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The Benefits of Public Spaces in Cities

From sustainability to safety, here’s how urban shared spaces can be a powerful lever for change. 

Vancouver public space Image: Istock
Image: Istock

Published on July 12, 2022

For more than 30 years, Evergreen has been helping communities across Canada be more livable, green and prosperous. 

As crucial social and environmental infrastructure, public spaces can be a powerful lever for change. From sustainability to safety, the benefits of urban public spaces help meet a variety of community needs and function as a connection point that increases community health and vibrancy.

“People need spaces to be with each other, interact with each other,” says Jonathan Massimi, a Kitchener, Ont. based community organizer, adjunct professor at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, Ont., and associate with Nurture Development.

Massimi is also a Community Expert in Evergreen’s Future City Builders program, which brings together young people to address “healthy city” challenges. He says that, growing up, public spaces provided a space where he could connect to others through a shared interest like sports or festivals.

So, why does Evergreen think access to public space is one of the most pressing issues facing Canadian cities? Here are some of the reasons public space is so important.

Two people talking at market at Evergreen Brick Works

Public space builds a sense of community

Public space is a platform for shared community interests. Cities with vibrant, multi-use public space are more livable and attractive for a diverse array of people.

Rather than simply being an occasional destination, public space can be integrated into daily life, says Orit Sarfaty, Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer.

“Can I make your commute to the subway more fun by going through this park, can I have a farmers market you can visit on your way to getting dinner, can I make a dog park you want to visit.”

Beyond simple access, the act of placemaking itself further builds community by creating a process that fosters a sense of community involvement. Placemaking brings together diverse people to plan, and manage shared-use spaces, and this collaboration can be vital to creating partnerships that empower and build communities. 

Couple walking on path Toronto

Public space can benefit your physical and mental health

Numerous studies show that spending time in nature is good for your health, even strengthening your immune system and improving cardiovascular and metabolic health. Health-care providers in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario can even offer “Parks Prescriptions”. The program recommends spending time in green spaces, which can have a nurturing effect on your mental health, according to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

But you don’t need to go “forest bathing” to see benefits. In an analysis of public space across London, U.K., researchers studied the link between hard-surfaced spaces and individual wellbeing. Due to their ability to cluster people together in an intimate space, these spaces help foster opportunities for passive and active social interaction. 

Massimi says that connecting with others in shared-space settings is vital to healthy communities.

“When roaming my neighbourhood, I tend to take someone else with me,” he says. “It provides an opportunity to share and talk and check in on how others are doing in life. Public spaces can open the opportunity to connect with neighbours and to see ways that I can potentially invest in their lives. Public space offers those physical health benefits, but also encourages being around others.”

Groups of people walking at Evergreen Brick Works green space

Public spaces that are climate resilient enhances urban sustainability

Public spaces that are low-carbon and climate-resilient can directly enhance sustainability. Green spaces in cities, such as parks and gardens, have a number of positive impacts on the urban environment, including reducing the likelihood of flooding and air pollution and lessening the urban heat island effect. 

“If the site was originally a parking lot and you’ve replaced the asphalt with shade and grass, there’s a measurable difference in carbon just through those improvements,” Sarfaty says.  

But other shared-use spaces can have measurable impacts as well, she adds. 

“If it’s an existing space that has a single use, then there is an environmental benefit to making it work harder for that carbon emission that it’s expending. For example, school is out so that same campus can offer adult language classes one day and a farmers market on another day. Now the ratio of carbon emissions-to-use is greatly reduced.” 

Sarfaty also points to the idea of a 15-minute city, an urban concept in which most daily necessities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from residents’ homes. Public spaces can be so attractive that people give up their backyard to live in an urban setting, thereby reducing the entire city’s environmental impact.

“A space can be so dynamic, like Central Park in New York City, that I will give up on my house because it’s so much better to have my brunch in Central Park,” she says. 

Two people sitting on bench talking

Public space can make cities safer

Urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs famously wrote that neighbourhoods were safer when there were “eyes on the street”.

“There’s the safety aspect of being outside and being in public spaces,” Massimi says. “We get to see what’s happening – are there events or situations that are occurring that are potentially harmful.”

How public spaces are designed can impact how they contribute to public safety. Shared-use spaces that have ample room for walking and abundant lighting, for example, will help keep more eyes on the street. 

 

“There’s this phenomenon of being in a big city but your level of loneliness is very high. But social cohesion through a public space where people are able to share and interact with one another have major impacts on public trustworthiness.”
Orit Sarfarty, Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer

 

Meanwhile, green residential spaces often become informal gathering places that nurtures the formation of neighbourhood social ties. The idea of social cohesion is closely tied to public safety, says Sarfaty.

“There’s this phenomenon of being in a big city but your level of loneliness is very high. But social cohesion through a public space where people are able to share and interact with one another have major impacts on public trustworthiness.”

Learn more about healthy city solutions

The Future City Builders program brings together like-minded young people to design a concrete solution to address “healthy city” challenges in their city. 

Evergreen has worked with more than 325 young people over the last three years to pitch 65 projects across Canada and pilot 30 new solutions. Projects include: combating food security issues by building apartment balcony vegetable boxes and building youth community councils to give young people a stronger voice in local decision-making. 

The Future City Builders program is generously funded by Beanfield Metroconnect, Future Skills Centre, the Government of Canada and RBC Future Launch, as well as other anonymous funders.