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Reclaiming Civic Spaces: The Project for Public Spaces

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

It is important for every healthy community to have public space for citizens to engage in democratic work. AASCU universities are often instrumental in partnering with community leaders to reclaim these types of public spaces for civic purposes. This work grows out of their commitment to being Stewards of Place. Indeed, every community has public space that has the potential to be used for important public work – be it as the site for dialogue about important community issues, public problem solving, community organizing, political campaigning, or other important civic activities.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.  PPS was founded in 1975 to expand on the work of William (Holly) Whyte, the author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Since then, we have completed projects in over 2500 communities in 40 countries and all 50 US states. Partnering with public and private organizations, federal, state and municipal agencies, business improvement districts, neighborhood associations and other civic groups, PPS improves communities by fostering successful public spaces.

Please see below for additional information about PPS. I hope many of you will consider how the type of work PPS is doing might fit into your own campus’s community outreach agenda. There are also a lot of great resources and tips on the PPS website that could be helpful for you as you’re thinking about how to improve and/or reclaim a public space in your community. The website also has tips on how university leaders might maximize the use of public space on campus. To read these specific tips, please visit this webpage.


The Re-Emergence of the Public Square

Public Squares enhance urban livability and provide new anchors to downtown development

Today, cities everywhere are thinking more broadly about how to gain an economic boost. Big ticket items, like sports arenas and lavish performing arts centers, which cities once viewed as the key to reviving their struggling downtowns, are taking a back seat to new, lower-cost, high-impact strategies to foster prosperity. More and more, public squares and urban parks, not expensive mega-projects, are emerging as the best way to make downtowns more livable—and not just in depressed urban cores.

A central attraction of cities throughout the world, public squares not only bring economic rewards but offer people a comfortable spot to gather for social, cultural and political activities. They are the pulsing heart of a community and foster true urban sustainability.

Two of PPS’ public square projects recently opened in Houston and Pittsburgh to great fanfare. And in Amsterdam, PPS facilitated a Placemaking workshop that brought diverse stakeholders together to develop a shared vision for an inclusive and livable town square.



Houston’s new Market Square opened to great excitement this fall, with Mayor Annise Parker declaring, “This is the perfect park: it has history, it has green space, it has food, it has places for the pets, it has places for kids to play.” That’s quite a turnaround for a spot once featured on PPS’s Hall of Shame. This is another milestone in Houston’s progress toward creating a series of great public spaces and a vibrant, livable downtown.  PPS was also a key partner on other Houston projects like Discovery Green and Emancipation Park




Pittsburgh’s Market Square reopened this fall with roaring public approval. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl enthused, “today our vision for this public space became a reality, “citing the newly closed streets, freshly planted trees, outdoor seating, and wider sidewalks  that now run through this historic public space. The opening marked the culmination of years of public process and a $5 million investment in the area, with improvements guided by PPS’ community-based plan for the Square




Amsterdam’s Plein 40-45, has great potential to become a thriving town square for a mixed Dutch, Turkish, and Moroccan neighborhood on the western edge of the City.  Just days after a PPS Master Class workshop, the community started implementing a number of the low-cost, high-impact improvements. The Square was even included on a city-wide boat tour of markets as part of Amsterdam’s annual 1001 Markets Festival.  The recent workshops facilitated by PPS brought stakeholders around the town square together- perhaps for the first time- to develop a shared vision for the space that would include all cultural groups.

One of the main reasons for the resurgence of the public square is that they bring livability and many diverse benefits to a city—at a lower cost and greater speed than traditional large-scale developments.  Public squares that emerge through a Placemaking process are sustained by community buy-in can:

  • catalyze private investment and foster grassroots entrepreneurial activities.
  • nurture identity, encourage volunteerism, and highlight a community’s unique values.
  • draw a diverse population and serve as a city’s “common ground.” Successful squares—those that are sustainable both economically and socially—draw different kinds of people with a series of dynamic places within them offering many choices of things to do—socializing, eating, reading, playing a game, interacting with art, etc.

A recent  Washington Post article focuses on the power of “City Parks” to spur economic growth across an entire city, and it points to two PPS projects, Houston’s  Discovery Green and Detroit’s  Campus Martius, as benchmarks for success. Alive with year-round programming and activities, the best squares offer the type of thriving Public Multi-Use Destinations treasured by urban residents which also generate millions of dollars of investment, proving there can be an  Upside of a Down Economy.

PPS is honored to celebrate these and other public squares that have recently opened to make their cities more livable.  We are seeking your stories about squares in your communities that you think are successful. Please send us a description, photos and facts about the impact of a square that has recently opened or been revitalized in your community so that we can share your successes with others! Email

Please visit the PPS website for more information.

Question: How might your university reclaim spaces in the community for citizens to do public work?

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