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How to fund public space in our cities

With cash-strapped local councils struggling to maintain our public spaces, what are the best alternative solutions for funding their upkeep?

Hugo Cox, Freelance Journalist
27 February 2019

Once upon a time, arriving in the copper-mining town of Ajo, in the middle of Arizona's Sonoran Desert, was an experience to be savoured. Exiting the station, you entered an arcaded plaza ringed with palm trees, from which a wide avenue took the gaze along to Curley School, the town's standout building.

The mine closed in 1985. Five years later, the town had lost 40% of its population from the decade before. The road network had long since disrupted the urban plan's careful symmetry, carving a road through the middle of the plaza. Both the charm of that first encounter and the town itself was poorer.

But all was not lost. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) – representing the area's Anglo-American, Mexican and indigenous O'odham communities – saw a chance to purchase and manage the entire town plaza when it came on the market in 2008. A lengthy consultation with residents identified the spots in most need of investment, and the Friends of the Plaza, a group of volunteers working on maintenance and improvement projects, was established. In May of last year, the ISDA received a $1.1m loan from the US Department of Agriculture to assist them in preserving the site and, today, the management of the plaza is a pillar of the town's development strategy, attracting the visitors required to shift its economy from one based on mining to one fed by tourism.

It may, strictly speaking, be private, but Ajo's plaza is public in all but name. Besides the public organisations that have funded its revival, the reclamation of its management by the community has been essential to its rebirth. It demonstrates well how easily a space becomes public "property".

"Essentially, a space is considered public if members of the public believe they have an attachment to it. So 'public space' does not mean one maintained by the public purse," argues Paul Clement, head of place-shaping at Savills in Ipswich. "The question of management is irrelevant."

In the UK, the notion that public spaces are the responsibility of the public sector is feeling outdated, says Claudio De Magalhães, professor of urban management and regeneration at the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London (UCL). "This form of management consolidated in the 20th century. It didn't apply before this, and there is no reason it will endure for long," he says.

The current economic circumstances are putting British notions of whose job it is to tend community flowerbeds to the test. Outsourcing management of publicly owned spaces to non-governmental bodies began before the recent austerity drive, and steady local authority budget cuts have accelerated the trend.

With parks expensive to maintain, and cash- strapped authorities keen to focus resources on the most deprived parts of their boroughs, the pressure to find cheaper ways of managing public spaces has risen. Several legal and practical structures have been recruited to fill the breach – from the voluntary sector, tenants organisations and private trusts, to business improvement districts (BID) – where local businesses pay a levy to fund the maintenance of local spaces – and independent private initiatives.

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"To the business community, it's not about making the case pound for pound. They see the benefits of revitalising a dull, underused space immediately." - Paul Clement, Head of place-shaping, Savills

In North America, the modern history of non-public management goes back to the first BID in Toronto in 1970, and the concept soon caught on across the US. More recently, it has revolved around the rejuvenation of downtown areas of major cities.

"We developed a new set of organisations to manage the redevelopment of downtown districts, notably the BID, which have benefitted from more money," says David Dixon, who leads the urban places planning department at the Boston office of Stantec, a design and consulting services firm.

The trend is set to continue on either side of the Atlantic. As populations continue to age, a decline in the number of people in work will curb tax receipts – and governments will increasingly look for stakeholders to bear the burden of management. Demand for space in our cities also continues to rise, bringing increased expectations concerning the management of public spaces on the part of citizens.

Evidence from the UK suggests Brits should lose little sleep about the fact fewer park attendants are wearing the livery of their local borough. In a paper published by research journal Progress in Planning in 2016, De Magalhães with his UCL colleague, Sonia Freire Trigo, reviewed nine different public spaces around Southwark, Lewisham and Lambeth in south London, where control had been ceded by local councils to a range of non-governmental bodies. The broad success of these projects, the authors conclude, suggests that "publicness" can often be guaranteed by means other than public ownership, funding and management. In other words, the assumption that public sector ownership and direct control might not be in themselves essential features of spaces that are public is holding up pretty well.

As an example, De Magalhães points to Potters Fields Park in London, a small green space between Tower Bridge and City Hall, the office of the city's mayor and the Greater London Authority (GLA). The borough of Southwark passed responsibility for the park to Potters Fields Management Trust – a group that includes St Martins Property Group, the Kuwaiti owner of the nearby More London office development; the GLA itself; and local bodies representing the residents of local social and private housing.

Granted a lease for 30 years in 2005, with a right to renew after, the terms of the agreement allowed the trust to raise income through hiring the park for private events with restricted access. As well as hosting several annual food festivals, the space has been rented for concerts, functions and product launches, with the considerable revenues reinvested in maintenance and improvement to the space.

For De Magalhães, the shift away from public bodies managing public spaces is desirable, as local authorities were never much good at the job in the first place. Like many public bodies, their structure makes them good at delivering a uniform service at a large scale. Public spaces, by contrast, are idiosyncratic and vary wildly. "The local authority model was never very good at catering for these localised demands," he says. Efforts by local authorities to make monolithic organisational structures more nimble created a proliferation of disjointed organisations with overlapping roles. Depending where you dropped a crisp packet in a public park, the old joke went, a litter picker from one of five different local authority departments would end up picking it up.

With smaller spaces in particular, where many of the users will be those who live nearby, outsourcing the management to a local group is particularly effective as they bring local knowledge. This is especially helpful now that modern lifestyles are less uniform. Fewer people work a regular 9-to-5 day, and family structures are more diverse. A blanket model for running a public space is no longer a suitable approach.

You might have thought that the scarcity of current valuation methodologies for public space would bother the private stakeholders increasingly called upon to help out with its management. On the contrary, says Clement. In most cases, simply presenting the idea is enough to win them over. "To the business community, it's not about making the case pound for pound. They see the benefits of revitalising a dull, underused space immediately."

He points to the success of the London BID containing Regent Street and Oxford Street. Here, local building owners tasked the New West End Company – an organisation formed by 600 or so retail, restaurant, hotel and property owners in the area – with arranging and managing the bid to take daily running away from the City of Westminster. Successes include the Wild West End Garden – a planted green public space carved out of a quiet, pedestrianised street – and Bird Street, which hosts a range of eye-catching urban technologies, including a pavement that generates electricity from pedestrians' footsteps, and a revolutionary air-purifying paint.

For BID members, the commercial return of increasing the area's appeal to shoppers is obvious, says Clement. The issue is how little opportunity the private sector has to replicate examples like this elsewhere. Outside London, BIDs may only comprise the occupiers of buildings, not their owners, so they struggle to attract the long-term financial commitment required to make a lasting difference. "Occupiers have a shorter time horizon. Many are never going to make that commitment you need," says Clement.

Other cases point to blunter measures. Since the redevelopment of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas began in 2009, Dixon estimates that roughly $5bn of new property development in the surrounding area has been committed. "Dallas was, for years, a model of the US car-centric sprawl, which the government realised was no longer a successful urban model. The government and businesses shifted their focus, and it all became about having the most vibrant downtown," he says. Built above the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, considered a boundary between Dallas' historically affluent uptown and its then-relatively neglected downtown, the city authorities made use of air rights to develop the park in the space above the freeway – a public area constructed, literally, out of thin air.

The effective running of the 5.2 acre (2.1 ha) park – which is owned by the City of Dallas but managed by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation – has been key in regenerating the downtown area, around which much of the $5bn of development has been focused, says Dixon. While it is hard to know how much investment would have flowed in thanks to other efforts focused on kick-starting the area, Dixon is adamant: "[The park] has been instrumental in announcing Dallas was turning from sprawl."

The success of these types of initiatives rests heavily on the initial deal. Some questions – how to landscape, or the type of activities to host to generate cash – can be left up to the organisations running the space. Others – such as opening times and how to manage rough sleepers – councils will want to retain some influence over. Local authority representation also helps protect interests that are likely to get overlooked by a management group packed with locals – such as those of visitors who have a connection with a park, or tourists.

However, with factors such as ageing populations and rapid urbanisation squeezing budgets for public maintenance across the developed world, continuing the outsourcing trend seems to make sense. As De Magalhães notes: "If people have a strong enough stake in these spaces and want to put the time and money into them, why would a local authority not want to benefit from that?"

  • This article originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of Modus