Benefitting Communities Worldwide

The Importance of Public Spaces
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

Throughout history, public spaces have played a vital role in shaping our daily lives. From the original Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park to the centuries-old Plaza Mayor in Madrid built during the reign of Philip III, to New York’s legendary Central Park – one of the most-filmed and visited spots in the world – parks, public squares, waterfronts, gardens, community centers, playgrounds and even dog parks are places for us to meet, interact with one another and keep a finger on the pulse of our communities.
When planned with input from residents and local city government, public spaces can serve as hubs for not only neighbourhoods but entire large cities. Some are memorable and others infamous, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing with its origins going back to the Ming Dynasty in 1415. The massive city site is remembered for the June 1989 pro-democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Other spaces, such as Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, also have dark histories, as the area was used during the Spanish Inquisition for the condemnation of heretics. Today, the plaza is a major tourist attraction. Home to numerous cafes, bars, restaurants and shops, it is a popular meeting place for locals and their families and one of the world’s greatest public spaces.

Thoughtfully designed and properly executed public areas are much more than places to gather; they are a feast for the senses and our souls. Small or large, ideal public spaces are welcoming, engaging and aesthetically-pleasing places, not just cold, empty sections of land.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a “planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.” Created back in 1975, the PPS has over nine hundred worldwide members on its Placemaking Leadership Council and has completed over three thousand projects in all fifty states in the U.S. and forty-three countries worldwide.

Its transforming of public spaces is based largely on asking questions, listening to community members and responding to their needs. The PPS has issued reports and handbooks, including Placemaking & the Future of Cities. Produced with funding from the United Nations Federal Credit Union and under the UN-Habitat Sustainable Urban Development Network (SUD-Net), the handbook incorporates case studies from eleven locations including Detroit in the US, Santiago in Chile, Melbourne in Australia and Gyrumi in Armenia.

Public spaces not only serve as places to meet but are viewed as means of improving cities. According to the Project for Public Spaces, public spaces are linked to the reinvention of community planning, help to build local economies through markets, improve streets as public spaces and can even be linked to public health agendas.

According to Dr. Joan Clos, executive director UN-Habitat: “What defines the character of a city is its public space, not its private space.” When this public space is well-designed and located in the center of urban areas ranging from small communities to massive cities like London, New York and Madrid, they serve to foster civic pride, community involvement and revitalization, economic growth and culture. Even seemingly minimal improvements, such as street lighting, public benches and trees and planters, can make a tremendous difference to our overall sense of health and well-being.

A well-planned public space is a sight to behold; a poorly-executed scheme bursting with cost overruns, lack of community consultation and suggestions defying logic can result in an expensive, unpleasant stain on a city. As with any infrastructure project, there are the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Spaces that are attractive and functional places for people to gather are created in consultation with residents, local politicians, urban planners, architects, artists, environmental designers, construction engineers and others. Poorly-designed spaces are often controversial, even downright embarrassing. For every magnificent gathering spot like the Palais Royal in Paris, there is a faceless, uninspiring dud like the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco.

The plaza was originally intended to be the ‘Paris of the Pacific,’ resplendent with magnificent monuments, tree-lined boulevards and classical buildings reminiscent of old European central squares. Instead, it has become – in the words of the New York Times – “a neighbourhood overrun with vagrants, homeless people, petty thieves and drug dealers,” requiring a constant police presence. Part of the issue is its location, near empty stores and sex shops, creating a poor impression of Market Street.

While faring better than its San Francisco counterpart, Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square (YDS) was a work in progress for half a decade before being unveiled in 2002. The square is at the main intersection in Canada’s most populated city, adjacent to entertainment and shopping and surrounded by massive electronic billboards and signage reminiscent of New York’s Times Square. The area is well used for performances, gatherings and art shows, yet its modular design and concrete slab surfaces have been criticised for several reasons.

Not everyone seems to appreciate the gigantic advertisements. Others, like the Toronto Public Space Committee, consider it barren, and an example of “a negative trend in urban planning.” Many, even supporters, remain disappointed by the square being a missed opportunity to create more much-needed green space where it is needed most – in the city’s downtown core.
While public spaces serve a vital role, communities of all sizes must be aware not only of the costs incurred during construction – which can include earth moving, sewers, water lines, electricity, pavement, stonework, fountains, benches, lighting standards, sound systems, planters and more – there is the initial price of manpower, installation and materials and the ongoing cost of maintenance.

In the case of the Yonge-Dundas Square, which holds about 245 events annually, there is a total cost to Toronto residents of $2.352 million gross and $0.377 million net. Like other public gathering places, public squares require constant upkeep, which can be challenging with cities worldwide slashing annual operating budgets. The budget has been recently reduced by 2.6 percent in the case of Yonge-Dundas Square.

On occasion, plans for public spaces never materialize for reasons from budget to impracticality. For decades, there have been rumblings over The Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Commonly referred to simply as The Gardiner, construction began on the partially-elevated expressway which runs east to west back in 1955. It has been crumbling due to excessive wear and tear from vehicles and melting salt water infiltrating the concrete and rebar during winter months, and there have been calls for its demolition for years. Yet, in 2009, a Toronto architect released drawings of a roof atop the aging concrete structure, essentially turning it into a park with trees, vendors and bicycle lanes. The idea went nowhere.

Recently, a proposal has been made to create a public space on empty land between concrete support towers beneath the Gardiner Expressway. Suggestions include using a 1.75 km-long section for year-round activities ranging from farmers markets and art shows to ice skating in the winter.

The project is currently known as The Bentway, and formerly called Project: Under Gardiner. The City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto and a philanthropist pledging millions of dollars are on board for the space, which will also serve to unite seven downtown neighbourhoods.

While the final design has yet to be completed, assurances have been made that there will be public input through the project’s website, public meetings, social media and various special events. The goal, like that involved in the collaborative creation of public spaces worldwide, is to envision an area that is attractive and welcoming, thoughtfully designed and one to be used and enjoyed for generations to come.



Storm in a Teacup

Read Our Current Issue


Food for Thought

June 2024

A Living Underwater Laboratory

May 2024

Achieving Equity Through Sustainability

April 2024

More Past Editions

Cover Story

Featured Articles