In normal times, public spaces and parks meet an important need in cities, where many residents have little room for recreation and limited access to nature. During the pandemic, when most people were largely confined to their homes, and lockdowns limited the number of other places they could go, parks became even more essential as spaces of escape.
“There was a major uptick in usage at many sites, some over 300%,” says Lilly Weinberg, senior director of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation. “What I think that reiterated was this is very important and essential for our communities, especially when there’s a crisis.”
But not all public spaces are created equal. A new report from the Knight Foundation reveals some of the ways that design, governance, and programming can turn parks from simple outdoor spaces to indispensable community assets.
Conducted by the urban planning, design and strategy firm Gehl, the study looked at seven public spaces located in Akron, Detroit, Philadelphia, and San Jose, examining how they were used during the pandemic and identifying the elements of their design and management that helped some stand out.
Planned before the pandemic, the study was meant to evaluate investments the Knight Foundation had made in these public spaces in recent years. These seven sites have received a total of $5 million in direct investment from the foundation, which has dedicated roughly $55 million to public space projects over the past eight years. With feedback from hundreds of park users in each city, and based on interviews with the officials and groups that manage these spaces, the study finds that a park’s success depends on a few key elements.
One big takeaway from the study is that the most successful public spaces are the ones that reflect and build on the needs of the communities they serve through direct involvement. That may seem obvious, but it’s an insight that’s been sorely lacking in much park development over the years. “The public spaces that prioritize engagement, from design to piloting to programming to governance, those were the ones that were most resilient during the pandemic,” Weinberg says. “Engagement has to be built throughout the lifecycle of these projects.”
She points to the example of Ella Fitzgerald Park in Detroit, where community-requested pilot projects such as pop-up bicycle repair stations have been especially popular among community members. They’ve also resulted in parks that are more integrated with their communities. At Ella Fitzgerald Park, more than 50% of park users visit at least once a week.
Successful parks can do more than just provide recreational spaces. Some are now being seen as a way to create jobs. Weinberg says workforce development is being integrated into the way some parks operate, with community development corporations creating jobs programs that can support the maintenance and governance of parks such as Centennial Commons in Philadelphia. It’s an approach that can be especially important in lower-income communities, where new job opportunities in park management benefit the local economy while providing better maintenance of the public space. “If we’re going to have great public spaces they need to be maintained, and they need money. And that is a serious equity issue that we’ve seen across the country,” Weinberg says.
These successes have been made possible partly through funding from organizations such as the Knight Foundation. But Weinberg argues that better parks require more public funding as well. Though city budgets have been hampered by the pandemic, federal pandemic relief and stimulus funding could provide new ways to invest in parks and public spaces. Funding dedicated to neighborhood development or job creation could be linked with efforts to improve parks, achieving multiple goals at once.
“As communities are recovering, and as literally trillions of dollars are being released from the federal government, and with the infrastructure dollars that are going to be pushed out too, communities really should be thinking proactively about how public spaces are a critical infrastructure investment,” Weinberg says.
She says that cities should recognize that the investments they make in parks can have ripple effects through neighborhoods and communities, from direct effects such as job creation to more indirect improvements that come from having residents feel more connected to the public spaces in their neighborhoods. Weinberg says cities need to recognize the important role parks have played during the pandemic and to use newly available funding to ensure they’re able to continue to serve residents after the pandemic.
Such an investment has happened before. During the New Deal, federal funding led to the creation of about 75,000 acres of public spaces across the country. The funding on the table now could help the already existing public spaces and parks in cities to provide even more to their communities.
“This is a really critical moment for public spaces. There’s a lot of money that’s being released, and the moment is now to be able to capture these dollars for your great public spaces,” Weinberg says. “Don’t let this moment go to waste.”