Research Essay: Public Space, Population, and the City

The concept of a city itself is one that everyone is familiar with and has countless examples throughout the course of history. Within the very structure and physical build of a city itself lies the population that inhabits it, they are a crucial factor in the composition of a city. The structural composition of a city can be categorized into public and private spaces with the former making up most of a city’s space. Public space is usually funded by and built for the city and can be found almost anywhere in any region. Some examples of public space that are of familiarity to most people include, sidewalks, parks, plazas, and restaurants. Throughout visual surveys of a city, you will notice that someone is always using a public space at any time of the day. You will often find someone sitting on a bench while reading a newspaper, a group of friends talking near a water fountain, kids running around in a playground, or a whole festival taking place at a local park. The general population makes use of these public spaces and its existing surroundings in ways that satisfy them. However, the city’s population are not the only ones to benefit from public spaces, the city itself and the local government are also beneficiaries. It is clear to understand that everyone uses and benefits from having public space, which is what attracts them to it.

The inclusion of public space in a city is in part, a driving force for community creation. The actual process of creating a public space can be considered the seeds that grow into a community. According to the quote from the article, “Why Public Places Are the Key to Transforming Our Communities.”, which states “…the very process of placemaking — the community engagement necessary in organizing, deliberating, communicating, building, programming and maintaining public places — is as important for strengthening and empowering local communities as the physical outcome” (Rutherford). The quote’s gist is that the undertaking of public spaces from its planning, construction, and use is done by the work of many individual workers, the community even. Thus building not only the public space itself, but also a community out of it.

A public space is the basis that builds relationships between individuals. If you enter any public space, you tend to see the same gathering of individuals interacting with each other most of the time. These people have built a relationship and a bond of trust with each other over the course of attending the public space. This is true according to a principle in the written work “The Life and Death of American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. A quote from the reading states, “The trust of a city street is formed overtime from many, many little public sidewalk contacts” (Jacobs). The formation of trust and relationships is due to the instances of contact that people have with each other in public spaces such as a sidewalk. Many individuals who frequently visit public spaces may find this true, their current relationships would not have been established, had they not visited the space.

Three people sitting on a bench in a public space

Public space facilitates the gatherings of individuals which causes a chain reaction that attracts other people. A person can be excited or curious if something that interests them is happening near them especially if it involves others. This is true according to the quote by Jan Gehl, author of “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space” which states, “Wherever there are people – in buildings, in neighborhoods, in city centers, in recreational areas, and so on – it is generally true that people and human activities attract other people. People are attracted to other people. They gather with and move about with others and seek to place themselves near others. New activities begin in the vicinity of events that are already in progress.” (Gehl). Any gathering that occurs in a public space is started by a small group, this causes a domino effect where the number of participants increase as time goes on. It is human nature for people to be attracted and interested by the association with other individuals which is a reason why people tend to visit public spaces, thus making public space a necessary component for a society to engage with one another.

A public space has a variety of uses which become beneficial to individuals. Through observation, you can see what commonly occurs in a public space, friends and family gathering to converse with each other, festivals, celebrations, and people exercising. According to the quotes from Van Hecke, the author of “Factors Related with Public Open Space Use among Adolescents: A Study Using GPS and Accelerometers.”, he states, “: Public open spaces may be effective areas to promote physical activity among groups at risk for physical inactivity (i.e. low educated and non-western-European adolescents).” (Van Hecke), “Public open spaces can be important locations for adolescents’ physical activity.” (Van Hecke). As well as a quote from a study created by Cohen, Deborah, and Bing Han titled “Measuring the Use of Public Neighborhood Parks.” which states,  “More detailed assessment of characteristics could also include a tally of activities, either summarized as a level of energy expenditure (e.g., sedentary, moderate physical activity or vigorous physical activity), which is an important measure when it comes to health and well-being, or described as a type of activity (e.g., tennis, basketball, picnicking),” (Cohen, Deborah, Bing Han). These are one of the many benefits an individual can reap from public spaces which is the opportunity to perform physical activities such as exercising, playing basketball, jogging, etc. This leads to an effective source of physical activity which promotes good health toward the individual. Another health benefit from public space comes from an article written by Lisa Yang titled, “Top Five Reasons Public Space Is Important.”  which states, “public spaces such as parks create a relaxing and inviting atmosphere where people can come and decompress from their stressful daily routines at home and work either by relaxing or being physically active. Parks can also mitigate air, climate and water pollution that is all around us.” (Yang). This means that public spaces like parks, gives people a more pleasing surrounding and provides an environmental contrast from the city which is comprised of mostly concrete.  Another aforementioned benefit is that public space itself being a foundation for relationship and trust building where an individual can potentially meet their significant other or a new group of acquaintances. These social and health benefits contribute to what attracts individuals to public spaces.

The crowded public sidewalks of New York City

The benefits that a public space offers do not stop with the population, but also includes the institution that manages the city itself. A driving force for a city is economically where it partially operates on the revenue it makes. For example, an article written by Marisa Novara titled “The Economic Benefits of Great Public Places.” states that, “Last year, a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe statue was placed on an uninviting concrete slab along Michigan Avenue. The sculpture generated high pedestrian traffic and, according to the Chicago Tribune, helped to lease underutilized space on the first floor of surrounding buildings. A restaurateur opening a new eatery next door at Tribune Tower noted that all of his locations are in high pedestrian traffic zones.” (Novara). This article provides a real-life example where a public space such as the mentioned statue provides pedestrian traffic for local businesses to profit from and thus the city economically benefits. A non-economic benefit is the individual identity and recognition that a city can be famous for. In a real-life example, New York City which is known by various names such as the Big Apple or the City That Never Sleeps. New York City is considered one of the major cities in the world and this is partially attributed to the several public spaces the city is famous for such as the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and the Empire State Building. These landmarks are indeed public space and are met with millions of visitors which in turn, benefits the city by giving it popularity and additional economic growths. Another benefit the city yields from public space is making use of abandoned spaces. According to the quote from “Top Five Reasons Public Space Is Important.” by Lisa Yang, it states, “Amanda Burden, the former director of the New York City Department of City Planning, provided an example of a degraded waterfront in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The waterfront was abandoned and nearly impossible to access. Consequently, there was little to no traffic or economic activity. It was basically a waste of space in a beautiful city. A group of architects took on the project and transformed the waterfront into a public space filled with green parks and tree-lined paths.” (Yang), which provides a real-world example in which a city utilized it’s wasted space and put it to use, thus utilizing its resources which in turn benefits the city in the long run.

The contrast between New York City and it’s largest public space, Central Park.

In order for a public space to be effective in a city, it has to be built in a way that invokes inclusion. According to the quote by authors Salas-Olmedo, María Henar, and Carolina Rojas Quezada who created the study “The Use of Public Spaces in a Medium-Sized City: From Twitter Data to Mobility Patterns.” which states “There is however another raising field of interest related to the use of public spaces, with the focus on the shared spaces. The aim is to help reducing social exclusion by promoting the shared use of public spaces as opposed to the existence of segregated places.” (Olmedo, Henar, Quezada). This quote states that public space should be inclusive socially and not separated which makes it effective. The following quotes by Jan Gehl who wrote “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space,” she states, “Good architecture ensures good interaction between public space and public life.” (Gehl), and “In order to encourage crowds of pedestrians to flow smoothly and still create the best conditions for inviting people to use public space, it is vital to have basic and specific knowledge of where people move and stay in individual spaces.” (Gehl) These quotes elaborate on how architects should consider the social factors in planning the construction of a public space such as determining where to place tables and benches. This will ensure that the constructed public space is both effective in social and physical inclusion and provide a satisfying experience for its attendees.

Public spaces have been a major contribution to cities throughout history. The inclusion of public spaces provides a blank canvas for many uses and provides several benefits to both the local government and individuals alike. Individuals can create relationships, host events, and have physical and mental health improvement from having access to public spaces. Cities benefit from public spaces through the revenue it gains and the identity it is known for due to housing famous public spaces and landmarks. Public spaces should be built with social and physical factors in mind in order to make the space effective for all. In conclusion, public spaces are effective for its uses and benefits for both the city and its population.