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Thinking through public spaces wider outcomes

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The second event on our ‘thinking through’ series took place last Wednesday and it was focused on public spaces. This series is part of a project that aims to understand the evidence on local economic impacts of interventions not primarily considered as ‘economic’ and help places to think through the benefits and costs. In addition to events, we will be publishing a series of briefing papers based on reviews of the evidence.

Our definition of public spaces includes public realm, active travel infrastructure (i.e. cycling and walking) and green spaces. Improving public spaces is considered to be a key element of levelling up. The additional social, environmental or local economic benefits of these interventions are of increasing interest for central and local policymakers.

Assessing the local economic impacts

The evidence suggests that increases in footfall, and thus spend, are the primary mechanism through which public spaces affect the local economy. The impact will depend on whether poor quality public spaces are the reason for low footfall, where residents and non-residents currently spend, and their willingness to substitute. Impacts can also be affected by displacement within the local area and other interventions with conflicting objectives.

Increases in spend could lead to increases in employment, although it’s important to be realistic that smaller projects won’t generate large employment effects. The multiplier effects are also likely to be limited as jobs created directly are primarily in non-tradeable sectors with low productivity (e.g. retail, hospitality, and other personal services). There is more potential for increasing employment if the improvements lead to firms relocating to, or expanding in, the area, but these impacts are likely to be limited other than for very large-scale regeneration projects (e.g. Kings Cross).

The effects on wages and productivity are also limited, especially if the employment impacts are small.

One other thing to think about is that the benefits from improved attractiveness and accessibility may be capitalised into property prices depending on the local property market and the scheme.

And what does the evidence say on wider benefits?

Improved public spaces can lead to increased physical activity and potentially contribute to wellbeing. Public spaces may also improve health outcomes, but the evidence suggests effects are small and depend on the measure for health used. Improvements in health can in turn have positive effects on employment and productivity, but the small-scale and long-term nature of these effects mean it is difficult to observe them in the data.

Some of the benefits claimed for public spaces – increased ‘pride in place’, increased social interactions and reduced crime or anti-social behaviour – were beyond the scope of our project.

What do we need to think about?

First, it is important to define scale and objectives. Most projects will generate benefits, but most benefits will be local and are likely to be small relative to size of local economy. Be realistic!

Consider how the intervention fits in the local economic strategic plan and other local strategies may increase the potential effects and wider outcomes.

Pay attention to the costs, as they are likely to be highly specific. And consider long-term maintenance in costs estimations and budget. Maintenance is key to ensure the intervention has a real impact and long-lasting benefits.

For wider outcomes, such as health, a good understanding of the context and the baseline will help identify potential effects. Consider how household composition and neighbourhood characteristics will influence use of the public space, whether interventions to change behaviour are needed alongside investment in public spaces, the risk of displacing current communities, and the potential benefits for non-users (e.g. reducing air pollution).

Our speakers also highlighted the diversity of tools available to quantify the benefits of public spaces interventions and the need to make a better use of the data available.

As with any other policy intervention, monitoring the process, collecting data on key inputs and outcomes, and having a clear objective will help with evaluation of whether the initiative has produced the desired effects.

Thanks to Dr Rachel Lee, Policy and Research Manager at Living Streets, Maria Cotton, Group Leader for Urban Centres at Barnsley Council, and Adriana Moreno-Pelayo, Associate in City Economics and Planning at Arup, who spoke at the event. The full briefing on public spaces will be published later in Spring.

If you missed the first event on public procurement, you can watch the recording of the webinar here. The full briefing on public procurement will be published in April.

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