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Don’t forget the value of public spaces in the urban rush

Noor Itrakjy and Afiif Hossenbaccus

Think of the world’s greatest cities, and it’s the usually the public spaces that come to mind – the breezy parks, elegant squares, grand monuments and bustling streets which we pass on our way to and from home.

However, with the rapid rate of urban growth – especially in the developing world – it’s easy for governments to forgo the public realm altogether in order to squeeze in more housing, an extra office block, or to improve transport links. Developers may also be unwilling to take on the maintenance costs of incorporating public spaces in their projects, or may find the high cost of land makes it economically unviable to do so. It is often difficult to quantify the economic benefits of improving public spaces, meaning it compares badly on the balance sheet to more commercially-driven developments.

But there are many ways that well designed public spaces can generate substantial economic value:

Attract investment: As urban centres compete for investment, well maintained square, parks, gardens and public facilities can make all the difference in attracting new businesses. Families, students and tourists are also keen to move to areas with a better quality of life; these consumers will further boost the local economy.

Increase retail spending: Better public realm leads to higher footfall. This was seen in Coventry, where a programme of work ranging from a new civic square, pedestrianised streets and better signage to the introduction of an alcohol-free zone and better CCTV increased footfall in the town centre by 25% stimulating local businesses. In London, high street business turnover increases by anything from 5-15% following investment in a nearby public space.

Spearhead regeneration: Good public spaces can be key in the development of neglected areas, providing a new focal point for inward investment. A recent example is the Highline in New York – an elevated park built on a 2.3km stretch of derelict rail line – which attracted 5M visitors a year since the last phase opened in 2014 and is credited with leading the regeneration of that part of the city.

Raise land value: Generous public spaces have been shown to raise property prices nearby. A study in the Netherlands showed that having a view of water can increase house prices by 10%, while in Berlin, close proximity to a playground increases land values by up to 16%. While this is positive news for homeowners, increased land values also means higher tax yields to central government when properties are bought and sold.

In addition to these direct economic benefits, there are several social and environmental benefits which have an indirect but sizeable impact on the economy:

Social benefits

Shape identity: Public spaces shape our cities and create community identity. They are the places where we are most likely to meet new people, which has social benefits and encourages the dynamism of our greatest cities.

Bring people together: Poorly-designed spaces can entrench segregation on sectarian, religious or economic lines, by reinforcing barriers between different neighbourhoods. These barriers can be reduced or eliminated by designing a public realm that is accessible to all.

Cut crime: Installing better lighting and CCTV can help to cut crime, as well as the fear of crime. Other interventions, such as street widening and developing programmes such as neighbourhood watch schemes can also have a positive effect.

Environmental benefits

Improve health: Green spaces provide a free resource for leisure activities, which in increasingly sedentary societies can help to reduce obesity and related conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. A well maintained public realm can also help to reduce stress, another key issue in our cities. The cumulative saving on health costs can be sizeable

Mitigate pollution: From tree-lined streets to major parks, urban greenery helps to reduce air and water pollution in cities, helping to make cities more attractive to live in and bringing health benefits too.

Many of these benefits are only apparent in the long term, so are neglected in favour of more immediate needs. Finding better ways of quantifying the indirect social and environmental benefits will help make the business case for investment in the public realm.

If forums such as Habitat III aim to promote sustainable cities and urban centres which promote health and prosperity, then the importance of public spaces must be on the agenda.

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