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Exploring the often fraught relationship between public spaces and social divides

Editor’s note: This brief is part of a three-part series which examines the economic, social, and civic impacts of public space investments in Albuquerque, N.M., Buffalo, N.Y., and Flint, Mich.

When many Americans’ lives shrunk to their homes and neighborhood boundaries during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became strikingly clear that the ability to live in a place where you can safely get your needs met is a privilege of the few. Long-standing divides in access to grocery stores, green spaces, and safe streets played a significant role in COVID-19 racial disparities—with counties possessing higher ratios of green space reporting significantly lower racial disparities in Black and white infection rates.

While the public health benefits of public spaces are well documented, research suggests that the social benefits of public spaces—including the enhanced trust, collaboration, neighborhood engagement, and social cohesion that they engender—could be drivers of this link between green space access and lower COVID-19 racial disparities.[i] These early trends beg an important question: As cities seek to heal from the intersecting inequities and access challenges that the pandemic has heightened, what role might public spaces play in supporting more just outcomes for underserved populations? Can the social benefits of public spaces foster more equitable neighborhoods, cities, and regions?

This brief seeks to provide insight into these questions through an in-depth examination of public space[ii] investments in Flint, Mich., Buffalo, N.Y., and Albuquerque, N.M. As part of a three-part series on the holistic impact of public spaces, this brief centers the voices of residents, community-based stakeholders, and small business owners to explore the often fraught relationship between public spaces, social cohesion, and social divides—striving to identify insights that numbers alone can’t capture and offer recommendations for cities to better leverage public space investments as they seek to rebuild more equitably from COVID-19.    

Mixed messages on the relationship between public space and social divides

The rationale for placemaking and public space investments are often social in nature, with the stated goals of bringing diverse groups together, offering community spaces for gathering, and spurring residents’ attachment to place. A decent research base backs up these benefits, with evidence indicating that when public spaces are designed with communities, they can increase social interaction, social capital, trust, cross-cultural exchange, and community-building.[iii] Access to public spaces has also been found to increase place attachment: A Knight Foundation report found that people with greater access to public spaces in 26 metro areas reported being more satisfied with their metro area, identifying more with the local culture and lifestyle, and showing a stronger preference for staying in the area. [iv]

However, the evidence on public spaces’ effectiveness in bridging social divides is mixed. A sizeable body of research indicates that public space investments can actually increase social tensions and exclusion by failing to benefit underserved residents and businesses, prioritizing public dollars in certain neighborhoods to the exclusion of others, and at times, prioritizing commercial interests within public spaces.[v]In some “hot market” neighborhoods, public spaces can lead to the displacement of longtime residents.[vi] Even when actual displacement is not a risk (for instance, in weaker market areas), neighborhood changes such as new public spaces can lead to fears of cultural loss due to the addition of what are or can be perceived as predominantly white spaces.[vii] Farmers’ markets, in particular, are often perceived as white, liberal, and elite spaces—even if that perception does not match their mission and impact of increasing direct access to fresh, healthy foods and supporting local farmers and entrepreneurs of color.[viii]

Scholars and placemaking practitioners argue that to realize the social benefits of public spaces, planners and public space managers must be intentional about design (including purported safety features such as police and other surveillance mechanisms), programming (including recognizing diverse histories and cultural assets), access to the space itself (via public transportation, walking, and biking), and power in management and decisionmaking (who shapes the direction and uses of public spaces).[ix] They contend that if public spaces are designed and managed for a monolithic “public” or “average user,” they will likely to be exclusionary and fail to achieve their goals of engendering social cohesion.[x]

For instance, scholars point out that “European design tropes” such as benches, picnic tables, and grass may not reflect the different ways communities of color and low-income communities use public spaces.[xi] A Rice University study found that that Houston residents of different races and income levels were interested in different types of public space improvements, with higher-income white people most concerned with connectivity, and Black and Latino or Hispanic people most interested in better-quality restrooms at the parks and more lighting.[xii] Strict rules governing schedules for park amenities can also be exclusionary to those who may not have time, access, or familiarity with the rules to schedule far in advance—often disproportionately impacting working families.[xiii]

With this mixed literature on the social benefits of public spaces, it is important to dive deeper into the impacts of public spaces on social cohesion and social divides—particularly the way race, income, age, ability, and geography shape who has access to and visits public spaces, as well as concerns of equity and inclusivity in the space itself. [xiv] This brief contends that generating these deep insights requires on-the-ground research to better understand the perceptions and needs of communities when it comes to their public spaces.

Methods: Examining the social impacts of public space investments in Flint, Albuquerque, and Buffalo

The Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking and Project for Public Spaces conducted on-the-ground research in Flint, Albuquerque, and Buffalo, examining the impact of three downtown public space investments: The Flint Farmers’ Market, Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, and Buffalo’s Canalside. (For a description of and background on the public spaces, please see the Introduction brief.) Our research consisted of in-depth interviews with 78 residents, small business owners, public sector officials, and other key stakeholders as well as three supplemental focus groups with residents and public space vendors between February and March 2020.

Project for Public Spaces had previously conducted placemaking projects in each of the three spaces—which helped facilitate connections to stakeholders on the ground—but had not been involved in the public spaces for a number of years. All 78 interviews and supplemental focus groups were recorded (unless interviewees explicitly requested not to be, in which case detailed notes were taken), transcribed, and coded using a qualitative coding scheme for consistency and quality control.

Overall, we examined the impact of downtown public space investments on three key outcomes of community well-being, including economic, social, and civic outcomes. We recognize the interdependence of economic, physical, social, and civic inputs and outcomes—by investing in one class of assets (for instance, physical, through public space investments), there are interrelated effects on others (economic, social, and civic). This brief focuses on social outcomes.

Using the Bass Center’s transformative placemaking framework, we examined the extent to which public space investments can help foster downtown social environments that are:
Cohesive: Promoting social interactionand trust amongdiverse groups of residents, workers, business owners, and other community members
Reflective: Representing the distinct cultural and historical identities of the community and facilitating a shared sense of ownership and attachment
Vibrant: Cultivating an engaging public realm animated by a range of activities and programming

To learn more about the intersections between economic, social, and civic outcomes, please see the other briefs in the series.

Our research revealed three multifaceted findings, providing new insights into the ways downtown public investments must strive to achieve greater connectivity with adjacent neighborhoods; how divides between neighborhoods may, in turn, diminish social cohesion within public spaces; and concrete strategies to ensure downtown public spaces reflect the demographics and income level of the city at large.

Finding #1: To achieve social cohesion, downtown public spaces must enhance connectivity to nearby neighborhoods and benefit communities beyond district boundaries

The public space investments in Flint, Buffalo, and Albuquerque had the stated goals of driving revitalization, transformation, and growth in the downtown area. And as we describe in our brief “The inclusive economic impacts of downtown public space investments,” they each garnered success in positively shaping residents’ perceptions of their downtowns, driving economic activity within the area, and supporting underserved downtown small businesses—all critical strategies for supporting inclusive economic development goals.  

When we dug a bit deeper, however, residents described an array of interrelated social tensions accompanying downtown public space investments—particularly, how new downtown investment can heighten divides between downtowns and adjacent, often disinvested neighborhoods and raise connectivity concerns about who accesses and benefits from the public space. Despite the fact that public officials and place managers involved in each public space contended that improvements were implemented with the goal of ensuring downtown vitality can uplift all city residents—fostering downtown as a “heart” and “front door” for the city as a whole—local residents and stakeholders did not always believe these public space investments were accessible to everyone, nor their benefits evenly distributed.

In Buffalo and Albuquerque, in particular, respondents questioned why such significant public and private investments were directed downtown rather than “higher-need” neighborhoods, and reported concerns that these public spaces investments were primarily meant to serve suburban visitors from across the region or nearby states, rather than people within the city—particularly, people of color. These questions revealed significant social divides underlying and shaping interactions between residents and visitors within the public space, and the need to both enhance connectivity between neighborhoods and downtown public spaces and invest in neighborhood public spaces as well.

“We have politicians in other neighborhoods saying, ‘Why are we putting money into down there when my housing stock needs work here?’” a stakeholder involved in the development and management of Buffalo’s Canalside told us. “And our congressman at the time said, ‘Rising tides lift all boats.’ That was his mantra, and that’s pretty much what we’re saying here.” But residents we spoke with reported that this goal of lifting all boats was falling short—particularly for residents living in Buffalo’s East Side. They felt that a significant amount of public money was going to building a new neighborhood at Canalside rather than investing in existing neighborhoods.

“There has been uneven investment in certain places like Canalside and not enough investment in other places like East Side,” one resident told us, reflecting the sentiments of many others. “I feel like they’re pouring a lot of money into one space where people don’t necessarily live and work, and not other places where they do. I’m not sure if that makes sense, especially if you’re not connecting the area to the rest of the city and making it open and available to everybody.”

While public-private sector partnerships to invest in underinvested commercial corridors in the East Side, such as East Side Avenues, do exist, the perception of skewed investment priorities, poor connectivity to the waterfront, and the harm of historical disinvestment remained top-of-mind—revealing a strong tension between the inclusivity goals of downtown public space investments and the priorities of nearby neighborhoods.

In Albuquerque, public space managers explained that Civic Plaza was meant to be the “front porch” of the city—representing the heart of downtown and the pathway to the city’s largest tourism investment, the Convention Center. But many respondents raised lingering questions about how to balance this “front porch” role with the priorities and needs of residents. In particular, they pointed to the Convention Center-managed programming and raised questions about whether the investments in the public space were for the benefit of Albuquerque residents or to make the city a more attractive destination for conference attendees.

“The city just invested millions of dollars in the Convention Center and Civic Plaza and you want people to actually be able to utilize it,” one small business owner who had previously had a storefront downtown told us. “Not just conventioneers and visitors, but it should be a place where locals can enjoy it as well.”

Downtown stakeholders were attempting to mitigate these challenges by regularly programming events for locals. However, with the Convention Center managing the events schedule and setting priorities for the Civic Plaza, concerns about corporate control arose. Moreover, we heard numerous reports related to the hostile treatment of people without housing in the Plaza, which contributed to the perception that painting a “positive” picture of downtown for visitors took priority over the needs of residents and local small businesses.

The story of downtown development versus neighborhood development is a long one, and not unique to these case study communities. In cities nationwide, the inability to connect downtown prosperity to nearby neighborhoods has stalled progress and exacerbated socioeconomic divides. In these three case study communities, the goal of the public space investment was to spur downtown revitalization, and respondents reported positive success in increasing regional tourism and improving perceptions of struggling downtown areas (see “The inclusive economic impacts of downtown public space investments”). However, there was work to be done in enhancing connectivity and spreading benefits to nearby neighborhoods.

At the end of the day, the inclusion challenges in Buffalo and Albuquerque were not necessarily as simple as pushback against downtown development. Rather, they centered on the critique that downtown investment should impart greater benefits to more residents in more neighborhoods, and that city investment in community infrastructure should also extend to neighborhoods. Strategies for ensuring downtown revitalization efforts are more equitable exist, and include policies such as connecting increased development entitlements in downtown areas to neighborhood commercial corridor revitalization or open space preservation, as well as efforts to physically connect disadvantaged neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown area to newly revitalized public spaces.

Finding #2: Divides between neighborhoods—both tangible and intangible—impact the use of public spaces and their ability to promote social cohesion

Respondents reported that lingering questions about the intended “user” for public spaces investments (i.e., whether spaces were designed to benefit tourists over local residents) ultimately helped fuel more homogenous use of the spaces by prompting many residents from underserved neighborhoods to avoid them altogether. Concrete connectivity concerns related to pedestrian, biking, and public transportation access heightened these barriers.

Downtown stakeholders involved in the management and programming of Canalside summed up these challenges succinctly, saying “I think [Canalside] is thought of as a white suburban place to visit.” A lifelong Buffalo resident echoed this sentiment, saying, “Pretty [Canalside] is, but it’s almost like it’s pretty, but you can’t touch it for some people.”

For some Buffalo communities, including many low-income and immigrant residents in the nearby Lower West Side, connectivity to the waterfront itself posed a challenge due to safety barriers for pedestrians, with the six-lane I-190 highway cutting off neighborhoods from nearby waterfront. However, when we asked Buffalo stakeholders if transportation access could be a reason some East Side residents might not visit Canalside, they cast doubt on that idea, saying that the barriers were more fundamentally about the space itself. “A lot of people in the East Side—even if you drove a shuttle bus around and said, ‘Please come to Canalside’— they’re not coming to Canalside,” one told us.

In Buffalo and Albuquerque, public space programming appeared to play a role in these dynamics, as both had corporate place managers driving programming and activities that were perceived as catering to higher-income visitors (See “How place governance impacts the civic potential of public places,” where we explore these nuances of place management practices in-depth.) Focus group participants in Buffalo pointed to access and inclusivity challenges, such as the fact that Canalside was beginning to charge for events, that the programming seemed to cater to suburban families, that most of the nearby dining and entertainment options were expensive, that the new development did not reflect the culture of Buffalo, and finally, that there were access barriers in the area for residents with disabilities. East Side residents also attributed this avoidance to long-standing divides that exist between suburbs and city residents dating back to disinvestment and white flight last century.

“I think a lot of people in the city see Canalside as Canalside, not part of the city,” one Buffalo resident told us. “That’s why a lot of people just don’t participate in it, because they don’t feel welcome…Because in this area, there’s such a division between people who live in the suburbs and people who live in the city. And that’s just real.” Canalside place mangers were aware of these challenges and had attempted to mitigate some of them by hiring local vendors and inviting artists and performers who could cater to multicultural audiences. However, much more work remained to be done in connecting underserved residents to the spaces.

These two interrelated findings—that public space investments downtown, poor connectivity to nearby neighborhoods, and inadequate investments in neighborhood public spaces can raise doubts about who downtown investments are for, and in turn, such doubts may make people reluctant to visit the public space—present a significant challenge to the idea that downtown public spaces alone can be the “rising tides that lift all boats.”

Our research suggests that to truly lift all boats, public space managers have to be highly intentional about centering the experiences of those who are most often excluded from certain spaces and embedding explicit efforts to connect people and places into a core strategy. In Buffalo, these efforts are underway with the renovation of the nearby LaSalle Park (which abuts the waterfront), in which the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, the state, and the city are investing in a new pedestrian bridge to connect Lower West Side residents who have long been cut off from the waterfront to a safe, accessible entrance.

There are many national examples as well, including Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park’s mission to close social divides between a disinvested, predominantly Black neighborhood and a more affluent one across the Anacostia River, as well as University City District’s “Just Spaces” tool to measure the inclusivity of public spaces in Philadelphia. The next section expands upon the successful strategies the Flint Farmers’ Market employed to increase inclusivity within its revitalized public space.

Finding #3: Community-tailored services and programming, partnerships with underserved neighborhoods, and innovative transportation access solutions can help bridge social divides

Over the past several years, the Flint Farmers’ Market has been able to address many of the inclusivity challenges facing downtown public spaces. Research indicates that the racial composition of customers at the downtown market mirrors that of the metropolitan area as a whole (28% Black and 68% white) and geographic evidence (using ZIP codes) indicates that the market attracts a significant number of customers from low-income neighborhoods across Flint.[xv] We dove deeper into what was driving the success behind these statistics and came to three primary conclusions: 1) the market’s intentionality in offering community-tailored services that reach underinvested neighborhoods; 2) the market’s community outreach and partnerships with these neighborhoods; and 3) the leveraging of public transportation to increase access to the market.

First, the Flint Farmers’ Market was intentional from the outset about providing services and programming to benefit underserved neighborhoods, primarily through providing access to fresh food, health information, and support for low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry entrepreneurship. As one market stakeholder told us, “We wanted to change the demographic of farmers’ markets. When you look at who comes to farmers markets nationally, it’s not usually underserved communities and people of color and poor people. We wanted to shift that.”

“The Mobile Market fills another kind of void,” one public health professional told us. “It brings food to places where traditional food retail isn’t just going to come back…The fact that the Mobile Market can go to different neighborhoods and serve people that can’t even get to the Farmers’ Market—that’s because of the presence of the market.” These efforts to both expand community-tailored services within the market and offer them outside market boundaries were critical for gaining exposure and trust among residents of underserved neighborhoods.

Second, market stakeholders forged partnerships with community organizations in underserved neighborhoods to increase awareness and visitation to the market. As one market stakeholder summed up, “Everything we do is community-partnered.”

They also strived to build trust with neighborhood residents through direct outreach and vendor connections, with one market stakeholder telling us, “Community trust plays into a lot of why people would feel comfortable coming downtown to the market. Some residents will say, ‘We don’t feel that downtown is for us and so therefore, why would I go downtown and utilize a commercial kitchen?’ So we’ve worked different outreach strategies connecting the Farmers’ Market to some of our entrepreneurs in neighborhoods to make those connections, so we’re seeing now an uptick in the number of neighborhood folks that are taking advantage of the kitchen.”

Finally, stakeholders were intentional about the placement of the market itself by relocating it next to a Flint Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) downtown transportation center hub that moves 17,000 to 20,000 people through the area on a daily basis. They formed partnerships with MTA to have special routes within the community to bring families to the market for fresh food and provide free satellite parking for the market at no charge. Stakeholders attributed much of the market’s inclusivity success to these transportation innovations, with one foundation representative telling us, “The Flint Farmers’ Market bucks national trends, showing that from moving the market next to public transportation, we saw not only an increase in the total number of participants, but we also saw an increase in the percentage of [people from] socially and economically distressed backgrounds utilizing the market.”

While some of these innovations are context-dependent, they reveal the importance of designing public spaces not just for “everyone,” but instead designing them to reach those who are most likely to be excluded. In doing so, the market did not lose suburban customers or become any less of a regional destination, but rather became a destination where all Flint residents—regardless of income, race, or ZIP code—felt comfortable to be.

Ensuring equitable public space access is critical for fostering healthy and just cities and regions. There is a long way to go, as low-income families and families of color are still more likely to live in neighborhoods with fewer parks, fewer sidewalks, fewer recreational resources, and more traffic danger.[xvi]

Our findings reveal that downtown public space investments—which are typically designed to benefit residents of the entire city rather than a particular neighborhood—can either help address these disparities or exacerbate them. It is up to public officials and public space managers to be intentional about programming, access, power, and connectivity to ensure downtown public space investments benefit all people, and align these investments with robust support for critical community infrastructure in nearby neighborhoods.

Cover photo: A community event at Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza. Photo courtesy of Downtown Albuquerque MainStreet.

The authors thank Joanne Kim for her excellent research assistance on this series. They express their sincere gratitude to the community stakeholders who participated in research interviews and focus groups. They also thank Lola Bird, Lavea Brachman, Karriane Martus, Steve Ranalli, Nate Storring, and Jennifer S. Vey for their review of various drafts of the series. Any errors that remain are solely the responsibility of the authors.

About the Authors


Hanna Love

Research Associate – Metropolitan Policy Program

Cailean Kok


Cailean Kok

Project Associate – Project for Public Spaces

[i] Yi Lu, Long Chen, Xueming Liu, Yuwen Yang, William C. Sullivan, Wenyan Xu, Chris Webster, Bin Jiang,

Green spaces mitigate racial disparity of health: A higher ratio of green spaces indicates a lower racial disparity in SARS-CoV-2 infection rates in the USA, Environment International, Volume 152,2021: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106465.

[ii] Please see the Introduction for our definition of “public space.”

[iii] Carmona, M.  Place value: place quality and its impact on health, social, economic and environmental outcomes. Journal of Urban Design, 2019, 24(1), 1–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/13574809.2018.1472523; Project for Public Places. The Case for Healthy Places, 2016: https://www.pps.org/product/the-case-for-healthy-places. Gaynair, G., M, Treskon, J. Schilling, and Velasco, G. Civic Assets for More Equitable Cities. Urban Institute, August 2020: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/civic-assets-more-equitable-cities; Center for Active Design. Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines. 2018: https://centerforactivedesign.org/assembly; Rios, M. (2013). From a Neighborhood of Strangers to a Community of Fate: The Village at Market Creek Plaza. In Transcultural Cities: Border-Crossing and Placemaking ed. Hou, J.; Eldridge, M., K. Burrowes, and P. Spauste,Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems. Urban Institute: July 2019. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/investing-equitable-urban-park-systems.

[iv] Scott, M. M., Santos, R. L., Arena, O., Hayes, C., & Simon, A. Community Ties: Understanding What Attaches People to the Place Where They Live. In Knight Foundation, 2020: https://doi.org/10.1080/10463356.2008.11883727

[v] Dempsey, N., & Burton, M. Defining place-keeping: The long-term management of public spaces. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2012: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1618866711000732; Zamanifard, H., Alizadeh, T., & Bosman, C. Towards a framework of public space governance. Cities, 2018, 78, 155-165: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0264275117302305. Hoyt, L., & Gopal‐Agge, D. The business improvement district model: A balanced review of contemporary debates. Geography Compass, 2007: 1(4), 946-958: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2007.00041.x.

[vi] Gaynair, G., M, Treskon, J. Schilling, and Velasco, G. Civic Assets for More Equitable Cities. Urban Institute, August 2020: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/civic-assets-more-equitable-cities; Rigolon, A., and J. Christensen: Without Gentrification: Learning from parks-related anti-displacement strategies nationwide. ULCA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, 2019: https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Greening-without-Gentrification-report-2019.pdf

[xv] Morckel, V. Patronage and access to a legacy city farmers’ market: a case study of the relocation of the Flint, Michigan, market. Local Environment, 2017, 22(10), 1268–1289. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2017.1336519

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