrunk and non metropolitan counties  grew. Public transportation became a governmental afterthought, highways were built far beyond actual requirements and we have acquired more cars in many places than we have licensed drivers to use them. The American household is popularly widely envisioned as two parents and two children living in a low density, crime free suburban Nirvana with free schools, where all trips beyond 1000 feet are by car. The single occupancy vehicle work trip time lengthened from 20 minutes to 30 minutes or more as a trade off against lower priced residential real estate ever more distant from work sites.  Much public planning is still shaped by these hoary assumptions and seemingly inexorable trends. The vague term “inner city” was applied to places where poor people lived, crime thrived and businesses failed.

The editor of the journal read by the development industry wrote in 1997 that “for the majority of middle class Americans, city living is just not the American dream. The city is ugly, dismal, dirty, a blight, home to the poor and deranged…Even pockets of gentrified urban neighborhoods are still too mixed.”

A half-century of published pessimism too often shapes public planning today. Yet, the past decade has produced entirely new and contrary experience and research, reflecting the revolutions of American tastes and demographic changes.

The Revolutions Affecting America’s

  1. Where to Live–The Yankelovitch research organization reported that young people 18-34 years of age want to pick where they live before seeking work.  (“College educated young adults consider ‘place’ first when choosing locations: jobs are secondary.” CEOs for Cities, 2006).
  2. Residential Growth–The US Environmental Protection Agency reported ”remarkable” residential growth in central cities and first ring, older suburbs. In 2010, EPA said of its study of 50 largest metropolitan areas that “a fundamental shift in the real estate market” is occurring. Jonathan Hiskes wrote that the proportion of home building…in central cities has doubled in 26 metros”.(Hiskes, Jonathan. “New homes are cropping up in cities, not suburbs”. Grist, 2010.)
  3. Crime— Crime per 100,000 population is at “the lowest level ”, according the Justice Department. The Gallup Organization noted last year that crime was no longer the major concern reported earlier by surveyed respondents. Instead of muggings, which previously topped the reasons for crime fear (now in sixth place), concern about identity theft tops the list. The Pew Research Center asked respondents for their “top priority” concern; crime ranked twelfth.  Downtown residents in Philadelphia, PA told surveyors that “safe neighborhood” was the second highest reason for moving there, after walking to work. (Gallup. Pew Research Center. 2009. Justice Department, 2007. “State of Center City” Center City District, 2009).
  4. Living Downtown— The University of Pennsylvania Planning Department began reporting almost a decade ago that ”unprecedented” population increases were occurring in almost all large city Downtowns. (Birch ,Eugenie.”Who Lives Downtown?”,2005.)
  5. School Age Children— Fewer than a third of all U.S. households include any school age children. If, as widely believed, much of the “flight” to the suburbs was motivated by public school choices, that factor is of no value to nearly 70% of households. (U.S. Census, 2000)
  6. Households— The Pew Research Initiative noted that the number of jobs in Philadelphia continued to decline while the population and number of households increased. “Simply confusing”, Pew confessed. This is  an apparent paradox only if one associates population levels  to be entirely influenced by numbers of jobs.  In every decade but one since 1950, the city’s household levels remained stabile while household size shrank here and throughout the country.  (Pew Research, 2010. William Penn Foundation, 2010)
  7. Walkability— A recent  study measured the number of destinations within walking distance of 90,000 recent home sales in 15 markets, controlling for size, rooms, neighborhoods, etc. There was a correlation between “walkability” and housing prices in 13 of the markets, the more convenient destinations, the higher the sales price. Only Las Vegas produced a negative correlation—housing prices decreased with higher Walk scores. Earlier studies  reported the real estate benefits resulting from proximity of homes to  transit and parks (“How Walkability Raises Home Values” CEOs for Cities. 2009. “The Economic Benefit of Parks”, Hoffman, Dan, David Schwartz, Lawrence Houstoun. New Jersey Department of Conservation ref)
  8. Redefining “Suburb” and  Reenvisioning “City”—Cities should be recognized as the most valuable places because they offer the greatest amounts of diversity and convenience, two vital elements influencing  land values.  The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech forecasts a surplus of large lot homes of 22 million in 15 years. University of Michigan market research reports that roughly a third of US households “mixed use, walkable urban areas.”  Luxury detached homes in suburban Westchester County, NY sell for $375 a square foot, while condos in transit served White Plains sell for $750. Cristopher Leinberger wrote in The Atlantic  (“The Next Slum?”) that the problems of the outer suburbs began before the current recession and will continue. He sees inexorable population shifts as the well to do renovate well built older homes near the centers while the poor increasingly occupy the cheaper residences farther out where transit is weak to non existent. The pattern he describes echoes the suburban slums around Paris.Crime in most cities is down.  Leinberger reports increased crime in low density communities outside Charlotte, NC while the rates in the city remain stable. The slumming of the suburbs? Perhaps, but don’t expect nineteenth century, transit-served places like Ridgewood, NJ and Ardmore, PA to slum. They inherited nineteenth century infrastructure essential to success in the twenty-first century.(Metropolitan Institute, Virginia Tech University, ref. University of Michigan; The Atlantic, March, 2008 ) .
  9. Gasoline, the Shaper— Where should we look to glimpse the likely future? One provocative reference is Christopher Steiner’s book tracing “How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change our Lives for the Better.” No flaky, left wing radical, Steiner writes for Forbes magazine. He notes that, when gasoline was  $4 a gallon, jet fuel made up 40% of air carriers’ costs and as petroleum prices rise he quotes experts’ views regarding which airlines will go under. At $8 a gallon, the airline network will contract 50%. “Resort townies will live lonely lives… Las Vegas with 19 of the world’s 25 largest hotels will shrink to half its current size…Public transit will be the belle of the ball.” Steiner’s forecasts are shaped by actual changes that occurred in the prerecession period.  Then property values declined at the metropolitan edges. Transit ridership was up. Low wage jobs went begging because workers couldn’t afford to commute to dispersed, low density places. Steiner’s view of tomorrow’s America does not require the apparently impossible political challenge of raising gas taxes. These changes are forecast entirely on the kind of supply and demand relationships that even right wing opinion makers must acknowledge. We are running out of affordable oil and the price of fuel will reflect this reality.( Steiner, Christopher.“Twenty dollar a Gallon Gasoline: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Make our Lives Better”,2009; Houstoun, Planning, August, 2009.

What is Urban Public Space?

Traditionally, a park is a public space designed by professionals with heavy emphasis on appearance and less on the preferences of the prospective users. Park planning tends to direct client attention to trees and shrubs and to materials and street furniture. This book emphasizes the work of two authorities who were perpetually at odds with design professionals (William H Whyte and Jane Jacobs). It stresses that success is only incidentally a function of picture post card prettiness. Rather, success is measured here, not in graphic terms, but in numbers of users. Success equals crowds; failures are spaces without people.

Urban public spaces are here defined more broadly than the traditional park. Some that are widely used as gathering places are indoors. If people use them as gathering places, businesses may operate in public spaces and the public may enjoy privately owned spaces.

Access is a criterion of great importance. Most users walk to urban public spaces. Size by itself is not a universal test. Some of Manhattan’s longest running successes have been very small. More worrisome are spaces too large for the numbers of potential users within a ten or fifteen minute walk.

While nearby playgrounds and bocci courts in dense areas may qualify as urban public spaces, softball fields, basketball courts do not.

One chapter includes a checklist for considering factors likely to produce a successful space. Sponsors are encouraged to create their own as part of the planning or replanning process.

Urban Public Spaces as Investments

Why are they important? Unlike city parks that suffer from municipal budgets cuts because they are seen as unessential expenses, urban public spaces are best viewed as vital elements in the growth of cities and inner ring suburbs. Two economists, one from the Wharton School and the other from the Federal Reserve Bank, studied 150 metropolitan areas to identify the factors most closely related to population growth. Those with the most amenities—including good restaurants, theaters, specialty shops, theatres, historic sites, libraries, attractive waterfronts, parks—were the winners. Americans want to live where they are happy with their surroundings and can enjoy diverse experience opportunities. The Boston Globe referred to these places as “urban playgrounds”.

This book describes some of the resources available for planning and replanning urban public spaces, as well as their maintenance and operation. Business improvement districts have financed major successes in park revitalization and in creating small close at hand spaces that measurably improve property values, residential occupancy and business occupancy. Some States enable jurisdictions to create special districts for park creation and operation. While the results have not always been successful, zoning bonuses can produce private funds for urban public spaces. One example describes an expensive space linking Downtown with a river edge and the funding from several sources, not all governmental. The tendency to mix purely public uses with private ones can add greatly to a space’s popularity and it can bring rents and fees to help retire debt or support maintenance and programming. Among the strategies applied are annual fashion shows, farmers markets, and food purveyors. P. T. Barnum said, “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

The book assumes that public space planning should not start with a decision that special security will be needed to overcome fear of crime among potential users. If guards are needed, park planning in most cases was probably deeply flawed.

Various users help make public space success-- child creates own playground, runner enjoys early spring and office employee uses the shortcut to work.

The populations in central places are changing, more residents and more families, with new and different needs for urban public spaces

Where organized and maintained public spaces are lacking, people will invent their own in vacant lots

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