Building Common Ground: Public Spaces for Growth All Around

Public spaces are the cornerstones of a healthy and prosperous community. Historically designed to foster commerce and fuel democracy, the greatest impact of these spaces comes from diverse people and perspectives intermingling.

How does this spur growth in our city? In the 2012 report Placemaking and the Future of Cities, the United Nations examined how public spaces “facilitate social capital, economic development and community revitalization” (1). Their Project for Public Spaces focuses on the impact of these spaces at a local level – from increasing property values and jump-starting entrepreneurialism to decreasing crime rates and boosting civic engagement.

Perhaps the most familiar of all public spaces are roadways. Today they are used mostly for vehicles, but the UN report highlights that when streets are “planned for people, meaning they are not completely auto-centric, [they] add to the social cohesion of communities by ensuring human interaction, and providing safe public spaces that promote cultural expression” (7). This in turn sparks innovative thinking and community identity.

So how can a street’s use be diversified? Street festivals are clear examples, such as this summer’s GlobalFest and the Markham Village and Unionville Festivals, as well as local markets. On a daily basis, though, streets can still attract visitors while remaining open for traffic.

Pedestrian activities can include athletic endeavours like jogging or dog walking, commercial pursuits like window shopping or visiting food stands, cultural explorations like viewing public art, and even pop-up destination quests to bistro patios and sidewalk sales. The sleek new transit stops, like at Warden and Highway 7, are great examples of multipurpose hubs, facilitating access to transportation while enabling residents to mingle.

Changes in the use of Markham’s public spaces will become increasingly apparent as housing density rises: family picnics, friendly sports games, school studies, and work meetings will continue moving from private residences to common ground, such as parks and libraries. Internationally, many cities have leveraged this efficiency by investing in their public spaces. Manhattan is 33 percent public space (including streets), while Toronto is 11 percent. Markham has a celebrated history of developing public spaces. As our city expands, it will be exciting for all residents to see and participate in the growth and evolution of our public spaces.

The UN’s Project for Public Spaces is at www.pps.org.

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