Harness The Power Of The Public Realm

“The task of creating the tools, systems, sources and ethics that will allow the planet to grow in cleaner, more sustainable ways is going to be the biggest challenge of our lifetime.”

–Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded

Communities throughout the United States and the world are using a variety of strategies to become more sustainable–preparing sustainability plans and climate action plans; establishing new policies, regulations and standards; and creating new programs, incentives and funding initiatives. But many communities are missing out on a simple strategy with potentially big benefits–planning and designing their own public realm.

Harness The Power Of The Public Realm

There is no universally accepted definition of “public realm,” but it generally refers to a community’s system of parks, streets, trails, natural areas, storm water-treatment facilities and civic/cultural spaces. As an interconnected system, it provides communities with a significant opportunity to advance all three legs of sustainability–economic development, environmental protection and social stability. According to Professor John Crompton at Texas A & M University, specific potential benefits of the public realm include:


• Attracting tourists

• Attracting businesses

• Attracting retirees

• Enhancing real-estate values

• Reducing taxes

• Stimulation of equipment sales


• Protecting drinking water

• Controlling flooding

• Cleaning air

• Reducing traffic congestion

• Reducing energy costs

• Preserving biological diversity


• Reducing environmental stress

• Community regeneration

• Cultural and historic preservation

• Facilitating healthy lifestyles

• Alleviating deviant youth behavior

• Raising levels of education attainment

• Alleviating unemployment distress.

Giving the public realm such great potential to achieve sustainability benefits are:

• Its size

• Its ownership pattern.

In most communities, the public realm accounts for at least 30 to 40 percent of the community land mass; the public realm of Norfolk, Va., for example, is estimated to comprise over 50 percent of the city (see diagram). Even more important than the size of the public realm, however, is its ownership pattern; most communities’ public realms are owned and managed by only a handful of public agencies, as opposed to the “private realm” (primarily homes, businesses and institutions) which is owned by tens of thousands of individuals. So a typical community in the U.S. today has control of almost half of its land mass–a significant and often untapped opportunity–to become more sustainable.

Public-Realm Planning Process

Developing a plan is the first step towards harnessing the sustainability power of the public realm. The process begins by identifying key stakeholders, such as public-agency department heads (public works, planning, parks, administration, etc.), business leaders, environmental groups, social-service agencies, economic/tourism-development agencies, elected officials and others. Interview them to discuss existing conditions, community needs and opportunities to become more sustainable. Then ask them to participate on an advisory committee for the project. An added benefit of the planning process is that it brings key community stakeholders together to build broad support for a common vision, and transcends the typical barriers between public and/or private agencies.

The next step is the inventory and evaluation of the various public-realm “subsystems.” These typically include both sites and corridors, such as:

• Parks

• Civic sites

• Community/recreation centers

• Schools and libraries

• Streets and transit corridors

• Greenways, bikeways and trails

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