Central government and local authorities have long invested in public spaces. The Victorians invested in public squares for patriotism and civic pride, and in parks for public health to escape ‘bad air’. While the phrasing might have changed, investments today often reflect similar objectives. But, with public spaces a focus of levelling up and local policies, there is increasing interest in the local economic and wider benefits they may bring. Regeneration of public spaces in town centres and high streets are supported by the Levelling Up Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and devolved administrations also have policies with similar objectives.
As with many other policies, understanding the benefits and wider effects of investing in public spaces can be challenging. Our new evidence briefing aims to help policymakers to think through the potential benefits and costs. It is accompanied by two rapid evidence reviews of the evaluation evidence on public realm and green spaces, and active travel infrastructure.
So, what do we learn?
Start by considering scale
Consider the geography at which benefits are assessed and benchmark effects against the local economy to get a sense of scale. For most schemes, benefits will be localised and confined to the streets or neighbourhoods that receive the investment. Any economic benefits are likely to be small relative to the size of the local economy. For example, renewing the high street may increase turnover of businesses in the immediate area, but it is unlikely to increase turnover in retail destinations further away. Similarly, the house price effects of a new park are likely to be limited to nearby streets.
Gather the baseline
Baseline data can help assess impacts. What data is needed to measure success against the desired outcomes—whether economic, health, or something else? Where possible, use existing datasets that capture footfall and spend data as these should allow benchmarking of the scheme against schemes in other areas.
Be realistic about local economic benefits and costs
For most schemes, investment will increase the attractiveness of a place, but other factors may be much more important for desired outcomes. For example, low disposable income and limited leisure time lower footfall and turnover, limiting the ability of public space investment to improve a high street. It is important to understand other contributing factors and the extent to which the improvement to public spaces is likely to change behaviour. Consider both residents and visitors, and users and non-users in any analysis.
Some interventions can produce displacement or involve conflicting interests. For example, renewal of a high street to increase footfall and turnover may simply lead to residents substituting one local high street for another (i.e. displacement), rather than increasing overall footfall and turnover.
When thinking about impacts on employment and wages, keep in mind that jobs may take time to emerge, and additional jobs may be created indirectly through purchases from local supply chains or those newly employed spending additional income locally (i.e. multipliers). For most public space schemes, effects on local wages and productivity are unlikely.
Investment on public spaces can also affect property prices (i.e. capitalisation) near to the scheme and this may lead to changes in neighborhood composition. Some schemes may cause property prices to fall if they make the area less attractive.
Costs are likely to be highly specific, as they tend to be heavily influenced by the local context.
Assess them carefully and consider not only the construction costs, but also the costs of disruption during construction and costs of ongoing maintenance to avoid the public space falling into disrepair and becoming a ‘disamenity’.
Finally, consider the potential social and community benefits of the public spaces scheme. Although the direct effects on the local economy may only be localised or long-term and therefore hard to attribute, this should not overshadow the other benefits of public space improvements such as community cohesion, health or wellbeing. What Works Centre for Wellbeing published a refresh to their Places, Spaces, and Social Connections review in February this year to look at other outcomes.
Read the evidence briefing and rapid evidence reviews
The evidence briefing and the accompanying rapid evidence reviews provide further information and evidence on key issues and benefits of public spaces interventions. You can also read the summary blog from our public spaces webinar Thinking through public spaces for local economic growth.