Harness The Power Of The Public Realm

“The task of creating the tools, systems, sources and ethics that will allow the planet to grow in cleaner, more sustainable ways is going to be the biggest challenge of our lifetime.”

--Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded

Communities throughout the United States and the world are using a variety of strategies to become more sustainable--preparing sustainability plans and climate action plans; establishing new policies, regulations and standards; and creating new programs, incentives and funding initiatives. But many communities are missing out on a simple strategy with potentially big benefits--planning and designing their own public realm.

There is no universally accepted definition of “public realm,” but it generally refers to a community’s system of parks, streets, trails, natural areas, storm water-treatment facilities and civic/cultural spaces. As an interconnected system, it provides communities with a significant opportunity to advance all three legs of sustainability--economic development, environmental protection and social stability. According to Professor John Crompton at Texas A & M University, specific potential benefits of the public realm include:


• Attracting tourists

• Attracting businesses

• Attracting retirees

• Enhancing real-estate values

• Reducing taxes

• Stimulation of equipment sales


• Protecting drinking water

• Controlling flooding

• Cleaning air

• Reducing traffic congestion

• Reducing energy costs

• Preserving biological diversity


• Reducing environmental stress

• Community regeneration

• Cultural and historic preservation

• Facilitating healthy lifestyles

• Alleviating deviant youth behavior

• Raising levels of education attainment

• Alleviating unemployment distress.

Giving the public realm such great potential to achieve sustainability benefits are:

• Its size

• Its ownership pattern.

In most communities, the public realm accounts for at least 30 to 40 percent of the community land mass; the public realm of Norfolk, Va., for example, is estimated to comprise over 50 percent of the city (see diagram). Even more important than the size of the public realm, however, is its ownership pattern; most communities’ public realms are owned and managed by only a handful of public agencies, as opposed to the “private realm” (primarily homes, businesses and institutions) which is owned by tens of thousands of individuals. So a typical community in the U.S. today has control of almost half of its land mass--a significant and often untapped opportunity--to become more sustainable.

Public-Realm Planning Process

Developing a plan is the first step towards harnessing the sustainability power of the public realm. The process begins by identifying key stakeholders, such as public-agency department heads (public works, planning, parks, administration, etc.), business leaders, environmental groups, social-service agencies, economic/tourism-development agencies, elected officials and others. Interview them to discuss existing conditions, community needs and opportunities to become more sustainable. Then ask them to participate on an advisory committee for the project. An added benefit of the planning process is that it brings key community stakeholders together to build broad support for a common vision, and transcends the typical barriers between public and/or private agencies.

The next step is the inventory and evaluation of the various public-realm “subsystems.” These typically include both sites and corridors, such as:

• Parks

• Civic sites

• Community/recreation centers

• Schools and libraries

• Streets and transit corridors

• Greenways, bikeways and trails

• Preserves and natural areas

• Boat ramps and water access

• Athletic facilities

• Urban agriculture

• Storm-water drainage

• Historical and cultural resources

• Public art

• Programs

• Operations and maintenance.

Each subsystem has its own physical system, its own constituency group and its own unique issues. By dividing the public realm into these subsystems, planners and stakeholders are better able to understand existing conditions and identify opportunities to contribute to community sustainability.

Inventory, map out, and evaluate the various subsystems; then use a community-wide process to develop a long-range vision for each subsystem. Each vision identifies the improvements required for the subsystem to:

• Function efficiently

• Meet the needs of the community

• Make the community more sustainable.

For instance, a community/recreation center subsystem vision typically includes ideas to transition to renewable energy sources while a greenways, bikeways and trails subsystem vision includes strategies to increase alternative modes of transportation and access. Each subsystem vision includes proposed physical improvements, programs, policies and other initiatives that will improve economic, environmental and/or social sustainability.

Aggregate the subsystem visions into a unified community-wide vision for the public realm; prioritize improvements proposed by the advisory committee based on available and projected funding, community needs, potential return on investment and/or other criteria established during the planning process. The resultant action/implementation plan establishes 1-, 5- and 10-year actions to make the community more sustainable. It also identifies proposed funding source(s) for each action, as well as the responsible agency for each action. The implementation plan also identifies metrics or “indicators” to measure the community’s progress towards becoming more sustainable. Public-realm projects often represent the “low-hanging fruit” of sustainability initiatives because they can be implemented relatively quickly by public agencies.

Typical Examples Of Public-Realm Sustainability Benefits

Each community defines sustainability differently, but most communities are trying to accomplish a “shortlist” of sustainability goals:


• Increase tax revenues, and/or decrease costs to provide public facilities and services

• Provide well-paying jobs

• Provide adequate mobility and access to support the economy


• Provide clean air

• Provide clean drinking water

• Preserve and improve biodiversity

• Reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the rate of climate change

• Decrease the use of fossil fuels, and increase the use of renewable sources of energy


• Maintain physical and mental health through good food, exercise and medical care

• Provide safe environments in which to live, work, and play

• Provide safe, clean, affordable places to live

• Provide a quality education.

Every public-realm planning and design project can generate at least one of these benefits, and oftentimes many more. Following are some typical examples.


At the most general level, it is well-documented that the public realm can increase tax revenues by attracting new businesses and retirees, particularly through the planning and design of parks, greenways and trails. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida notes that highly creative, mobile workers require “parks and trails close at hand,” and that “lifestyle trumps employment when choosing where to live” or relocate. Similarly, John Crompton in his book Community Benefits and Repositioning, notes that retirees are seeking a “recreation-oriented” way of life, and that attracting 100 new retirees to a community is the equivalent of attracting a new business with $4 million in business expenditures. He calls retiree migration the “new cleangrowth industry in America today.” A quick review of the popular “best places to retire” lists published each year verifies the correlation between robust parks, greenways and trails systems, and a community’s attractiveness as a retirement destination.

The public-realm planning process can identify more specific opportunities to increase revenues as well. Most communities can easily increase their park concession operations (food, equipment rentals, etc.), for example, resulting in an increase in both jobs and revenues. New York’s Central Park is reported to generate almost $50 million/year in revenues through its various concessions, such as ice skating, carriage rides, vendor carts and restaurants.

Redevelopment projects can significantly increase adjacent property values. For example, the Orange County, Fla., Parks and Recreation Department spearheaded the acquisition and redevelopment of an abandoned rail line into the 23-mile West Orange Trail, which is estimated to have increased property values in downtown Winter Garden from $10.3 million in 1992 to $88.5 million in 2009. Similarly, the Chelsea warehouse district in New York City saw significant increases in adjacent property values upon completion of the High Line, an elevated rail line converted into a scenic pedestrian promenade. The City of San Carlos, Calif., estimates that its tax base has increased by approximately $1.1 million through the proper maintenance of its parks. And Chicago developed the 25-acre Millennium Park, the “crowning achievement of Chicago,” which is credited with attracting tourists; increasing hotel and restaurant revenues; raising adjacent real estate values by $100/square foot; and generating a $1.4-billion increase in residential development.

Public-realm projects along public canals, lakes and waterfronts also provide opportunities to increase tax revenues. The San Antonio Riverwalk, Chattanooga’s Riverfront and Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Waterfront are all examples of water-related projects that have generated a return on investment many times over their original capital costs.

Streets are another key component that can boost tax revenues. Many streets have been designed strictly in accordance with engineering standards without regard for adjacent land uses. The public-realm planning process can identify opportunities to redesign key commercial and residential streets to

1. Forge a stronger relationship between the street and adjacent land uses

2. Enhance adjacent property values

3. Re-position adjacent properties for redevelopment.


In addition to identifying projects and initiatives to increase a community’s economic sustainability, the public-realm planning process also can identify opportunities to increase environmental sustainability. Parks and recreation departments have historically led community efforts to acquire and manage environmentally sensitive lands; to provide environmental education outreach and programs; and to plan and build trails and greenway networks for both recreation and transportation. The city of Boulder, Colo., for example, created a greenbelt to preserve its mountain backdrop and to help control sprawl. The first acquisition--in 1898--was land for a “mountain park,” but as the twentieth century progressed, the city began a strategy that combined an urban-growth boundary with an aggressive, fee-simple acquisition of key lands to form a defined ring around Boulder. Similarly, the Miami-Dade County Parks and Open Space Plan defines a 40-plus-mile greenbelt to re-enforce the county’s urban services boundary; to protect and enhance wildlife habitat; to provide storm-water treatment; to protect the Everglades; and to provide opportunities for resource-based recreation for county residents and visitors.

Many parks and recreation departments are taking the lead in green building practices. The city of Charleston, S.C., is installing green roofs on some of its newest recreation buildings, and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department is renovating multiple recreation centers to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified. Many public agencies are also adopting “best-management practices” for their public lands including the use of:

• Low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants

• Reclaimed water

• Shade

• Transit, bicycle, pedestrian access

• Bioswales and rain gardens

• Pervious pavements

• Minimal fertilizer/pesticide use

• Ground covers substituted for sod

• Self-composting restrooms

• Preservation of wetlands, natural habitat

• Solar panels, wind and other renewable energy sources

• Natural ventilation

• Balanced energy/water use

• Clean-fuel maintenance vehicle fleets.

The public-realm planning process can help communities establish these practices, and also establish “indicators” to track the community’s progress towards becoming more environmentally sustainable. Typical environmental indicators include air and water quality, habitat quantity and quality, and use of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Considering that the public realm accounts for 40 percent or more of the land mass of many communities, adopting these practices can have a significant impact on the community’s overall environmental sustainability.


Finally, the public-realm planning process can also help communities become more socially sustainable by identifying opportunities to improve health, safety, housing and education. Cabarrus County, N.C., for example, has developed an “Incubator Farm” to “grow farmers” in response to the aging farming population and the increasing demand for locally produced food. And the city of Lakeland, Fla., Parks and Recreation Department helped increase home ownership to 80-percent owner-occupied homes in the historic Dixieland neighborhood through the revitalization of the central Dixieland School and Dobbins Park, working in partnership with various community agencies.

Youth obesity is a major social health issue facing many communities, and the public-realm planning process can identify numerous opportunities to improve fitness through community design. For example, the South Bend, Ind., Parks and Recreation Department started a city-wide health initiative to reduce obesity and improve fitness and nutrition, reaching over 10,000 community members through its “We Can!” (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition) program. Also, studies have shown that the proper planning and design of sidewalks, bike paths and parks can have a significant impact on obesity and fitness. And national programs like “Safe Walks to Schools” are funding sidewalk improvements to encourage kids and parents to walk to school, which benefits the community, not only socially but environmentally as well.

The public-realm process can also identify opportunities to improve community safety. The city of West Palm Beach Parks and Recreation Department helped reduce crime in the northwest area of the city by 25 percent through the establishment of Neighborhood Empowerment Centers. In response to a summertime increase in gang-related youth crimes, the city of Los Angeles initiated its “Summer Night Lights” program that focused on 16 parks in 12 of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city; expanded and extended recreation programs until midnight; and employed at-risk youth, ages 17 to 20, to help staff the parks and programs. The city credits the program with a 17-percent drop in violent gang-related crimes, an 86-percent reduction in gang-related homicides, and the city’s safest summer since 1967.

In recent years, public libraries and community centers have moved to the forefront of social sustainability. A recent Associated Press article stated that “a third of Americans … use public-library computers to look for jobs, connect with friends, do their homework, and improve their lives.” And among households below the poverty line,” 44 percent reported using public-library computers and Internet for education purposes.” Libraries also serve as a central gathering space for socialization and community services. During a typical day at the new downtown West Palm Beach public library, for example, patrons could receive an H1N1 flu vaccination, enjoy lunch in the library café, and attend a free jazz concert in the evening. The public-realm planning process can identify opportunities for libraries and community recreation centers to help meet even more of the community’s social needs, including:

• Health, fitness, nutrition information and programs

• Health services and screening

• Partnerships with healthcare providers

• GED, collegeprep

• Computer training

• Financial management

• Resume and interview training

• Job research and referral

• Mentoring

• Counseling and tutoring

• Leadership training.

The breadth and size of the public realm, coupled with its relatively small number of owners and managers, provides public agencies with a readily available platform for making real contributions to a community’s economic, environmental and social sustainability. Many public-realm projects--park concessions and special events, sidewalk and bikeway improvements, tree-planting programs and computer labs--can have an immediate impact at a relatively low cost, and can be often funded by federal, state and local grants. An added benefit of the public-realm planning process is that it is not only effective in identifying new opportunities to improve sustainability, but often helpful for a community to transcend the typical “silos” between public agencies, community leaders and other stakeholders. The public-realm plan is a serious planning tool that will benefit any community striving to become more sustainable.

David Barth , ASLA, AICP, CPRP, is vice president at Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc. For information, visit www.glatting.com.