This page offers an overview of why we are interested in public realm interventions as a means of encouraging local economic growth. Unlike the other policy areas we look at, we found no evidence to show that they have any impacts on local economic growth. Below is an overview of what we do know about these interventions. You can also find links to why we look at public realm and how we define it, and the evidence briefing.
What do we mean by public realm and how can it deliver economic growth?
Public realm interventions cover a broad range of activities, from landscaping an existing park or public garden to cleaning up undesired graffiti and street rubbish, or erecting statues and improving pedestrian access to improve a town centre shopping district.
These interventions create better places to live and do business, and play a part in local governments role in maintaining and improving the public realm for their residents. We are interested specifically in local economic effects, rather than these broader benefits.
From a local economic growth perspective, policymakers may seek to improve public realm to:
- Increase footfall in commercial areas to improve outcomes for existing businesses
- Develop more mixed communities in the hope that this will improve economic outcomes for existing residents or businesses.
What does the evidence on public realm improvements show?
While public realm interventions may be important in their own right, there is no evidence available that carefully assess the claims around local economic impacts.
While we did not find any robust evaluations on local economic impacts economic theory and wider empirical evidence strongly suggest that public realm improvements may have an impact on housing costs or commercial rents. This may lead, in turn, to displacement of some existing residents or businesses.
Some of these types of interventions, and larger scale regeneration projects, seek to develop mixed-income communities in the hope that this will improve economic outcomes for existing residents of businesses. However, the available evidence on mixed communities is highly contested with many more rigorous studies finding little evidence of positive effects.
What policymakers need to know when designing public realm improvements
The economic impacts of these types of interventions are poorly understood. Policymakers should be aware of the evidence on capitalisation (how improvements tend to get reflected in higher residential and commercial rents) and the potential for displacement. They should also be more aware of the uncertainties over the economic benefits of mixed communities.
Smaller scale interventions are likely to have fewer of these unintended consequences in terms of displacement, but equally are likely to deliver smaller economic benefits.
If policymakers are making public realm improvements with a view to improving local economic outcomes, then robust evaluation of the policy is needed to support a better overall understanding of who benefits and how..
What policymakers and academics need to know when evaluating public realm improvements
We need much better evaluations of public realm improvements to help us understand issues such as displacement and the effects on existing residents.