The Added Value of the Public Realm

During my time living in London, I have come to realise that the English countryside is an absolutely intrinsic part of the national and cultural identity of those living in the UK. Entwined in history, art, and literature, great lengths are continually taken in order to protect it, with the Green Belt synonymous with this sense of an instinctive, almost moral duty. For not only is the countryside inherent in the sense of English distinctiveness, but it is also directly linked to the value and attraction of the country as a whole. You will understand then, why I have found it strange to have been witness to a disparity between the amount of time and money devoted to protecting and maintaining the green spaces within cities, and the amount of time and resources devoted to the English countryside.

It is clear that protecting the green spaces and countryside outside of cities is incredibly important. However, within cities, we should be striving toward developing not only architecturally innovative buildings, but also the potentially striking, refreshing, and beautiful spaces around and between them. Parks, green spaces, and essentially any area between buildings should be in dialogue with the surrounding hardscape. By achieving this sense of engagement between the two spheres, we will be able to harness the potential of what we at Martha Schwartz Partners call the Added Value of the Public Realm. This can be defined as follows: the very act of redesigning the public realm provides a town or city with the opportunity to capture a particular element of itself between buildings, which enhances both the aesthetic and financial appeal of an area.

Let’s look at it simply, taking the example of the added value of gardens. In the UK, having a garden will, in the majority of cases, increase the value of a property, particularly in cities. Gardening is actually the most popular hobby of Americans and is looked upon as a way of expressing and extending the reach of our personalities from within our homes, and into the surrounding neighbourhood. Indeed, by strategically adding fountains, flowerbeds, and garden ornaments, we actually manipulate our own piece of landscape to reflect our individuality, whilst boosting the perceived and literal value of the property. This was something I tried to capture in my project 51 Ornaments, where I was commissioned to create an ornamental garden that highlighted the cultural similarities between the US and Germany. I wanted to highlight this through the way people portray themselves through their gardens, in a display of national character that I believe not only adds to the cultural identity of a city, but also the economic value of it.

If having a garden can increase the value of a property, it makes perfect sense that living near a park or a green space in a city will also increase property prices. This then prompts the question of why developers in both the UK and US haven’t been focusing more attention on the public realm in order to boost value — particularly given the current economic climate.

Extending this from the domestic garden and toward the commercial, public open space, a great example of the Added Value of the Public Realm is Central Park. It is a US icon that in the same way as the countryside in the UK, has become integral to the cultural identity of New Yorkers. It is quite astounding that less than 15 years after it was built in 1859, property prices in the surrounding areas had soared by more than 100%, with their collective value at $236 million up from $53 million.

You just need to look at the newest addition to Central Park to appreciate the value a park or open space can add to an area, particularly given the sharply contrasting backdrop of the recession. Central Park West, the ultimate luxury Manhattan building, has just sold all of its condominium apartments, netting $1.8 billion in the process; the most for any new residential building in North America.

To give you a comparison, the net value of Yahoo currently stands at almost $529 billion, whereas Central Park is worth $627 million per acre — 26% more than the entire 2006 US defense budget. The total value of Manhattan, therefore, would be significantly less if Central Park were to be developed.

Central Park is of course a world renowned park; however it is not an isolated case. Research by Nicholls (2004), Lutzenhiser & Netusil (2001), Bolitzer & Netusil (2000) into the impact of parks on property values has found a significant, positive relationship between property prices and their proximity to a green, open space. The $1.4 billion* worth of residential development in Chicago for example, is directly attributable to the creation of Millennium Park; hence, it is clear that developing the public realm can play a significant role in generating demand for new residential development. Visitor spending in the area has rocketed, and hotels have capitalised on the hype surrounding it, using the Park as a marketing device for their websites, sales brochures, telephone recordings, and guest materials.

Whilst the Park should be seen as part of a much larger expansion plan in Chicago, Millennium Park itself has already has brought extensive value to the surrounding areas; from direct employment, through to the tax revenues gained from visitor spending, the Park has become a major asset to Chicago and is a success story in its own right.

In my experience, investing in the public realm is also a great way of giving a relatively new city lacking solid cultural heritage, an anchor and identity with which to bring together the community and attract business, employment, and tourism. Some of the most innovative projects have been conducted by these highly ambitious developing cities, an example of which is a Children’s Discovery Centre in Damascus, Syria. Armed with the challenge of improving educational opportunities for children in Damascus, we were tasked alongside Henning Larsen Architects to design a park and discovery centre that would be the focus of a new educational programme. It was a landmark project, and whilst the results are yet to be seen, I am confident that this development will also bring significant economic benefits to the area.

Closer to home, with 40% of the 1,600 square kilometers of the city occupied by green space or water**, it is reassuring to see that London is awakening to the possibilities of the public realm. In a time of economic uncertainty and in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, it is imperative that London continues to experiment with the public realm, and that city planners remember that the buildings in which we work and live are part of a wider landscape. Whilst there is still much public realm potential that should be unleashed and capitalised, the US can in fact learn a lesson or two from London. Although Plan NYC, for example, proposes that all New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walk of a park, this is the extent of the sustainability and public realm agenda for the city.

Therefore, rather than simply accepting a tranquilised state of routine development after routine development, the Added Value of the Public Realm should be injected into all future developments, and not just in isolated instances. By devoting as much consideration to the public realm, as is devoted to English countryside, the UK and hopefully, in turn, the US, will be able to boast not only architectural innovation, but innovation and Added Value in the surrounding landscapes.

Martha Schwartz

Green Places, 10/2009