The business case: How the public realm and the urban economy go hand-in-hand

A bike corral on Portland's Mississippi. Bike infrastructure has been shown to benefit neighbouring small businesses. (Photo by Ash Kelly)

A bike corral on Portland’s Mississippi. Bike infrastructure has been shown to benefit neighbouring small businesses. (Photo by Ash Kelly)

(Excerpt from an article I wrote for The Doable City Reader @ )

“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighbourhoods instead of vacuity. ” – Jane Jacobs

In biological terms, a community is classified as a group of organisms living in a shared space. An ecosystem on the other hand, is made up of both living and nonliving components. In a forest ecosystem, plants, insects and animals are the communities, while sunlight, soil and nutrients are the equally important non-living components.

In the context of a city, we tend to define communities geographically. But what if we considered our neighbourhoods and streets ecosystems? In urban settings, humans and businesses act as communities while roads and sidewalks are its non-living components.

The health of a community, in the forest or city, relies on constant interaction with both the living and non-living aspects of the ecosystem. A lively business community attracts customers, but the same business community supported by quality public space that is filled with people attracts more customers. Conversely, a good public space accompanied by a vibrant business community becomes more active and engaging. The two operate in symbiosis.

In his book Life Between Buildings, Danish architect Jan Gehl outlines how the quality of outdoor public space influences how often and for what purposes a space is used. Gehl, who has observed behaviour in public spaces around the world, notes that when the quality of a public space is low, it is used only for necessary tasks like walking the dog or getting to the bus stop.

When a space is welcoming, designed to be accessible and enjoyable, “a wide range of optional activities” will occur in between those necessary tasks, writes Gehl. These might include spontaneous social interaction, reading a book, eating, window shopping or simply being in and enjoying the space. Good public realm brings people out of their homes and offices, into the world. And that’s good for business.

Click here to continue reading and see video and further examples of small business intersecting with public realm.


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