“Equitable,” “Smart,” “Sustainable,” and “Future Ready” are all terms that are being stapled to cities in the attempt to steer our built environment into a more desirable future. But what we seem to be missing is that these individual buzzwords all intersect in our public spaces.
Departments and organizations like Downtown Development Boards and Community Redevelopment Agencies are created to push for development in the downtown cores of our cities, which is important. But at some point, the focus should shift to making those downtowns more vibrant and livable instead of simply dense and full of suits and jobs.
Cities, like our own, should be investing in establishing something like an “Office of Public Space Management” to focus on public space issues like access, safety, homelessness, inclusiveness, and infrastructure, to enhance the overall desirability of living in and around our downtowns.
The City of Orlando has invested in positions like a Director of Placemaking, a Nighttime Economy Manager, and most recently an Equity Official in response to last summer’s mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Which is all well and good, but those positions often operate in silos without the benefit of a cohesive departmental mission.
It took those protests and a pandemic to underscore the importance of public spaces in urban life, and when coupled with the concept of social distancing, public space becomes a public health necessity – where citizens can exercise their bodies as well as their rights.
Cities need a central position that works with departments like Parks and Recreation, Placemaking, Equity, the Planning Department, and Transportation, to ensure our public spaces serve everyone in times of crisis and in times of calm.
Transportation departments are focused on moving cars, parks departments are focused on maintaining public spaces we need something that can push those realms a bit further.
We need to have innovative, fresh thinkers, pushing the agenda that healthy public spaces are more than green lawns, but also vibrant outdoor dining areas, street trees, and bike paths, and waterfronts. And that all of these areas are interconnected in the tapestry that is our public realm – which is the framework for how our people move through and interact with the city.