Local Government Magazine

Public space programming – Why rebuild when you can reimagine?

Craig Pocock puts the case for testing tired urban spaces with public space programming to avoid the high carbon cost of urban renewal.

As a designer, it is hard to admit that design is not always the best solution for a degraded public space. The process of design is rewarding both professionally and personally. As designers, we like to be seen as the creative solution-provider, especially if it is publishable or award-winning work. “Brilliant designer saves a community with imaginative new rethink of an old tired space,” is always rewarding reading.

Selling design is also how most of us make a living. With every redesign, there are fees to be made from the initial concept through to project management. Hence, it is hard not to want design to be the first solution for all “problem spaces”.

However, redesigning a space may not be the best or even the right solution every time. There may be cheaper, more effective and more environmentally-friendly options for most urban public spaces that are starting to look a little tired, under-utilised or experiencing anti-social behaviour.

That solution may be public space programming: organising events in a public space that encourages the community to use it. It requires an organisation – sometimes local government-led, sometimes community-led – to create and encourage a range of daily, weekly, monthly and annual events within that space, or in a series of connected spaces, such as a downtown business district.

Events might range from lunchtime busking, monthly farmers markets or an annual three-day sculpture event. The options are only limited by the organisation’s imagination.

Public space programming often not only reactivates a space, saving it from the carbon and financial costs of the bulldozers, it can also encourage diverse segments of the community to use spaces: at the same time building community cohesion.

It can encourage portions of the population that are currently under-represented in public spaces – such as youth, retirees or people who are economically disadvantaged – to reconnect not only to that space and the wider community but with organisations that may benefit them.

It brings people out of their homes to engage in social events that build community, reconnects the community with nature and gives people a better understanding of the greater public space networks and surrounding environments. It allows communities to express themselves: whether it be at a colourful soap box derby or a food market. Social programmes will often have a healthy focus on movement: from yoga in the park to a zombie walk in the plaza.

I know this is not a new idea and I am not promoting public space programming solely for the benefit of community-building. My interest is the use of public space programming to avoid the high carbon cost of urban renewal and its contribution to the crippling impact of climate change.

Even a simple urban space will cost thousands of tons of carbon per square hectare. The community can’t afford to pay this carbon cost every 20-30 years which seems to be the unnecessarily low average life expectancy of urban spaces in New Zealand.

The Pearl development in San Antonio celebrating the day of the dead.Chinese lantern festival on the Riverwalk, downtown San Antonio.Mexico City park with men and women dancing to music dominated by brass.

It is almost impossible to create a carbon-neutral urban space. All public spaces have high carbon costs which cannot be offset with planting within the same space.

Public space programming is the “low carbon, low financial cost” option to the carbon-heavy and expensive urban renewal design approach which is too often the first, and only, consideration for a “public space refresh”.

It is more important to understand the reasons why people are not engaging in that public space before any design process happens. It is better for the community and planet to at least test an existing space with public space programming, even if it is only for a year before sending in the bulldozers and running up a carbon debt that the next generation will have to pay.

In the past, I have encouraged councils to develop public space programming or to consider employing a permanent in-house events organiser.

Councils are often reluctant to do this, citing personnel costs. However, the issue is more often that design “as the only solution” is predetermined in their mind. At this point, it is much harder to change the conversation from design to programming even if it is a much cheaper and more environmentally friendly approach.

It is also a brave designer who will continue to push the issue of public space programming over design, and risk losing the project and potentially the client.

There is a bigger role for designers to play in this public space programming conversation but it needs to happen early in the process. Who better to test and revitalise a public space than a landscape architect who deeply understands space and all its values from microclimate to public safety to community identity?

Open space managers are generally too quick to have spaces that seem dull or under-utilised redesigned without first testing the space with public space programming. So much can be done to bring back the energy and a community’s love for that space without paying the huge carbon and financial costs of urban renewal.

Perhaps due to its dense urban populations and more compacted well-used urban spaces, the US seems to have very good public space programming. I have seen the hip and cool social programming at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York that includes speed dating and pop up beach swimming pools, to colourful multi-cultural events on the Riverwalk in San Antonio that celebrate the diversity of these cities.

However, my favourite recent example is in Mexico City. While walking to a market, I came across a park that looked old and dated. The pavers looked worn and dull as did the limited amount of park furniture. The planting design was utilitarian at best.

It was not an award-winning park by today’s landscape or urban standards, but it was full of life. Men in bright zoot suits and women in flowing dresses danced to music dominated by brass. It was visually striking, the energy was infectious, and it was impossible not to stop and watch.

There was a central space full of dancers and lines of people watching the colourful display while waiting their turn. There were three smaller groups of people having what looked like dance lessons in different areas of the park. All the dancers seemed to be between 60-80 plus; it looked like this was a regular event for them.

You can’t have a party without food and drink, and so there were vendors selling tacos, beer and, more importantly, suits, dresses and fancy dancing shoes on the edges of the park. Without a doubt, this little dull, worn park was having a party, and it did not require a redesign to make that happen: just some public space programming. 

• Craig Pocock is a landscape architect, researcher and writer who was recently awarded an NZILA fellowship for his research into the carbon landscape. Post Christchurch earthquakes, Craig now lives in San Antonio, Texas, but continues to work in New Zealand and the US on urban development projects and climate change strategies. To see more examples of public space programming go to www.carbonlandscape.com

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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