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Investing in Public Spaces

Public spaces are integral to the pulse of any region. In truly great public spaces, friends socialize, cultures mix, and there is an overarching feeling of safety and inclusion even among strangers. In addition to being vibrant places to gather and socialize, public spaces also help build social capital, drive economic development, foster environmental sustainability, and positively affect individual and community health and wellbeing. Greater Philadelphia is bejeweled with a diverse collection of public spaces - from the bustling Rittenhouse Square, iconic Valley Forge National Historical Park, and vast Fairmount Park, to the lesser-known, but equally-loved Cooper River Park, Ridley Creek State Park, and Malcolm X Park. The region’s public spaces also include the many streets, sidewalks, bus stops, train stations and avenues that crisscross and pepper the city where people interact in relative harmony. But not all public spaces are built, utilized, or maintained equally or equitably. Some struggle to attract people, some play host to illicit activity, and some are simply inaccessible or outright unfriendly to different types of people. This begs several important questions: considering data that underscores the importance of broad access to quality public spaces, who are public spaces for, and who may be missing from them? And how can we reframe conversations about public space to place equity at the center of public space improvements? This brief examines these issues in conjunction with the Economy League’s 2019 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) Regional Exploration on Public Spaces presented by Pennoni and the Knight Foundation.


The Importance and Need for Quality Public Spaces

From social outcomes to economic growth, from environmental protection to physical wellbeing, overwhelming evidence shows that quality public spaces are important assets for individuals and communities. Recent research from Aarhaus University in Denmark shows that growing up near quality green spaces is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders into adulthood.[1] Right here in Philadelphia, these health outcomes are also being explored. Research from the University of Pennsylvania showed that blight reduction strategies in publicly available spaces such as greening vacated land produce significant reductions in stress.[2] For low-income communities in Philadelphia, this can have positive health outcomes. Other desirable outcomes include economic development—parks and public spaces can strengthen local economies and create job opportunities.


Literature and data demonstrate that there is also a need for access to quality to public spaces, both nationwide and regionally, and that this need varies widely across communities. National data shows that in the 100 largest metro areas only 54% of residents live within a half mile of a park; however, there is wide range depending on the market.[3] For example, largely western states with extensive park systems such Utah, Colorado, and Oregon have metro areas that rank high with respect to park access. According to the Trust for Public Land, Philadelphia has the 19th best parks system among the 100 largest U.S. cities, and in the region 49%-66% of the population lives within half a mile of a park.[4,5] More granular analysis, however, indicates that there are significant equity issues associated with access to quality public space. Spatial analysis conducted by the City of Philadelphia Planning Commission shows pockets of the city are underserved when it comes to access to quality public spaces (see figure below). This mirrors national trends that show that quality public spaces, particularly quality green spaces are often less available in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status, or a high proportion of African American or Hispanic residents.[6]


The City of Philadelphia's Access to Public Spaces

  • Accessibility to Existing Public Open Space Greater than One Acre

This figure details accessibility to open space in the City of Philadelphia. The green spaces represent existing public spaces greater than one acre in size, while the large circles surround areas of high-population counts with underserved access to public space. The map was created by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission for the 2011 Citywide Visions report. The figure can be found on page 142 of the report.


Context for Rethinking Public Spaces: Equity in Creation, Access, and Maintenance

Central to understanding the efficacy of public space are the equity concerns related to creation, access, and maintenance of space. Efforts across the region to advance equity across these issues are already underway in many ways. This section introduces important questions related to equity in public spaces and discusses the regional explorations as well as some resources related to increasing equity in public spaces.


Designing alongside the community

When designing a public space, an important equity question is who designs the space? An outside entity, or the community that it is intended to serve? Community-led models for designing a public space are gaining traction in the region because of prevailing thought that communities know their needs best. An effective case of community-led design is the redesign of the Centennial District in Fairmount Park. The initiative was created by the Fairmount Park Conservancy through the support of the William Penn Foundation and the Knight Foundation, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Streets Department, and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce. The Fairmount Park Conservancy commissioned Studio|Bryan Hanes to engage residents and visitors in “active, educational and exploratory play and recreation” within the Centennial District. The concept used a collaborative and community-centric approach to design of the space in order to elicit the regular participation of local communities, as well as a regional audience of visitors. 


Prioritizing equity of access and funding

“Who can access the space?” is the critical equity question to be considered when designing and maintaining a public space.  Do different populations have equal access and opportunity to use the services it provides? And are funds being allocated equitably to maintain all kinds of public spaces for all different communities? The Rebuild Community Infrastructure (Rebuild) effort by the Kenney Administration is an important case study for prioritizing public funds to advance equity. Rebuild places equity front and center in the public space conversation. The initiative invests in public space improvements in areas that have urgent need, in neighborhoods that are classified as “high need,” or in neighborhoods that are growing and changing. Rebuild’s interactive mapping project uses spatial analysis to determine what public spaces may have the greatest needs by geolocating public space projects over social indicators such as poverty, crime, and demographic data.


Private partnerships for community spaces

Since many public spaces are created through private activity, it is important to ask how private construction and maintenance fare with respect to equity and access in community spaces.  Private entities such as developers and universities are creating unique partnerships and taking major strides to create accessible spaces for public use. One such space is Drexel Square which opened in June of 2019. Drexel Square is a 1.3-acre community park that is the first completed open space of the master-planned Schuylkill Yards development in University City. The overall Schuylkill Yards project is projected to cost more than $3.5 billion, which includes 6.9 million square feet of development. In this unique partnership, all of the financial resources dedicated to designing, constructing, managing, and maintaining is done by Brandywine, an agreement that is managed through a long-term lease through which Drexel University collects rent from Brandywine. In this instance, a private developer and a private university have taken important steps to create high-quality, and broadly accessible public space. In a project and development of this size, setting aside space for the public is an important step will be critical to Schuylkill Yards success as a new Philadelphia neighborhood, and a replicable practice for other similar projects. 



Literature and data demonstrate both the need and importance for quality public spaces and equitable access to them. This regional exploration demonstrates that there are a variety of ways to pull together capital and resources. From community-led models, to data-driven priorities in improvements, to public/private partnerships, a variety of methods are being utilized in the region. No matter what approach is used, access and equity must be of paramount importance.




[1] Lambert, Jonathan. 2019. “More Green Spaces in Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood.” MindShift. Retrieved from:

[2] Richter, Greg. 2015. “Penn Medicine Study Finds Being Near Greened Vacant Lots Lowers Heart Rates.” Penn Today, March 19. Retrieved from:

[3] Kane, Joseph and Adie Tomer. 2019. “The Avenue.” The Avenue. Retrieved from:

[4] McCabe, Caitlin. 2019. “Philadelphia Parks Are Improving, Thanks to Mayor Kenney's Rebuild Initiative. But Need Still Abounds.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1. Retrieved from:

[5] Kane, Joseph and Adie Tomer. 2019. “The Avenue.” The Avenue. Retrieved from:

[6] Myers, Jennifer Moore and Kiley Coates. 2019. “” Retrieved from:





How to Get to the Discovery Center and Philly’s Idyllic Hidden Reservoir - Inquirer 2018


How University City District is defining and measuring ‘justice’ in public space - Brookings 2019


Philadelphia: Building A Stronger City Through Public Spaces - Knight Foundation 2018


Parks Make Great Places, But Not Enough Americans Can Reach Them - Brookings 2019


More Green Spaces in Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood - Mind/Shift 2019