High Performance Public Spaces: A Tool for Building More Resilient and Sustainable Communities

by David Barth, PhD, ASLA, RLA, AICP, CPRP

Kissimmee Lakefront Park
Kissimmee Lakefront Park, a High-Performance Public Space / image: Michael Brown, AECOM

Most design firms and communities are embracing the concepts of sustainability and resiliency. However, as with all ambitious initiatives, implementation is the greatest challenge. Three actions landscape architects can take to put theory into practice are to:

  1. plan and design every park and open space project as a High-Performance Public Space (HPPS),
  2. plan and design parks and open spaces as part of an integrated public realm, and
  3. help create a culture that fosters the adoption of innovation in the planning and design of public spaces.

The concept of a HPPS evolved from my doctoral research at the University of Florida, where I was trying to determine the factors that led to the adoption of innovation in the planning and design of public spaces. More specifically, I wanted to learn why some public agencies and design consultants adopt sustainable design principles in their parks and public space projects, and others don’t. In order to find the answers, I first needed to develop criteria to identify examples of successful projects to study, which I referred to as High Performance Public Spaces.

I defined a HPPS as “any publicly accessible space that generates economic, environmental, and social sustainability benefits for their local community.” A HPPS can be a park, trail, square, green, natural area, plaza, or any other element of the public realm that generates all three types of benefits. Working with a group of over 20 sustainability experts, we developed 25 criteria for a HPPS including economic criteria such as “the space sustains or increases property values;” environmental criteria such as “the space uses energy, water, and material resources efficiently;” and social criteria such as “the space provides places for formal and informal social gathering, art, performances, and community or civic events.” A space had to meet at least 80% of the 25 criteria in order to qualify as a HPPS. The full list of criteria is shown below.

Many public agencies and design professionals are now using these criteria as a checklist during the planning and design process to make sure that they are considering all of the potential benefits that can be generated by their projects. Participants at recent HPPS workshops in New Hampshire and Florida have been surprised at how easy it is to transform ordinary projects into High Performance projects through the thoughtful application of HPPS principles and criteria. If communities adopt the HPPS criteria in the planning and design of their public spaces—i.e., if every element of the public realm is planned, designed, and constructed as a HPPS—then great strides could be made towards achieving economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable communities.

In addition to planning and designing each public space as a HPPS, landscape architects can also help implement the concepts of sustainability and resiliency by planning and designing each park or public space as part of an interconnected, integrated “public realm.” I define the public realm as “a community’s publicly accessible system of streets, sidewalks, parks, civic spaces, historic and cultural areas, natural areas, trails, stormwater treatment ponds, utility corridors, and/or other lands owned and managed by city, county, regional, state. or federal agencies.” Alexander Garvin defines it more simply as “Our common property…the fundamental element in any community—the framework around which everything grows” (Garvin, 2013). The graphic below illustrates the concept of an integrated public realm:

The public realm system / image: Glatting Jackson

An integrated public realm means that no park or public space is planned and designed as an “island,” disconnected from other public spaces and/or infrastructure. Landscape architects would also consider the implications and needs of other “sub-systems” of the public realm, such as bicycle/pedestrian access, stormwater treatment and storage, public transit, and wildlife corridors. Such a systems approach could also transcend the silos of different agencies, encouraging public, private, and non-profit agencies to collaborate in the planning, design, operations, and maintenance of the public spaces that comprise the public realm.

Finally, landscape architects could also work to create a culture that encourages the adoption of innovation in the planning and design process, leading to the creation of HPPSs. To answer the question, “why do some public agencies and design teams adopt sustainable design innovations in the planning and design process while others don’t?”, my research explored three cases of HPPSs to identify common factors that may have influenced the adoption of sustainable design practices in the planning and design process.

The study identified six common factors that appear to influence the adoption of innovation in the planning and design of HPPSs. The three strongest factors appeared to be: a strong leader, collaborative relationships, and external characteristics including system openness and stakeholder involvement. Three secondary factors included: the perception of the innovation, perceived economic benefits and return-on-investment, and the presence of a long-range vision. The study also theorized that planning and design innovations are adopted in two stages: early conceptual planning and design innovations, and detailed design and implementation innovations. Landscape architects and their clients could use these findings to conduct a self-audit of their “readiness” to foster innovation in the planning and design of public spaces.

In summary, landscape architects can play a key role in building great communities by planning and designing each park and open space as a HPPS, treating every public space as a component of an integrated public realm and creating a culture that promotes and fosters the adoption of innovation in the planning and design process.

Criteria for High Performance Public Spaces (HPPSs) (David Barth, 2015)

Economic Criteria:

The space:

  • creates and facilitates revenue-generating opportunities for the public and/or the private sectors
  • creates meaningful and desirable employment
  • indirectly creates or sustains good, living wage jobs
  • sustains or increases property values
  • catalyzes infill development and/or the re-use of obsolete or under-used buildings or spaces
  • attracts new residents
  • attracts new businesses
  • generates increased business and tax revenues
  • optimizes operations and maintenance costs (compared to other similar spaces)

Environmental Criteria:

The space:

  • uses energy, water, and material resources efficiently
  • improves water quality of both surface and groundwater
  • serves as a net carbon sink
  • enhances, preserves, promotes, or contributes to biological diversity
  • is designed with hardscape materials selected based on longevity of service, social/cultural/historical sustainability, regional availability, low carbon footprint and/or other related criteria
  • provides opportunities to enhance environmental awareness and knowledge
  • serves as an interconnected node within larger scale ecological corridors and natural habitat

Social Criteria:

The space:

  • improves the neighborhood
  • improves social and physical mobility through multi-modal connectivity—auto, transit, bike, pedestrian
  • encourages the health and fitness of residents and visitors
  • provides relief from urban congestion and stressors such as social confrontation, noise pollution, and air pollution
  • provides places for formal and informal social gathering, art, performances, and community or civic events
  • provides opportunities for individual, group, passive, and active recreation
  • facilitates shared experiences among different groups of people
  • attracts diverse populations
  • promotes creative and constructive social interaction

David Barth, PhD, ASLA, RLA, AICP, CPRP, is Principal of Barth Associates, a Gainesville, FL-based firm specializing in parks and recreation planning, design, and facilitation. His new book, Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating More Sustainable, Resilient Communities, is scheduled for publication in late 2019.

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