Imagine a socially connected community where people know and trust their neighbors and people from different neighborhoods. Where they are motivated and supported (through fair processes and practices) to be civically engaged. Where structures, policies, and relationships connect residents to important services, resources, and inclusive spaces. And where, through various signals*, people see themselves represented and feel welcomed in their community. Public spaces are a vital component of this picture.
Public spaces play many roles in communities, one of the foremost being the “welcome mat.” Their designs, locations, aesthetics, and uses tell visitors and residents a lot about the values, culture, and identity of a place. Public spaces are an extension of communities and, when designed and managed well, offer places where residents can interact with each other and their government, experience cultural activities, access nature, and gain a sense of belonging.2 The opportunities to promote health and strengthen social connection are endless in places such as parks, community gardens, greenways, streets, sidewalks, libraries, community centers, waterfronts, shared-use schoolyards, and the interstitial spaces around public buildings. Urban, suburban, and rural settings provide different, but equally powerful, opportunities to design inclusive public spaces.
In the Mat-Su Valley of Alaska, Youth 360 transforms public schools and spaces into community hubs. There, they provide after-school programming and social connection opportunities for middle and high school students. The project is based on the Icelandic Prevention Model, which holds that social connectedness and access to activities can reduce youth drug and alcohol use and strengthen wider communities. In sparsely populated areas, Youth 360 has increased access to transportation, public spaces, and communication channels for marginalized families and communities. Free after-school programs and bus routes connect students to activities and a range of peers. Local school personnel identify isolated families and drive outreach and engagement efforts. In turn, youth help determine program activities and community-level solutions for supporting young people. By leveraging public schools as natural gathering places, collecting information about community needs and challenges, and increasing access to community-based activities, Youth 360 has decreased social isolation among participants and increased local capacity to address it.
Various public spaces have been utilized by the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative to advance equity, health, and social connections. Supported by the New York State Health Foundation, the Collaborative is a resident-led, nonprofit organization. While Niagara Falls draws tourism that economically benefits the city, working-class neighborhoods suffer from long-term disinvestment and high levels of poverty. This creates mistrust of government and other institutions. The Collaborative is rebuilding trust and capacity by supporting community members to create the positive changes they desire. For example, the weekly Mile n’ Smile walking club invites people to exercise and socialize in diverse public spaces, some previously inaccessible to residents. Partners such as the Buffalo Niagara Water Keepers and Niagara Falls National Heritage Area have shared critical historical and environmental stories during the walks. The Collaborative has supported community gardens, park improvements, converting an abandoned house into a youth clubhouse, and partnering with schools and city agencies to install little libraries near schools and parks. These residents have helped create a healthier Niagara Falls by building trust and social connection as necessary ingredients for well-being.
As noted in the American Planning Association’s Equity Policy Guide, “When equitable access is provided to all members of a community irrespective of physical abilities, age, gender, race, ethnicity, income level, or social status, public space promotes inclusion and improves equity. Equitable public space sets the stage for different socioeconomic groups to mix and interact and can enhance tolerance and diversity cognition.”3
Leaders who strive to create resilient, equitable, and healthy communities must intentionally strengthen social well-being (the strength of a person’s relationships and social networks) as it is a critical component of health. A new report offers actions steps for philanthropy, local government leaders, and community leaders to create more socially connected communities. We’d love to hear how you’re taking action, as well. During this pivotal moment in history, social wellbeing is more important than ever, and public spaces are a perfect starting point.
*Signals of belonging can include public art and signage, culturally appropriate programs, and dignity-preserving practices such as using a person’s preferred name, title, and pronouns.