For people to use public spaces, they must first feel welcome in them. Actively encouraging people of all backgrounds to take advantage of public assets creates opportunities for shared experience, building trust and reinforcing their sense of membership in a broader civic community.
The Memphis Civic Commons project has used programming to expand people’s beliefs about who belongs in the city’s public spaces. In a place where Confederate statues were only recently removed from city parks, the Civic Commons team has seen firsthand how thoughtful programming can shift perceptions of public spaces that have long been fraught with race and class divisions. From Dîner En Blanc, a major annual event held in nearly 80 cities throughout the world, to a riverfront pop-up ice skating rink to weekly yoga in the park, park programming has sought to create shared experiences for people from a wide range of backgrounds so that they might together enjoy the spaces they hold in common. Likewise, the small maintenance staff at the newly opened River Garden worked together to establish guidelines for making the park a more welcoming space. Staff members make a point of greeting each visitor and take care to ensure that the park’s many features—including massive bird nests and a treehouse designed for use by children and adults alike—are ready for visitor use at all times.
Programming partnerships offer another way to reach a wider audience. By partnering with the Memphis Grizzlies on the RiverPlay summer activity space, the Civic Commons team mobilized the popularity of the city’s NBA team to civic ends. The Grizzlies provided athletic gear rental, access to GrizzFit coaches and a free GrizzFit Summer Skills Camp for kids in the community while also lending its credibility and name recognition to the project.
Versatile spaces create possibility. When civic spaces are versatile by design, they open up a whole host of programming options. For example, the RiverPlay pop-up park offered space for playing basketball, soccer, football, lawn games and roller skating in an effort to attract a wide range of people. By investigating how people want to use the space and providing different options for different communities, civic spaces are more likely to attract a broader range of people.
Both the built environment and programming decisions affect whether people feel welcome. Elevated design standards and clear visual cues about what to do in a particular space put people at ease and invite engagement. At RiverPlay, basketball courts demarcated by street paint in vibrant colors attracted attention and invited people to take a closer look. Similarly, activities provided by the Memphis Grizzlies show how relevant programming and welcoming staff members can draw people in and actively encourage their participation.
Whenever possible, gather demographic data to better understand who civic assets serve. Watch for opportunities to learn about the people using civic assets. In Memphis, liability waivers for using the RiverPlay activity space also captured people’s ZIP codes so that the project team could see who was taking advantage of the temporary park. This information helped the team refine programming and outreach strategies to better support socioeconomic mixing.
Case studies crafted in partnership with The Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation. With special thanks to Jennifer Bradley and Jessica Lee.