The Doable City Reader

Hidden Assets: Creating public spaces in unlikely places

If there is any one lesson that I have learned in my life as a city planner, it is that public spaces have power. It's not just the number of people using them, it's the even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing that they are there. — Amanda Burden, former New York City Planning Commissioner

In the late 1990s, the raised railway track that ran through the heart of New York City’s Chelsea district was the bane of many residents’ existence. The monolithic iron structure hadn’t carried rail traffic since 1980, when the last train delivered three carloads of frozen Thanksgiving turkeys to the meatpacking district. Since then it had sat unused by anyone but unruly trespassers and was falling deeper into disrepair each year. Mayor Rudy Guliani vowed to demolish it.

The Highline Park. Image credit: Dean Shareski, Flickr

The Highline Park. Image credit: Dean Shareski, Flickr

He didn’t succeed, of course. Instead, after years of advocacy by a dedicated community group (along with hundreds of millions of dollars committed by Guliani’s successor Michael Bloomberg, the federal and state governments, private donors and other sources) the structure was converted into a 2.3 kilometre-long promenade and is known today as one of the world’s greatest public space success stories: the Highline Park.

Even for New York City the Highline Park was a large and complex undertaking in both cost and scale. But its fame has made it the poster child of a notion that is, at long last, gaining traction around the world in cities of all sizes: our cities are full of underutilized spaces that, if put to better use, could make the public realm greater for everyone. This is especially critical in a time when there is a greater need for more and better public spaces in our cities than ever, and budgets are ever tighter. We have assets everywhere — we just need to look at our cities a little differently to see them.

A ‘barometer’ of quality of life

Parks and public spaces are the verandas of city life. They are where we live amongst each other. They are where we experience our cities. It is our public spaces that make our cities more than just a collection of buildings and spaces in between them — they make them places. Even if one lives in the tiniest apartment or the most dilapidated house, everyone’s quality of life is impacted when a city has great parks to serve as front yards and public spaces as living rooms.

As Chief of Staff of the Chicago parks district Gia Biagi put it  at the Doable City Forum, “Parks are the barometer for public life in a city. When you look at a city, go look at its parks — as many as you can of different varieties — and you’ll get a sense of where that city is at in terms of development and quality of life.”

And they are levers in nearly every aspect of the well-being of city dwellers. Physically speaking, improving access to quality parks and public spaces drastically increases people’s likelihood of physical activity and reduces air pollution. But many studies have also shown that parks and public space access have a drastic effect on mental health and community cohesion. Exposure to nature immediately reduces our stress, gives us energy and enhances our mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance. Other studies have shown that views of nature make us more generous. In a Chicago public housing complex, residents with direct access to green community spaces were more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging, know their neighbours and consider those neighbours supportive and friendly. Those without green space access were more likely to be rude, lose their tempers and commit crimes. As Charles Montgomery summarizes in Happy City, “Nature is not merely good for us. It brings out the good in us.”

Public space hidden in plain sight

The idea of creating more public spaces and parks can sometimes seem daunting with high land costs and low city budgets. But cities don’t always need to buy land to start creating new parks, or tear down buildings to create more public spaces. Our cities have far more public space than we often think. By looking at what we already have and imagining it differently, every city can afford to start right away.

Consider that 25 to 30 per cent of the total area of our cities is taken up by publicly-owned roads alone. Many parking spaces and lots are public too, as well as our sidewalks, school grounds, public buildings and swaths of land below raised rail lines, overpasses or other pieces of infrastructure. They may all be managed by different departments, but at the end of the day they all belong to and are paid for by taxpayers. And together they make up an enormous percentage of the city’s area.

Roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit corridors are all public space, but depending on how we move, we occupy vastly different amounts of that space. Image credit: Matthew Blackett/

But much of this space is inaccessible to much of the population. Schools and school grounds are only open to students during the day and are often locked once school closes. The road network that makes up 80 per cent of public land in most cities is only accessible to citizens that are operating cars or sitting on buses. Entire strips of roadway that hug our sidewalks exist for the sole purpose of temporarily storing vehicles. Public buildings close at 5 pm and vacant lots — whether publicly or privately owned — sit empty for years before they are developed.

Seizing the opportunities

It doesn’t need to be like that. Many cities of all sizes are beginning to transform these assets into opportunities, using them to carve out room for great public space in the heart of even the densest neighbourhoods.

Melbourne laneway. Image credit: 880 Cities

Melbourne laneway. Image credit: 8 80 Cities

Take, for example, Melbourne, Australia. A unique planning history left the city’s downtown with two distinct grids: one of major streets and one of narrow laneways that run between the buildings. While other cities with similar laneway systems use the laneways mostly for garbage disposal, Melbourne has allowed the back-end rooms of the buildings facing the main street to be converted into tiny bars, restaurants and shops that front onto the laneways, transforming the tiny thoroughfares into a richly woven network of pedestrian-only spaces.

Similarly, the leisurely and enjoyable experience of walking through central Copenhagen comes in large part from the number of streets the city has slowly, decade by decade, converted from auto-centric thoroughfares to dedicated pedestrian spaces starting in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade, the city had already begun to change as a result, with outdoor cafes arriving in the chilly Scandinavian city for the first time, and a culture of liveliness and public gathering in the newly opened spaces.

Video play buttonBetter use of city spaces video

“Streets are the most underutilized assets in cities,” says Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects, the firm responsible for much of Copenhagen’s radical transformation. He also points to New York as an example of a city that has recently begun changing this dramatically in its own way by finding unused bits of roadway — unnecessary slip lanes, intersections, too-wide turning lanes, etc. — closing them off to cars and extending the adjacent sidewalks to create a network of miniature public spaces sprinkled all throughout the city. If you ever doubt your city has room to do the same, take a look at your street when it snows and the patterns will likely reveal that your street space is considerably less utilized than you think.

PS 7 community playground before and after transformation

PS 7 community playground before and after transformation, Bronx, NYC. Images courtesy of the Trust for Public Land

Sometimes all it takes to unlock these resources is simple communication. McAllen, a city of about 130,000 in southern Texas instantly increased its public park space by hundreds of acres by working more closely with the school board to upgrade school playgrounds and develop protocol to leave the fields and facilities unlocked after school hours. New York City later did the same as part of PlaNYC to help reach its goal of having every New Yorker live within a five to ten minute walk of a park by 2030. They added a whopping 290 new parks to the city through the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program.

Many cities in North America have done the same and continue to do so, showing over and over again that the space for place is always there – it just takes a little imagination to find it.

This chapter is available as a PDF: Download a copy.

Lede image credit: NYC DOT

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