Innovations in Public Space: Designing for Community
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
The physical layout of a city determines social interaction. American cities have limited public space, aside from green patches of parks. This means city dwellers exist inside cars, in apartments, in work buildings, or bustling to and from these places, eyes down at our phones. The result of this urban infrastructure is a sense of isolation, even when surrounded by millions of other people. The isolation creates a yearning for human connection: enter the buzzword “community” and the rise of tech startups that “build community.” (i.e. Meetup, Airbnb, Lyft, Yerdle, Shareable, Skillshare, Feastly, etc.)
The good news is that we are shaping technology to meet our human need for social interaction. The better news is that this trend is not just secluded to technology. In increasing numbers, projects around the country are popping up to turn unutilized urban space into something public, shared, and social.
The projects below showcase transformations of previously unsightly urban spaces into beautiful public spaces, shifting the aesthetic and more importantly, human behavior.
San Antonio, Texas
SXSE Eco presented Joe O’Connell & Blessing Hancock, Creative Machines Inc. the Transformative Design Award for their Ballroom Luminoso Project in San Antonio, Texas.
The designers constructed six large LED, color-changing chandeliers out of recycled bike parts and structural steel. Each light fixture casts detailed shadows on the underpass, transforming the underpass into a community space.
San Francisco, CA
San Francisco startup Soak is transforming urban spaces pending development into pop-up spas using shipping containers and ecologically sound design. The company partnered with Rebar Group to design a mostly off-the-grid urban bathhouse using solar power, rainwater, and photovltaic cells, and a grey water system.
In 2009, the city of Seattle commissioned Copenhagen-based Gehl architects to conduct a study on how to create vibrant streets and public spaces. The study identified alleyways as under-utilized urban spaces that can be reimagined to create green walkways, host public events, and invigorate local businesses. The Alley Network Project began doing just that and has transformed 4 alleys in Seattle, featuring art walks, movie screenings, and creating alleyway communities.
Converting parking spaces into platforms with public seating, San Francisco’s Parklet Program “provides a path for merchants, community organizations, business owners, and residents to take individual actions in the development and beautification of the City’s public.” Since 2010, 38 parklets have been installed throughout San Francisco. These parklets create public seating and landscaped pedestrian walkways where parking spots once stood.
Impacts of Public Spaces
The Empirical Evidence:
The San Francisco Great Streets Project conducted a study on Divisidero Street before and two months after the parklet was installed. They found:
- On weekday evenings, pedestrian traffic rose 37%
- The host business of the parklet perceived a significant increase in customers after the parklet was installed
- Among surveyed pedestrians strong community character increased from 80% to 90%
From the Divisidero study, we know that creating a public space creates more pedestrians, which means a decrease in crime, according to the US department of transportation. Local businesses flourish and there are stronger community ties. But these facts are just the quantifiable effects of something bigger that is happening with the reclaiming of public space – we change our relationship with our environment and our relationship with one another. As Enrique Penalosa, the forward-thinking former Mayor of Bogota Columbia puts it,
Public spaces create a different type of society. A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.
Reclaiming public space means making urban areas amenable to human interaction. It allows seemingly disparate individuals to find themselves in close enough proximity to converse, learn from one another, and create community. Participating in public space means giving ourselves permission to look up from our screens and connect with people of different generations or different backgrounds. It eases the isolation and anonymity inherent in urban areas. This isn’t about civic engagement or improving business, those are stories that can be used to support innovation. This movement to reclaim public space is about making our urban centers places for human connection.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
People seem frequently to assume that the terms “sustainability” and “resilience” are synonyms, an impression reinforced by the frequent use of the term “climate resilience”, which seems to enmesh both concepts firmly. In fact, while they frequently overlap, and indeed with good policy and planning reinforce one another, they are not the same. This article picks them apart to understand where one ends and the other begins, and where the “sweet spot” lies in achieving mutual reinforcement to the benefit of disaster risk reduction (DRR).
As extreme weather conditions become the new normal—from floods in Baton Rouge and Venice to wildfires in California, we need to clean and save stormwater for future use while protecting communities from flooding and exposure to contaminated water. Changing how we manage stormwater has the potential to preserve access to water for future generations; prevent unnecessary illnesses, injuries, and damage to communities; and increase investments in green, climate-resilient infrastructure, with a focus on communities where these kinds of investments are most needed.
A few years ago, I worked with some ARISE-US members to carry out a survey of small businesses in post-Katrina New Orleans of disaster risk reduction (DRR) awareness. One theme stood out to me more than any other. The businesses that had lived through Katrina and survived well understood the need to be prepared and to have continuity plans. Those that were new since Katrina all tended to have the view that, to paraphrase, “well, government (city, state, federal…) will take care of things”.
While the experience after Katrina, of all disasters, should be enough to show anyone in the US that there are limits on what government can do, it does raise the question, of what could and should public and private sectors expect of one another?