Public spaces centered on community engagement and the needs, history, and issues relevant to residents were best able to adapt and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.
Based on pre- and mid-pandemic visitor data for seven outdoor public spaces in four cities — Akron (Summit Lake Park), Detroit (Ella Fitzgerald Park and Detroit Riverfront), Philadelphia (Centennial Commons, Cherry Street Pier, and The Discovery Center), and San Jose (MOMENT) — the report, Adaptive Public Space: Places for People in the Pandemic and Beyond (84 pages, PDF), found that spaces with quality design, resident-centered programming, historic character, and a significant arts component saw more regular visits, and that community participation and responsive engagement enabled project organizers to build trust with residents of color, which in turn increased use of the spaces as well as the public's attachment to them.
The report also found that prioritizing and embedding resident engagement led to community "ripple effects," including investments in local capacity-building and community development beyond the project site. Local stewardship, community-led design, inclusive and responsive processes, and trusted operators also helped the administrators of the sites develop sustainable operating models and adapt to changing conditions — including the pandemic. Detroit Riverfront and Cherry Street Pier, for instance, saw significant increases in foot traffic compared with the previous year.
The report's recommendations for the field include ensuring inclusion and trust among communities of color by expanding support for local organizations and funding ongoing community participation efforts; and proactively managing resident concerns around displacement by tying public space investments to broader community development processes.