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Public realm for 21st-century cities

January 05, 2017

Over two parts, this article explores the history and current state of open space planning, and how it must adapt as it becomes more complex and costly to develop new public open spaces

North American cities are reinventing themselves with intensification of urban cores, more compact suburbs, and transit-oriented development. But our models for planning for public open space have evolved very little in the last 50 years, and it may be time for a rethink. Space is becoming precious, so we should think about making multifunctional public realm in smaller and more unconventional places.

This article explores the history and current state of open space planning, and how it must adapt as it becomes more complex and costly to develop new public open spaces. The first part deals with the origins and trends in public realm in North America, including why it is important and how uses are changing. The second part of this article will explore the complexity of finding space and new ways of thinking about using the space we have available.


The North American parks movement was highly influenced by European traditions, but adapted to the different context of young countries. The first visible European influence on open spaces is the English town squares and countryside parks brought with the colonists. These town square and countryside parks form part of the design of most early North American cities. The second influence was the French formal garden, epitomized by André Le Nôtre’s work. Theses traditions manifested themselves in the grand ceremonial grounds around major public buildings, creation of large parks that mimicked countryside, and botanical gardens. When embraced by the Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Todd and the City Beautiful movement, the creation of grand civic spaces of an immense scale associated with public buildings, linear parkways and fairgrounds were a remedy to harsh urban conditions and an expression of civic progressiveness and grandeur. That was an era of cheap land and little government reticence about relocating people to make way for public works. Land is no longer cheap, and governments are unlikely to dislodge people and businesses to create new open spaces.

Rapidly growing cities can afford to have big ideas. If land is not readily available, then you can change the paradigm about where you find space. When the City of Toronto recently announced that it planned to build an 8.5-hectare (21-acre) park above rail lines that traverse the downtown, it sparked a resurgence of debate about the need for quality public realm in cities, particularly considering a push toward further intensification. In an op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Mayor John Tory argued that “Toronto is a global metropolis that was once again identified, recently, as one of the world’s most liveable cities. But it will take determination and big dreams to keep it that way. […] There is universal acknowledgement that a bold new park in this part of town is both needed and desired.”[i]

In cities across the continent, citizen bloggers are calling on their civic leaders to think as boldly. As urban populations surge, the demand for open space grows. Opponents of urban infill projects often cite a lack of greenspace. There seems to be a primal desire to leave vacant or derelict brownfields as undeveloped. It could be that the lack of buildings gives a sense of openness to a neighbourhood even if it is not publicly accessible. But in many cases, those concerns are raised in neighbourhoods that have ready access to small parks or regional open space systems. So what lies behind that concern? Are people not being served by the public realm they already have? It begs the question of what type of public realm and, more particularly, public open space we need.

Striving for World-Class Open Spaces

Major civic parks are attractions to many cities, and they can become interwoven with a city’s identity: Central Park and the High Line Park in New York, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Stanley Park in Vancouver, and Millennium Park in Chicago are examples. Many of these parks are a legacy of the City Beautiful movement and its moral imperative to improve the quality of life for urban dwellers through monumentally large public spaces in the hearts of cities.

In addition to creating public realm in unused space and creating previously unseen vantage points on urban life in the city, New York City’s High Line has spurred new private investment in adjacent sites and a property-tax windfall.[ii] Economic development isn’t always the raison d’etre of new public realm development, and it wasn’t the main intent of the High Line project. Nevertheless, its broad impacts have made the project the envy of civic leaders worldwide.

The High Line is no longer just a local amenity or preservation of an urban space with unique qualities. Attracting seven million visitors a year, it has become a destination itself. A scale of visitation well beyond what the proponents expected has placed the park in a different place in the hierarchy of spaces in the public realm.

The City of Vancouver is currently looking at creating its own version of the High Line in the Arbutus rail corridor.[iii] In this instance, a rail line acquired from the Canadian Pacific Railway will become both a transit corridor and a park. Where land prices are high, such ganging up of multiple public uses in the same space is a logical and land-efficient response.

According to Toronto City planners, the new expansive rail deck park planned in downtown Toronto will address key needs for open space not achieved through planned communities or through privately-owned public spaces that have been a centrepiece of downtown approvals in the last decade. But if the park proceeds, it has the potential to create connective tissue between the downtown and the central waterfront and be a civic showpiece on the scale of a High Line. Regardless of the ultimate scale of the project, the fundamental idea of bridging the rail corridor is ingenious in it’s approach to inventing new space, and creating more connection between the downtown and the waterfront. Just like the High line, it adds life to a void in the city. This is the type of creative thinking about space we need for the future.

The “Public Good” in Public Realm

What constitutes the “public” part of public open space, and why is it essential that it be public? UN Habitat defines “public open space” as the sum of the built-up areas of cities devoted to streets and boulevards—including walkways, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes—and the areas devoted to public parks, squares, recreational green areas, public playgrounds and open areas of public facilities.”[iv]

How does that contribute to the quality of urban life? Most people appear to accept the idea that public open space has intrinsic value for cities, but from that point, the consensus breaks apart about how the space should be used and whether there should be private activities in public space. Multiple recent studies demonstrate how green infrastructure found in public open spaces can improve air quality, help manage storm runoff, and create wildlife habitat where they are part of connected urban ecosystems. The earliest park designers understood implicitly that open spaces were linked to healthier living, and research is starting to confirm that link. Cities such as Vancouver, Seattle, and Boston, which have large greenspaces and extensive public pathway systems, are often listed among the most livable cities in the continent.

Quality public open space is considered a crucial planning objective in developing cities, as a matter of social equity and inclusivity. The UN Habitat programme is working on a series of targets for livable and sustainable cities, and they have set a target by 2030 to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”[v]

In a recent interview Mitchell J. Silver, New York City’s Commissioner of Parks, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “If you, as a planner, are saying you'd rather have development than open space, I'd probably ask that your licence be revoked.” He called it “totally unfair to deny people adequate outdoor space. It has bad health outcomes—mental and physical—it increases crime, lowers property value. It's unfair and, in fact, it's unethical.”[vi]

We have increasing evidence to show that parks have a positive economic impact. The UN Habitat report cites a range of research, including data showing that park views raised house prices in the Netherlands by 8%, whilst in Berlin, proximity to playgrounds increased land value by up to 16%. They cite other research showing that business turnover (i.e., the amount of business a company does in a period of time) in a High Street (Main Street) location in London increases by up to 15% following investment in a nearby public space.[vii]

The teams working at the UN Habitat conferences are drawing a clearer picture of links among open space, social cohesion, and sustainability. As income inequality becomes most apparent in our largest cities, the Habitat programme argues that public open spaces can serve as a shared common good:

 “Public space generates equality. Where public space is inadequate, poorly designed, or privatized, the city becomes increasingly segregated. Lines are drawn based on religion, ethnicity, gender, and economic status because people don’t meet or get to know each other. The result can be a polarized city where social tensions are likely to flare up and where social mobility and economic opportunity are stifled. […] Adequate planning and designing public spaces raise issues regarding the right of people to freedom of artistic expression, political assembly and civic empowerment, to enjoy, engage and exchange with each.”[viii]

So it isn’t just about creating space to serve an affluent new population. New open spaces must be thoughtfully designed to meet the needs of a diverse population. The most enduring and loved spaces like Central Park left for us by prior generations embody this universality, and that is what we must leave as a legacy of our work.

Evolution of Use

Planners are conditioned to think about use and form. The landscape designers we work with think about space at a finer-grained level of function, programming, and system relationships. But each profession should not get caught in a trap of imagining a single function at a single point in time. Things are changing so quickly that the idea might not endure. We are in the midst of a wave of change in which social interaction increasingly occurs in the digital realm. When social interactions happen predominantly on line, or when people are more comfortable having their teenagers go to a coffee shop to meet friends than the local park, there are implications for how we plan and design public open space.

In a 2016 report, the Physical Activity Council reported that participation in sports in the United States has fluctuated over the last few years, with an increase in team, winter, water, and fitness sports participation. Participation in individual sports declined slightly in 2015, while racquet and outdoor sports rates remained flat. While overall activity seems to be improving modestly, the report points to an alarming number of people in the United States—81.6 million—who remain inactive.[ix]

Many municipalities now build specialized playing fields for team sports. It is easier to accommodate the artificial turf, washrooms, and lighting when a specialized facility is built as regional rather than a neighbourhood draw. These specialized facilities counteract the demand for sports facilities in local parks that could not provide equivalent amenity value or playing-surface quality.

While team sports may be holding steady or declining, technological innovation has helped kick start individual fitness activity. The advent of personal activity trackers is making people more aware of their sedentary lifestyle, and in some cases, socializing change. Personal trackers tend to be biased toward individual activity. For example, one popular fitness-tracking app awards 30 minutes of running almost four times as many points as playing soccer for the same period.

Things may be changing. A few months after the release of Pokémon Go, it is amazing to see people still congregating in open spaces with their smart phones to “battle for gyms.” They interact with each other in a way that New Urbanist front porches have never delivered.

If planners and designers think of open spaces as multi-functional, inclusive, and capable of adapting over time, the results are much more likely to serve evolving social needs.

“Mixed Use” as an Organizing Idea

International bodies thinking about sustainable and livable urban conditions focus more on the quality of public open space, not its size. The UN Habitat group describes successful public spaces as those that provide multifunctional areas for social interaction, economic exchange, and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people and argues these should be designed and managed to ensure human development, build peaceful and democratic societies, and promote cultural diversity.[x]

North American park typology is in a rapid transformation. As landscape architects and city leaders push the boundaries of design, public spaces like Chicago’s Riverwalk and Underpass Park in Toronto are transforming how we think about urban spaces. Open spaces are being built in unlikely places, reconnecting us with waterways, turning stormwater management into public art, and educating us about the flora and fauna of the urban ecosystem.

Both Frederick Law Olmsted and André Le Nôtre remain influential for open space design in areas with high real estate prices. In Olmsted’s case, it is the landscape systems theory embedded in his work, where open spaces were multifunctional: recreation spaces that were also drainage systems and reservoirs. Le Nôtre’s bousquets, or intimate small enclosed parks, are finding a modern reinterpretation in densely developed urban areas. The even older European tradition of the convergence of parks and markets is also enjoying a resurgence.

Existing public open spaces are being reinvented to provide more functionality, such as the Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh and the National Capital Commission’s Sir John A. Macdonald Riverfront Park in Ottawa. These plans aspire to improve public access to shorelines, augment natural systems, and add amenities. Major reinvestment in Union Square Park in New York City drove a more intense mixed use of that space, with an improved greenmarket, new trees, playground, and a seasonal restaurant.

For the last 15 to 20 years, urban planners, architects, and designers have made great progress undoing the mono-use zoning of the previous generations and reintroducing mixed uses as crucial to civic vibrancy. As land becomes even more expensive and scarce in densifying cities, we must become more creative about where we find public open space and how we program it for current sensibilities and future flexibility. We must think creatively about where we build parks, and we should bring the same mixed-use philosophy to how they are designed. Public realm must be viewed with the lens of systems thinking: parts of social, ecological systems and urban infrastructure systems.

[i] Toronto must boldly invest in its future—starting with a new downtown park, John Tory, The Globe and Mail, Aug. 26, 2016



[iv] Adequate Open Public Space in Cities, A Human Settlements Indicator for Monitoring the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, A Presentation of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) at the Expert Group Meeting on the Indicator framework for the post-2015 development agenda, New York City, 25-26 February 2015

[v] Adequate Open Public Space in Cities, A Human Settlements Indicator for Monitoring the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, A Presentation of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) at the Expert Group Meeting on the Indicator framework for the post-2015 development agenda, New York City, 25-26 February 2015

[vi] August 27 2016 Green power: NYC's parks commissioner on why parks are essential Amanda Hooton, Sydney Morning Herald

[vii] UN-­‐Habitat Global report on Human Settlements: Planning Sustainable Cities (2009)

[viii] UN Habitat, HABITAT III Issue Paper 11 – Public Space, New York, 31 May 2015

[ix] Physical Activity Council, 2016 Participation Report

[x] UN Habitat, HABITAT III ISSUE PAPERS 11 – PUBLIC SPACE New York, 31 May 2015

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