By Katherine Peinhardt and Nate Storring
What is your best memory of a public space?
More often than not, it’s the things that happen in a public space—and the people doing them—that forge the most powerful memories, not the sparkly new stone pavers or a geometric pattern in the landscaping that can be seen from outer space. Newspapers and magazines often give the design of public space top billing, but the most acclaimed, innovative design can still be forgettable—and even exclusive—to the people who matter, without a robust program of things to do that is rooted in the assets and needs of the surrounding community.
In our first entry in this series, we established that more inclusive public spaces start with a more equitable process. But soon after the ideas start flying, it will come time to begin testing and implementing. Programming provides a vehicle to put ideas into action quickly, while building public excitement, partnerships, and management capacity along the way.
A public space program includes the uses and activities that the space affords through amenities and design, the calendar of regular and one-off events that take place there, and the many improvised activities that users invent themselves. When Project for Public Spaces leads a community process to plan a public space, we express the community's vision as a multi-faceted program for the space throughout the day, week, and year. This vision then becomes the north star for future design and management.
When done right, this program uses the energy of a community to bring a space to life. It provides an important lens for expressing a community’s unique character, fostering a sense of belonging and ownership, and even creating a common ground that brings people together across cultures. But as a public space initiative shifts from engagement to implementation, how can we ensure it doesn’t lose its commitment to deep inclusion? Here are five proven strategies and tactics to create programming that works for everyone.
After an inclusive outreach process, the wants, needs, and values of the community should be abundantly clear. Keeping this knowledge on hand at all times is important, but particularly so for programming: Specific uses draw specific user groups to a public space, so drawing diverse users starts with an intentional mix of uses.
This fact is often most obvious when it’s not working well, as a 2016 study of Cedar Hill State Park in Texas. In it, leisure studies researcher Kang Jae Lee found that a lack of culturally relevant programming served as a deterrent to African American visitation. To understand why the percentage of black Americans using the State Park was so low despite a large black population around the park, Lee conducted archival research, site visits, and in-depth interviews with 13 local residents. He found that while direct racial conflict played a role in low attendance, park management also failed to program the park with uses that matched the leisure habits and cultural interests of nearby African American residents—all leading to a perception that the park was a space for white people. When events that attracted locals did happen in the park, such as a Juneteenth event that attracted over 6,800 attendees, the organizers did not receive recognition. When the Park won an award through the National Recreation and Park Association, as one employee mentioned, not one African American employee was on the trip. The employee felt like it was a slap in the face.
While anyone can list a series of stereotypical cultural events that might attract one demographic or another, culturally relevant programming works best when not treated like a detached marketing exercise. Instead of trying to guess what events or uses might attract a user group other than your own, get to know that community better. Certainly, you can ask people in a specific community what they want to do in a space directly, but also consider researching the calendar of events happening around your city or town, attending an event if it’s appropriate, or have a meeting with an artist, performer, or event organizer.
Find ways that the public space you work in can support the diverse organizations and individuals that already exist around you, instead of working in a vacuum or asking someone to contribute some token diversity without offering anything in return. When placemakers build reciprocity with local cultural producers, those producers often bring their own networks with them.
There’s a reason that some of the world’s most well-loved and long-lasting public spaces revolve around public markets. They provide natural opportunities for lively exchange, both social and commercial, and offer local products that highlight the character of the community. Beyond becoming a magnet for interaction, though, public markets can also provide inclusive economic opportunity as we uncovered in our 2002-2008 research initiative with the Kellogg Foundation.
Any public market should aim to be a place where a wide variety of vendors can incubate new ventures, or expand the reach of their products and services. From “day tables” where an aspiring business owner can test out an idea to transition programs for vendors to expand into online or brick-and-mortar businesses, public markets can provide much lower barriers to entry than a traditional permanent storefront, as well as a ladder of growth.
At their best, markets actively encourage minority-owned business participation, provide spaces for artisans to share their work, help local foodways to take root, and provide inclusive access to healthy food through subsidy programs like SNAP/EBT. But awareness of capital constraints for vendors and visitors alike is key in making these types of opportunities accessible to everyone. In this regard, legalizing informal street vending (as in Los Angeles) and food preparation in the home (as in California)—both common in various immigrant communities—can help further lower the barriers to entry, while giving multiple traditions and cultures a claim on public space.
Of course, a delicate balance has to be struck, avoiding making a public space a transactional one. To avoid crowding out other, free uses, public markets must be integrated with other programming that is not tied to making a purchase.
Food is a basic human need, and every culture has its own traditions and inventions when it comes to food. That’s one reason why simply enabling people to cook and eat together can be such an effective tool for inclusive placemaking. If a public space is welcoming and provides the right mix of seating, tables, food vendors, and/or food preparation facilities, it can quickly become a go-to spot for people to meet up for lunch or plan a weekend picnic. While many communities have seen success with large, planned potlucks or food truck festivals, simply providing the space and equipment for people to prepare and enjoy a meal on their own time can be a relatively low-maintenance way to draw them in.
Sometimes the biggest barriers to eating and especially to cooking in public space are invisible. Park rules and permitting processes can either outlaw such activities or make them too onerous and expensive. For example, as Ashley Lanfer and Madeleine Taylor note in their 2008 study of immigrant engagement in public space, when Brooklyn’s Prospect Park banned grills, it disproportionately affected the local Dominican community for whom outdoor cooking was a regular event. By contrast, in 2013, Toronto’s R.V. Burgess Park opened the first public Tandoor oven in the city, after officials spent two years reworking their regulations in response to a request from a local community organization. Much like with vending, enabling inclusive food practices to play out in public space often requires placemakers to reach into the realms of planning and politics by putting pressure on their government agencies and politicians.
Whether by providing grills, a community oven, long communal tables, or a pavilion with seating, the opportunity to come together and eat is one of the most socially valuable functions a space can perform. Especially in dense urban areas, where dining room space comes at a premium and backyards are few and far between, the provision of a place to cook and share a meal is of incredible importance.
Tours are a versatile tool for inclusion. They can be celebratory or radical; they can be led by professionals or by enthusiastic residents; they can be free to all or they can provide revenue to a community organization; they can strengthen intergenerational bonds within a community or they can help break down barriers of ignorance between communities. A neighborhood’s streets and buildings and public spaces are only the tip of the iceberg, and tours can help people appreciate the people and the historical, social, cultural, and economic processes that exist just below the surface.
The international citizen-led walking tour festival Jane’s Walk provides a microcosm of the range of topics and formats that tours can take. As we’ve written about before, almost anyone can lead a tour during Jane’s Walk about almost any topic, and every tour is free and open to the public. In Toronto, where the event was founded in 2006 to honor the life of urban thinker Jane Jacobs, this has led to over a hundred walks taking place annually about topics as wide ranging as accessibility, queer history, local ecosystems, refugee resettlement, public health, and the city from a youth perspective, among other topics. While walk leaders usually provide some expertise, the tours are usually organized as walking conversations that are as much about connecting with neighbors as they are about learning.
Tours can also play an important role in the placemaking process itself. By putting longtime residents in the role of guide or contributor, they can flex their expertise on the places they know so well. For example, in the Golden Gate neighborhood of Oakland, CA, the Commons Archive project combined archival research and resident-led tours to make visible how a network of public and semi-public spaces, like libraries, churches, and event halls, have anchored the Indian American and African American communities there. For disciplinary experts, consultants, newcomers, or stakeholders from other parts of a town or city, this kind of local knowledge can help challenge assumptions about how a place works or ought to work based on their own disciplinary blinders or surface-level observations.
The best public spaces inspire improvisation. By making space for and promoting unplanned, informal activations of a space, like pick-up basketball, dancing, or drum circles, a public space can fulfill its potential as a place that people truly make their own.
As Ivis Garcia, Andrea Garfinkel-Castro, and Deirdre Pfeiffer note in their 2019 APA report, “Planning with Diverse Communities,” disadvantaged communities often engage in informal placemaking practices to shape the public realm, including spaces like front yards, parking lots, and streets. However, the authors also observe, “the unfamiliar nature of informal or unsanctioned placemaking practices may make planners unsure of their value. These practices may appear to be insignificant (such as a mural on a wall) or dangerous (using a modified baby stroller as a rolling hotdog grill), inspiring under- or overreaction.”
They suggest that planners and placemakers should consider browsing a variety of social media platforms to discover this DIY urbanism in the communities where they work, and to connect with individuals and groups to find out how they can support them. Once again, the effects of current public space rules and permitting processes must be rethought carefully and creatively. Likewise, spaces that require a reservation process, like soccer fields or basketball courts, must also remain free or affordable and organized equitably. While managing an unpredictable array of informal uses may sound daunting, having to deal with too much demand and too many kinds of uses is a great problem for a public space to have.
To be successful, inclusive programming must be supported by design and management, and rooted in an equally inclusive community process—all of which require dedication, funding, partnerships, and planning. But perhaps more than any other public space improvement, programming is the most important part of attracting and keeping a mix of users that are reflective of the surrounding community. By focusing on program first, a public space can become a hub of activities that both support and reflect the full diversity of our cities—and that’s a result well worth the effort.