COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

How Public Spaces Can Boost Building Performance

Jan 1, 2009
Dec 19, 2017

Successful public spaces are not just good for the community -- they're also good for business. If creatively shaped and managed, underutilized plazas, courtyards, lobbies, or public meeting rooms can contribute directly to the economic bottom line of a building -- and increase its customer satisfaction. How can this be this done? By having building tenants and managers collaborate with other community partners to activate public space in and around their jurisdictions.

To demonstrate how a programmed and well-managed civic place can enhance a building, we looked at how various public-space actions can support some of the building performance standards set by GSA's Public Buildings Service -- the federal branch that owns and manages government real estate and the U.S.'s largest urban landowner.


  • An attractive and well-used plaza or public space makes a building more marketable and competitive, drawing in tenants and pushing rents upwards.
  • Tenants often view a public space -- one that is well-managed and offers food and/or events -- as an amenity, thus has the knock-on effect of improving customer satisfaction.
  • A successful plaza can raise the value of a building, just as landscaping and other amenities can do for a private home.


  • Public space in and around a building can directly generate revenue. For example, lobby space can be leased to a vendor or food-service provider; while interior or exterior reception areas and other public spaces can be rented for events such as weddings, parties, and conferences. When they are well-managed, food or other vendors on a public plaza can serve as a key amenity -- and a steady source of revenue.
  • Even spaces that don't usually produce revenue can be made profitable by, for instance, using a parking lot as a site for a seasonal farmers market or crafts fair.
  • Finally, some "dead" spaces can be leased to a third party, such as a building roof that is used as a site for a telecommunication company's antenna.
‍A farmers market enlivens UN Plaza in San Francisco


  • Building employees and visitors take pleasure using an active and beautiful civic space adjacent to the building where they work, come to do business, or relax.
  • Tenants can use an attractive space can help recruit and retain employees.
  • An actively managed, well-programmed civic space adds favorably to the image of the building's tenants, owner, and management.


  • Public spaces that are clean, welcoming, and well-used feel much safer than those that are empty and unkempt -- no matter how many security guards are posted. There is a real, if immeasurable, reassurance that comes from seeing other people relaxing and enjoying themselves in a place, particularly if women and children are present.
  • Having "regulars" in a public space -- especially habitual ones like vendors -- provides extra "pairs of eyes" to supplement official security efforts. These users can notice suspicious activities, keep a watch on private property, and, through their very presence, deter others from undesirable or criminal behavior.


  • Designing or renovating a building with active use of public space in mind can lower construction costs. Ornate monuments and elaborate landscape designs can be expensive and are less important to successful civic spaces than building in the kind of flexibility that allows for a variety of uses and programming. For example, sitwalls can serve as a street buffer/perimeter security element. Using this less-is-more approach can results in lower fees and more effective internal costs.
  • Accounting for the needs of various uses and activities -- such as electrical connections for food vendors and anchors for tent stakes -- in the initial design saves time and money spent retrofitting a public space later.


Even if they don't own or directly control a public space, building manager or owners can help activate nearby squares or streets by partnering with BIDs, downtown management organizations, or other "civic space" partners. In general, increasing the appeal of the building's environs increases the appeal of the building itself, and efforts toward that end can be economically rewarding -- for instance, an address on a "destination" street or in a prime neighborhood is a solid selling point.

Another example is how proximity to a successful park or square can be marketed to tenants as an amenity, even if it is not on the building's property. Finally, getting involved in events and programming at nearby public spaces helps to promote a building, its tenants, and/or its ownership and management -- thus helping to draw additional tenants or employees.

Bryant Park, in New York City, is a prime example of this approach in action. Although owned by the New York City Parks Department, this eight-acre space is privately managed by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC), a nonprofit entity that works extensively with local corporations and the Times Square BID. These nearby buildings and companies sponsor the park's extensive programming, which includes a film festival, music and theater, fashion shows, and more. The overall effect of the BPRC and its local support is that the park, which was suffering from deferred maintenance and had deteriorated into a haven for drug users, is now one of the premier public spaces in the U.S.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space