Making Public Space a Community Asset

The sun was starting to dip low in the sky as another warm, autumn day began to cool. A small piece of seasoned hardwood crackled in the fire as smoke rose slowly over the rooftops around us. The gentle sound of acoustic guitar could just be heard among the chatter of friends, both old and new. I looked out at the crowd. People were gathered around tables on the deck, or sitting on the edges of the raised garden beds, drinks in hand and passing out wood-fired pizza. It wasn’t always like this, but that night I couldn’t imagine this space looking or sounding any different.

Only a few months earlier, this was a patch of grass with a couple of raised garden beds, and a flower garden along a fence line. Now, the 40m² space holds 10 large garden beds, with decorative gravel marking the pathways, and a wood fired pizza oven at one end. The garden sits at the back of a Land Sales Office in a new suburban development on the western peri-urban fringe of Melbourne, Australia. Immediately behind the Sales Office is a small car park, with a gate that opens into this landscaped yard, shared with the local cafe. Every now and then someone would sit on the grass in the sun behind the cafe or kids would be seen playing while parents drank coffee. However, at this time of night, when the Sales Centre and Cafe have long since closed, it used to be unheard of to see this number of people gathered here. While it has recently undergone transformation, the space always looked fairly good – it’s just that no one used it. In fact, perhaps the space’s biggest drawcard, the wood-fired pizza oven, had sat unused for nearly 18 months.

There are public spaces all over the city — large open space, paths and walk ways, picnic tables and BBQs — many which sit unused, or at the very least under-used. With some you only have to look at them to understand why, as they obviously are lacking functionality, or access and safety may be of concern. Sometimes public space is simply large, open areas with no obvious purpose or without infrastructure to support it’s use. It can appear like developers or council have a brief to create public space, and go ahead and tick the box without any concern for something that is aesthetically pleasing, has design functionality or appeal. Sometimes, however, spaces look well designed, beautiful even, and still sit under-used.

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Photo by Jono Ingram

“A great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenance, that is when we see genuine placemaking in action.” — Project for Public Spaces, What is Placemaking?

So, what enables once disused space to become a “vital community resource”? Of course, intelligent and functional design has a vital role to play, but ultimately it is people who determine a place’s value.

While standing on the deck near the garden beds that night, I spoke to a community member in our Estate about our previous experiences of community. It became clear that this man had a deep desire for community, for connection with those he lives among. “That’s why we moved here,” he explained. He said that the parks and the town centre indicated that community was possible here, that this neighbourhood would be a place where neighbours would know one another and enjoy each other’s company. He could see the potential, he explained, but just didn’t know how to make it happen. “This,” he said, pointing to the crowds gathered among the garden beds, “this is what we hoped for when we moved here.”

What my friend was talking about was not merely a well designed space, although that helps. He was talking about the commitment of people to activate that space. He was talking about the importance of the people who gather in a space. He was talking about how good intentions and good plans for a connected community are not enough. What is needed are people who love their neighbourhood and work together with others to make it become all that it can be, for everyone who lives there.

Our neighbourhoods need gathering places, but they also need gatherers. These are the people who live in our neighbourhoods and bring people together, not necessarily in large crowds, but in ways where people feel like they belong. These people exist in various forms — from people who co-ordinate and form community groups or sports clubs, to neighbours who invite others over for meals or a coffee. They are the people who know how much people need to be connected, and have the drive to make it happen.

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Photo by Social Foundry

But it is not just open public space, community gardens and community groups, or free community events that these gatherers are creating. Popping up all in cities all over the world are cafe and bar owners who desire to turn their business into a local community asset — something the neighbourhood would miss if it were to close it’s doors. These people are creating spaces where people want to gather to eat, drink, and socialise, while also seeking to invest into other parts of their local community.

Not-for-profit cafes in Australia like HomeGround in Mornington, Now and Not Yet in Warrandyte, Social Foundry in Kyneton, along with brewpubs like The Oregon Public House in Portland (Oregon, USA), are seeking to send profits back into the local community, and also other charities, while continuing to sustain a quality local business. They employ and invest into local people, give money away to local groups, and support local events. Their spaces are programmed with live music (often local up-and-comers) and entertainment, and quality, well priced food and drinks, creating a destination for people to gather in the neighbourhood. Some of these businesses even allow their space to be accessed by local community groups for meetings and events. These gatherers are  committed to see their community thrive, and prove this by the way they do business. They are demonstrating a new approach to creating local space that is a community asset with a ever increasing positive impact.

Without people committed to place, well designed public space is just that — well designed. A public space that is a community asset will be created by people who are committed to their place, committed to see people together in those places, committed to listening to the hopes, desires, and dreams of the people who live there.

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