Public Spaces: The Economic and Symbolic Value

Cities depend on each street and park to be a place that people want to be. Photo by La Citta Vita / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

Streets are the face of a city. They are where everything happens, and where the community lives together. Along with them, parks and plazas transform urban life in terms of well-being and health of the population. The quality of these public spaces alter the value of land around them, promoting a series of social and economic impacts. People are attracted to places where they feel comfortable and with a sense of belonging. Business investments are also attracted by well-structured, well-maintained and well-administered sites. A city that seeks to enhance quality of life and, at the same time, increase global competitiveness, needs to be attentive to the trends of the urban agenda. The need to create vibrant, healthy communities and prioritize sustainable transport leads cities to rethink and redesign its streets for a future where public space and residents are treated as a priority in urban planning.

The character of a place is defined by two main elements: location and context. The first is usually assessed according to the real estate value of the site and the income level of the population that lives there. The second refers to socio-economic issues and the multiple factors that define how neighborhoods operate.

An important element that adds to the complexity of the real estate market depends on how sites can be subject to different land uses. Old theories assumed that a “straight line” away from the city center could explain the cost of transport and that this, in turn, explained the distribution of land use in the city. However, today it is known that correlations between spatial configuration, functional land use and traffic and occupancy standards—and their direct relationship with the social, cultural and economic aspects of a city—influence the evolution of land-use over time.

The concept of placemaking adds to the debate on land value. This refers to the process of planning quality public spaces that contribute to the local community and is an essential aspect of creating local identities. By nature, real estate value refers to the value of the land. The implementation or upgrading of public spaces (parks or street space itself), has the potential to influence the dynamics of the real estate market in the region. The renovation of these spaces therefore aims to improve residents’ quality of life and attract new economic activities.

Open spaces, living spaces. Photo by Patrik Nygren / Flickr

The idea of public spaces and their associated value can vary greatly between the city center and the urban periphery. The very use of streets in residential areas, where human interactions naturally occur, differs from the central areas. Even the simplest urban space can have great symbolic importance for people.

Public spaces can create bonds between individuals from completely different backgrounds but that pass through the same areas. Bill Hiller, professor of architecture and urban morphology at the University of London, suggests that these interactions in public spaces create a “virtual community,” which is noticed when the co-presence leads to interactions, communications and transactions.

The symbolic relevance of the site can also influence the real estate value of its surroundings. Remember that when we talk about public spaces, we are also including sidewalks, bike paths and access to transportation. For example, access to active modes of transport is a strong factor in the housing market. In a study for the University of São Paulo, Fábio Tieppo mapped buildings close to the bike paths in the city and saw that they had high land value. As he moved move further from the bike paths, however, he saw that property value quickly declined. In addition to access to active modes of transport, several studies also point to walkability as an important factor of urban real estate appreciation.

Sidewalks, bike paths, parks and squares are all locations of vital importance for life in the city. The relationship between residents and these spaces (and each other) must be preserved. As cities continue to grow, these spaces, and their economic, social and symbolic value, should always be at the forefront of urban planning.

This text was adapted from the article “Finding the value of urban space,” by Alan Penn, published in the collection “Making good – shaping places for people,” produced by the Center for London and available here .

Laura Azeredo and Lara Caccia contributed to this post.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

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