Creating a new space for ideas on the public realm and the role of placemaking in civic life

Children playing in public splash pad beside a river.

COVID-19 has forced community leaders, planners, and placemakers to reconsider the value of shared spaces to every aspect of public life. Our new Public Realm Learning Journeys are bringing together leaders from three cities to learn what it takes to create and maintain public spaces that are attractive, safe, accessible to everyone, and meaningfully contributing to the community.

Promoting and protecting the social, economic, and environmental health of public places is a challenge shared by communities of all types and sizes. Although the relationship between the built environment and our health has long been a fundamental consideration in urban planning, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how much public places—or the lack of them—can shape our everyday experiences both collectively and individually. 

Physical distancing mandates and other mitigation efforts have encouraged people to spend more time outdoors, highlighting the magnitude of public demand for shared spaces like streets, parks, playgrounds, town courtyards, and outdoor commercial centers that have become lifelines for the communities of all sizes. But access to these spaces is not equally distributed. 14 percent of households across the country lack access to a private outdoor space like a porch, deck, balcony, or patio (American Housing Survey 2019, 1-Year Estimates), to say nothing of the issues of unequal access to parks and other public spaces. Local parks and green spaces have always played a crucial role in maintaining the physical, mental, and social health of the community, but the general role and value of civic assets is now regarded as a public priority. At SGA, we believe that creating amazing places where people want to live, work, and play is one of the most effective strategies for economic development and resilience. 

Now more than ever, local leaders have an important opportunity to come together over innovative approaches to support the creation, maintenance, and protection of civic assets that foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development in our cities. 

“Public spaces provide opportunities for folks of all backgrounds to connect, cultivate trust, and create more resilient communities.” (Knight Civic Commons)

Smart Growth America is proud to be partnering with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to carry out the Public Realm Learning Journeys program. Delegations from Charlotte, NC, Saint Paul, MN, and West Palm Beach, FL are coming together [virtually] to learn from national thought leaders, on-the-ground practitioners, and each other about what it takes to create and maintain public spaces that are attractive, safe, accessible, and meaningfully contribute to the community. While we were eager to gather in person with these impressive local leaders to learn from each other and tour placemaking success stories together, SGA, like everyone else, is making do and adapting during the pandemic.

With representation from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors within each delegation, the program is designed to expose delegates to each other’s perspectives and facilitate local collaboration and coordination on initiatives concerning their shared public realm. During the first phase of the program, delegations will examine real-life successes, challenges, and lessons learned focusing on the following topics:

Session 1: Participatory Placemaking

In addition to defining what “participatory” means in this particular context, delegates discuss how placemaking relates to different elements of public life and the value of involving local voices and artists in the creation, operation, and protection of public spaces. 

Guest speakers:

  • Jamie Bennett, Executive Director at ArtPlace America
  • Peter Svarzbein, El Paso City Council Representative (District 1)
  • Ben Stone, Director of Arts & Culture at Smart Growth America

Session 2: Virtual Community Engagement

This session is focused on providing tools and examples for every stage of community engagement – including outreach, research and education, involvement, collaboration, and long-term shared leadership – to keep our communities moving forward during times of COVID-19. We will explore tools and techniques for virtual engagement and discuss some of the equity considerations that must fundamentally guide the community engagement process.

Session 3: Place Governance 

The successful design and management of public places is complex, requiring a delicate balance of factors like economics, land use and aesthetic design, environmental sustainability, public health, and community development. The Learning Journeys curriculum was designed by the SGA team to inspire communities to adopt effective and inclusive approaches to public life; enable greater depth on key issues and approaches; and create working relationships within and across delegations that will live on beyond the program—and the pandemic. 

This collaborative project is part of a movement to redefine the role that placemakers have on civic life. You can contact the project team to learn more about the initiative or sign up to our mailing list to receive updates on Smart Growth America’s work and the Public Realm Learning Journeys.