Adaptive Public Space: Places for People in the Pandemic and Beyond

Between September 2020 and February 2021, Gehl, the urban design and research consultancy, engaged a range of stakeholders to evaluate the impact of seven public spaces in Akron, Detroit, Philadelphia, and San Jose, USA. This report details the key findings from this study, including creating everyday public spaces, putting residents at the centre, creating a community ripple effect, and sustaining in the long run.

Date added 7 October 2021
Last updated 7 October 2021

*This resource is about adaptive public spaces. It is not specifically about the High Street, but has been included in response to requests for more studies/information about this topic, as well as linking to priorities for High Street vitality and viability around accessibility, recreational space and place management*

Building on its long-time commitment to public spaces, the Knight Foundation commissioned Gehl — a global urban planning, design, and strategy firm — to conduct an impact assessment of seven public spaces in Akron, Detroit, Philadelphia, and San Jose, USA.

The spaces studied in this impact assessment range widely, from neighbourhood parks that give residents a go-to gathering spot, to nature spaces that re-engage locals with the outdoors and citywide destinations that offer art studios, beaches, and more.

The projects represent over $5 million in investment within Knight's broader public space portfolio, which has issued 180 grants in 26 cities since 2015. The goal of the study was to understand how these public spaces were impacted by the four core themes of creating everyday public space, putting residents at the centre, generating a ‘community ripple effect’ and sustaining operations in the long run.

The Gehl team gathered data from multiple sources, including interviews and focus groups with over 50 people (including grantees, city government leaders, volunteers, and artists-in-residence), an online survey of over 800 respondents near each space, existing and new data on how the spaces are used and an analysis of over 450 posts of geotagged Instagram activity. The findings that follow are the result of this multi-method study.


Projects that supported quality design, historic character, and the arts generated regular activity. The two multifunctional neighbourhood spaces — Detroit’s Ella Fitzgerald Park and Philadelphia’s Centennial Commons — had the highest rates of regular visitors with a"racons ranging from basketball courts and play areas, to porch swings and movie nights. The presence of art and historic architecture also helped drive engagement but there were challenges to everyday use, the most prominent being accessibility. For example, the loca0onal posi0oning of Freight Yard at Detroit Riverfront deterred pop-up businesses from opening up at the space and led some visitors asking for more way-finding.


Community participation allowed project organisers to build trust with residents, which in turn increased engagement and the sense of attachment to the spaces. For example, at Akron’s Summit Lake Park, 97% of respondents felt the project had changed their neighbourhood for the better, up from 57% at the start of the project. Ella Fitzgerald Park and Centennial Commons, which adopted similar engagement approaches, also saw the greatest levels of weekly visitors, enthusiasm, and attachment.


The study found that initial investments helped catalyze co-funding that is necessary to activate and sustain projects. For example, public space investments led to larger community development efforts by shifting perceptions and showing that positive change was possible in these areas. By funding local organizations, it also built local community development capacity and ensured that programming had residents at its centre.


Local stewardship, responsive processes, and trusted operators helped sites develop sustainable operating models and adapt to changing conditions. While no projects stated immediate concern for financial sustainability, some are actively working to diversify funding sources and secure ongoing revenue, whilst sustaining the organisation’s core mission.


In responding to the pandemic, the spaces were able to adapt to provide safe venues for solo and social activity. While the pandemic had a disruptive impact on public life, two sites — Detroit Riverfront and Cherry Street Pier — observed increases in foot traffic compared to the previous year. Neighbourhood spaces were also resilient, as a greater proportion of residents surveyed near Ella Fitzgerald Park and Centennial Commons reported visiting the parks more frequently than residents near other sites during the pandemic.


The findings of this study illustrate the power of public space as a platform for community development, whether by building resident trust, spurring social activity, supporting economic and workforce development, or catalysing neighbourhood change.

Expanding the scope of funding beyond construction laid the groundwork for public spaces that reflect local communities and respond to changing conditions. Many project’s ability to adapt and continue attracting visitors during the pandemic cemented this strong foundation. To build on successes and overcome challenges, the conclusion of this report recommends the following:

  • To address challenges related to physical connectivity, invest in design changes that improve access to the site.
  • To address challenges around inclusion and trust, expand support of local organisations and fund ongoing community participation efforts.
  • To proactively manage resident concerns around displacement, tie public space investments to broader community development processes.
  • To create sustainable operating models, fund innovative new paradigms that diversify revenue sources.