Positive First Impressions

One of the reasons The Boeing Company chose Chicago for its new corporate headquarters was “the city’s quality of life, including recreation opportunities, its downtown and urban life.” Corporate officials--like those at Boeing--understand that the public realm is a key factor in a community’s quality of life. They want to know whether communities offer barren highways without provisions for pedestrians or bicycles, or tree-lined boulevards and parkways with wide sidewalks and bike lanes. Are there parks, greenways and trails? Will employees and their families be able to enjoy museums, outdoor art festivals, theater and other public events?

Successful communities understand the importance of these concerns in competing for new businesses, jobs, tax dollars, tourism and residents. Parks and recreation agencies often take on the challenge of leading development in the public realm--creating positive impressions for residents and visitors alike. The first step for leaders is to create a vision for the public realm, which should include the following:

Quality Streets

One of the most important elements of a community, the street affects many of our personal habits. The quality and design of streets determine whether we walk to work, go for a run, or stroll to the corner coffee shop.

Street design also influences the quality of a person’s life in commuting to school or work. A narrow, tree-lined street provides a calmer and more pleasant commute than a busy six-lane highway. And safe bicycle lanes provide opportunities for exercise and reduce transportation costs. Bike lanes also minimize cyclists’ conflicts with motorists and pedestrians.


People associate “walkability” with livable and vibrant communities.

Sidewalks should be wide enough for pedestrians to pass other people without being crowded or jostled. A wide, shady sidewalk provides a much more enjoyable stroll than a narrow strip of concrete adjacent to the curb. Communities should also strive for roads with on-street parking and tree lawns, which serve as a buffer between pedestrians and traffic.

Access To Parks, Greenways and Trails

Communities can enhance their quality of life by providing access to parks, greenways and trails. These open spaces promote exercise, land conservation and public gatherings. People of all ages engage in after-school and work recreation programs at parks and community centers, including sports leagues, fitness programs and personal health classes. Access to these spaces enables friends to meet for lunch in a city plaza, children to use local parks for recess and seniors to visit a community center for tai chi.

On weekends, parks and civic spaces play an even more important role. Farmers’ markets, festivals, concerts, fund raisers and other special events provide occasions for people to come together. These are places where memories are made--taking a quiet stroll at sunset, rowing a canoe across a sparkling lake or embarking on a family bike ride.

Natural areas also enhance a community’s sense of balance and sustainability. People want to know that their drinking water is pure, that there is adequate land to support wildlife, that endangered species are protected and that the air is clean. They want to be assured that forests, lakes, wetlands, mountains and other natural areas will be preserved, particularly as the man-made environment seems to change daily. Perhaps no other element of the public realm is so dear to residents.

Enjoyable Civic Sites

Many people associate an attractive community with diverse cultural options, especially evening or weekend activities. Civic sites such as museums, gardens, theaters, monuments, battlegrounds and historic buildings are an important part of the public realm. Like parks and open spaces, cultural and historic places bring the community together for celebrations, memorials, lectures, exhibitions, shows and performances. These places enrich communities with unique character and flavor.

Communities striving to compete for new residents and businesses should take stock of the existing public realm, identify the gaps between existing and desired conditions, and develop a long-range vision. A city’s public realm showcases its sense of community, environmental ethics, civic pride and commitment to quality of life. A quality system of parks, streets, trails, conservation areas, public art and open spaces doesn’t just benefit current residents--it forms first and lasting impressions that will attract new business and spur economic growth.

David Barth, ASLA, AICP, CPRP, is a Principal of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Inc., a community-planning and design firm with offices in Orlando, West Palm Beach, Atlanta and Denver. For more information, visit www.glatting.com.