Three people sitting at a table smiling
December 28, 2018

Why Smart Cities Need Public Spaces

Smart cities are about connections, and that doesn’t just apply to technology or traffic lights that can communicate with each other. They should be about human connections, too.

Because, while many cities were built or remodeled to accommodate cars as the ultimate symbol of mobility and freedom, today’s urban centers are beginning to re-focus on people.

Vehicle-sharing schemes like Zipcar, together with improved and more joined-up public transport, are helping to reclaim the streets and squares as places to gather and bolster communities.

And the architecture and tech firms helping to create smart cities realize the importance of bringing people together, too, by incorporating shared spaces that encourage socializing, collaboration, and good old-fashioned fresh air.

Here’s why public spaces should be at the heart of even the most high-tech cities, and some of the forward-thinking companies that are making them a reality.

They bring people together

Go to pretty much any plaza or square around the world and you’ll see the same thing—loved ones and colleagues meeting, greeting and gathering. So the social function of public spaces is clear. Well-lit, busy gardens and parks provide safe spaces to get together and socialize. Architecture and design firm Gensler incorporates shared spaces in its office, retail and mixed-use developments. Its Boston project The Hub on Causeway is designed to increase pedestrian flow and provide interconnected public areas to create a kind of micro-district.

Smart cities need places for people to gather and build relationships.

They revitalize ‘dead’ space

Turning neglected and derelict areas into green spaces where people can gather has a re-energizing effect on the city landscape. ‘Ugly’, unused areas can become beautiful and functional, and focal points of neighborhood revitalization. New York’s The High Line, for example, transformed an old railway into one of the city’s most beloved places to work out (or just hang out). Los Angeles’ pioneering People St, meanwhile, puts the power in the hands of communities themselves, helping them to apply for permission to create plazas or mini ‘parklets’ in underused areas.

They create space to work

Today’s office can be anywhere, from a café to, well, an actual office (if you’re the traditional type). For remote workers, public spaces provide a change of scene and opportunities to collaborate with others. And teams that operate from a ‘virtual office’ can utilize those areas as meeting space. Much more pleasant than a stuffy, windowless conference room.

As more of us work remotely, shared and public spaces are important to stop us becoming isolated.

They are the green lungs of the city

Public squares and urban parks can play a crucial role in encouraging more greenery, whether it’s a few flower beds around the edges of a small plaza or an area planted with native trees. Bringing a little bit of nature into urban areas not only significantly ups the attractiveness of a city, it’s also vital for improving air quality. Nelson\Nygaard’s Vital Streets Plan in Green Rapids, Michigan, which reclaims thoroughfares as community spaces, focuses heavily on green spaces and mini-parks.

They can make us feel better

Sometimes we just need to get away, whether it’s out of the house, out of the office, or just away from our computers for a while. When life and/or work gets a little overwhelming, having a place to go and just breathe can help us recenter.

Being surrounded by greenery, and having space to breathe, can boost metal wellbeing, too.

They can be canvases for art

A single wall can be a public space. Brightened with public art murals that inform, inspire, or simply prettify dull, neglected areas, they can also make a real difference to a city. Mural Arts Philadelphia commissions artists and engages communities to create works aimed at inspiring change. For Elkus Manfredi Architects, spaces that help to encourage creativity—and bring people together—are a crucial element of any project.

They can change lives

Shared spaces are also an important part of social housing developments, helping those in need to connect with others. Non-profits such as FamilyAid Boston, Brilliant Corners and Friendship Place help to provide homeless families or individuals with a place to live, but also with access to support and places where they can feel part of a community.