Public Realm

There is a lack of evidence around the cause and effect of public realm interventions of all types on local economic growth.

Why public realm?

In undertaking public realm interventions, whether directly or indirectly, policy makers typically hope they will achieve a combination of outcomes through direct and indirect effects. 

The direct impact that many policy makers wish to achieve through improvements to the public realm is relatively self-evident: creating better public space to improve the wellbeing of existing residents. Policy-makers in local government have a mandate to provide clean, safe and functional public spaces for residents across all neighbourhoods. In more disadvantaged areas, incremental improvements to general wellbeing, such as improving public health or community relations, may have proportionately stronger effects. These direct effects of public realm improvements are important, but they are not the focus for the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth.

Policy-makers may also wish to see indirect, and often more radical, changes as a result of public realm interventions by creating better public space that will attract new people to an area, boosting the local economy or economic outcomes of individual communities and residents. These indirect effects are our focus.

  • If public realm improvements succeed in attracting more visitors to a previously less attractive high street or shopping centre, for example, increased footfall will boost sales and in turn, existing businesses will benefit and new firms might be attracted to the area. This might even boost local jobs as increased economic activity creates demand for employment. 
  • Meanwhile, the goal of attracting new residents is often driven by beliefs about the benefits of mixed communities and the positive impact that relatively better off and better educated households can have on more disadvantaged groups when living in the same area. 

Interventions of this type are typically part of the larger-scale interventions discussed above, and often associated with other types of redevelopment and amenity improvements in the area.

Definition of public realm

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. Many of these interventions have intrinsic value and non-economic benefits, such as making streets more appealing to walk through, or giving people something pleasant and interesting to look at.

Policy-makers intervene in the public realm either directly by undertaking projects themselves, or indirectly by requiring private sector partners to contribute to public realm improvement when they undertake development. Maintaining and providing parks and public squares, for example, are a core task of local government, while through section 106 requirements in the planning system, local government might require developers to invest in a public space adjacent to a development site. Broadly speaking, public realm interventions aim to create better places to live, or better places to do business. Most types of intervention fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Small-scale and isolated projects to improve the visual appearance and functionality of a local public space, such as rehabilitating a local park. These are most likely to be undertaken by the public sector alone.
  • Larger-scale interventions which form part of integrated projects of redevelopment and regeneration, such as rejuvenating a previously unattractive central square to reflect and support investment into residential development or transport improvements in the area. These are most likely to be undertaken jointly by the public and private sector, as a requirement on the private sector as part of a development deal, or by the private sector alone as a public realm intervention might add value to a residential or commercial development.

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