Who Gets a Say in the Design of Public Space?


Different residents often have different, conflicting views on how particular public spaces should be used.

These disagreements can be tricky to resolve in inner-city areas, where the ratio of public space per resident is far lower, and different land uses – residential, commercial, open space, etc – are closer together. Ideally, each neighbourhood will have a good balance of:

  • quiet, well-vegetated green spaces that provide wildlife habitat and allow residents to connect with nature
  • Lower-intensity open recreation spaces for holding a picnic, kicking a ball around or flying a kite
  • active recreation spaces with infrastructure like playgrounds and sports facilities
  • community gardens that bring people together and support urban food production
  • intensively used squares and urban commons that are designed for meetings and events.

With greater public investment both in genuine consultation and in well-designed infrastructure, it’s possible to find creative solutions to meet a wider range of needs. Unfortunately, both the Brisbane City Council and the Queensland State Government have underspent significantly on the provision of public space and the infrastructure that goes into it. This general scarcity means that public spaces are being used more intensively, particularly in close proximity to residential homes.

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Who is impacted?

As a local councillor, I believe residents should have more control over how our neighbourhoods change and evolve. The residents who live closest to public spaces often experience the greatest negative impacts when the use of those spaces intensifies, and it’s important that their needs aren’t ignored or marginalised.

However, immediate neighbours aren’t the only ones who should get a say in how a space is used, and although their needs and preferences might differ from other public space users who live slightly further away, that doesn’t mean that they should have veto power over everything that happens on a piece of publicly owned land.

There are many benefits in living closer to public parks and squares – for one thing, the view from your window probably isn’t obscured by another building only a few metres away. The trade-off is that you also have to put up with a bit more noise and a little less privacy. This can be a difficult adjustment for new residents who are accustomed to quieter suburban lifestyles, but it comes with the territory.

Wealth inequality is another important element in this conversation. Public spaces are owned by all of us, and while everyone’s money (in the form of rates, taxes etc) is used to buy and maintain public spaces, it is often the most wealthy members of our society who get to live closest to high quality parks and squares. While poorer residents are crammed into smaller apartments and flats with no private open space and barely enough room to entertain visitors, wealthier residents get the benefit of larger homes - usually with private courtyards or sprawling backyards - as well as closer proximity to publicly owned open space. Often, public spaces are used more heavily by lower-income residents who live slightly further away from them.

This raises interesting questions about who should get a say in the design and use of public spaces. If we left such decisions exclusively up to immediate neighbours, many parks would probably remain as bare, empty lawns without toilet blocks, barbeques, lighting, shade shelters or the many other features that make spaces more useable. Such an outcome would not necessarily be in the broader public interest.

Ideally, everyone who cares about and uses a public space (whether they’re an immediate neighbour or a less frequent visitor) should get some level of input into how such spaces change, but there’s no definitive answer as to how much weighting should be given to different users and interest groups.

 

Finding balance in an unbalanced landscape

Historically, Brisbane City Councillors have tended to heavily favour the views of immediate neighbours when it comes to designing public spaces. As a result, a small minority of vocal objectors can often prevent upgrades and outweigh the less coordinated requests of other park users.

I generally tend to lean a bit more the other way, and try to respond to the needs of lower-income public space users who might not have the confidence to start a petition or call the Lord Mayor’s office, but who are often heavily impacted by how such spaces are managed and developed.

An added difficulty here is that a poorly run consultation process that is not sufficiently inclusive or democratic can end up amplifying a vocal minority, and may actually be worse than no formal consultation at all. Basing decisions on a single survey or a single public forum creates the risk of a decision being hijacked by the people who have the most time and energy to participate in that consultation process, to the exclusion of demographics that don’t have the time to engage. The best approach is to put in the time and money to engage residents through a wide range of consultation avenues that are accessible to different demographics, and encourage residents to talk directly to each other as well as to the council, but unfortunately BCC doesn’t usually do this.

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Parks as community meeting places

In our current society, one of the most important roles of public parks and squares is their function as a gathering place where people of different demographics and subcultures can meet and interact. Today, Brisbane’s dog off-leash areas are among the most vibrant community hubs in the city, offering neighbours a chance to get to know each other and share local news. Basketball courts and playgrounds can serve similar functions.

In a city where most of us lead busy, individualistic lives and don’t have the time or energy to get to know our neighbours, public spaces can play a transformative role in creating more opportunities for chance encounters and strengthening community relationships. This is one of the most important differences between private gardens and public parks, and is a key consideration when deciding how a particular public park could be improved.

 

Where are we headed?

In a city like Brisbane, where the provision of public space is not keeping up with population growth, most inner-city public spaces will not be able to remain as quiet, empty green lawns, free of both people and native vegetation. Most public spaces – particularly along the river – are likely to see increasingly intensive uses, especially in the evenings and at night. Public parks are not private lawns, and it is naïve to assume they will always function as such.

Importantly though, councils need to spend the time and resources to facilitate community conversations about how different public spaces change and evolve. Properly funding consultation and participatory design processes can help residents find common ground and strike a better balance between competing needs. Without forward planning and open conversations, disagreements and disappointments are inevitable.

Navigating all this is definitely one of the hardest parts of my role as a councillor, and takes up a lot of my time and that of my two ward office staff. There are more than 50 000 residents in the Gabba Ward. Sadly, we don’t have enough staff or funding to send out hundreds or sometimes thousands of notification letters to neighbouring residents every time changes are made to a public park.  Similarly, a lot of residents don’t have the time to get involved in proactive consultation processes or even to read the newsletters that council does send out, and end up only hearing about upgrades at the last minute, when it’s too late to object. There’s no easy answer to this, but a crucial piece of the puzzle is decentralising decision-making power to the neighbourhood level rather than so many decisions being made centrally in city hall.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that there are many different uses for public spaces, and reasonable people can disagree on how each park and public square should change over time. So in discussing how spaces are designed and managed, we need to consider not only our own immediate needs, but also those of other residents from different demographics who might use public space in different ways.

Many residents would like all our parks to remain as quiet green refuges with only low-impact uses, but many others want these spaces upgraded with more infrastructure and facilities. We need to have more community discussions about these tricky questions, and resist the temptation to take a one-size-fits-all, no-compromise approach.

 

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