Part 2: Public Spaces, a Resurgence in Public Appreciation

Is the Public Driving Developers to Think Beyond Zoning Concessions?

In the previous installment, we discussed the planning and design of small, privately owned public spaces, such as open-access lobbies, mini-parks, arcades, canopied spaces, and plazas. General support and enthusiasm for open spaces in our urban centers have led us to consider how the building and design community will respond to this resurgence in appreciation for public space.

Small Public Spaces, Now Assets

Maybe, you want to get the most bang for your buck with your privately owned public space. Or, perhaps, your space planning strategy is about actively welcoming the public into privately owned spaces, with the objective of creating a polished and considered public face. Either way, if you are a building owner, you now most likely perceive small public spaces as assets. It’s a multifaceted role for these little gems, one that can reward in leasing terms and, for the individual tenant, in terms of employee attraction and retention. From whatever angle you are approaching the issue—developer, broker, tenant, city planner, resident—small public spaces now sparkle with a renewed sense of importance.

Differentiation may be the common denominator behind whether a developer or end user invests in public space. Building owners and leasing agents may see upgrades to open spaces as another tool for the repositioning of a property, for example, from Class B Office to Class A Office. The upgrading of common spaces, such as the lobby or a plaza, can justify higher rents. A similar case can be made for making improvements to common spaces open to the public. Welcoming, richly programmed public spaces can attract a more diverse range of clients by differentiating the property from others, making an aging building, for instance, more competitive in an established business district.

Capitalizing on a Property’s It Factor

Recent building repositioning projects, such as 330 West 34th Street in Manhattan, the 18-story tower that Yodle occupied this month, tell us that a key part of the sales pitch involves creating some “buzz” around a building. The objective becomes about making a hub of activity—the it factor for a building—a place where similar industries or similarly focused people are converging to take advantage of creative or market synergies. On the macro scale, Hudson Yards, as well as New York City’s various existing and emerging tech, media and fashion corridors, are demonstrative of this phenomenon. However, the same concept can be applied at the individual building level.

For the end user, the issue of investing in public space often hits closer to home. For the creative and tech sectors, lobbies and adjacent green spaces are often perceived as extensions of the company or a reflection of the company culture, which includes an appreciation for active design principles. Philosophies about collaboration and the intersection of social and work life can be furthered through the extension of public space into private space (and, conversely, the extension of workplace into the public realm). Shared office space, a startup staple, as well as more informal teaming and sharing of ideas are made possible through close proximity.

An important trend is becoming a part of the local community. This represents so much more than just being “a good neighborhood.” A brand is reinforced, rather than dissipated, through its extension into the larger community.

Public-Private Partnerships in Increasing Access to Open Spaces

For the public at large, increased access to open spaces is a positive development in our cities’ growth and evolution. We are all benefitting from the renewed interest in open, public spaces—and particularly green public space. A greener city is quite literally a healthier city for its residents. Exposure to natural light and air, as well as the more active lifestyle that is supported by having places to walk and be social, are all health and wellness issues. 

For urban dwellers, public spaces offer a place to be closer to nature. The High Line, for instance, features native plantings and the Hudson River Park provides access to the waterfront. Many progressive employers provide “kitchen gardens” at work as an opportunity to get “hands-on,” while communing with fellow employees. Communal gardens, drought tolerant plantings, and other characteristically sustainable strategies, which originated from the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s and are now often realized through the LEED Certification process, often result in public engagement opportunities. Newer privately owned public spaces also support interests typically associated with large public parks, such as picnicking, viewing art, or watching a performance or movie. In addition, technological advancements in green roof drainage systems and applications for lower loading capacities have made it possible to insert green space almost anywhere.

The intermingling of public and private initiatives in the planning and design of our cities is a recognition of the simultaneous civic gains and economic investment value of maintaining vibrant public spaces. Neither the government nor the private sector is alone equipped to drive and sustain these efforts. Public policy makers may need to take the lead in creating and fostering the initiatives that will lead to greener, more open cityscapes, but the building and design industry is also responsible for ensuring healthier, more habitable cities. All parties have reason to celebrate the renewed interest in making our urban places greener and more inviting and accessible. We all benefit from public-private partnerships to recapture lost urban space.