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CMSC Webinar: Reimagining Communal Spaces to be More Community-Friendly

CMSC Webinar

Reimagining Communal Spaces to be More Community Friendly

Webinar Summary

Communal spaces play a vital role in every municipality. They bring residents together, provide recreation, boost the economy and even fuel healthier lifestyles. 

In this webinar, Celeste Frye, co-founder & CEO of Public Works Partners, LLC, shares strategies for designing communal spaces that proactively and thoughtfully meet the needs of the entire community. 


Presentation Highlights

  • What is a Communal Space?

    The question of where people congregate in your town should be approached sensitively and take into consideration all the different people who live in your community. This is important because it has repercussions regarding class, race, ethnic backgrounds and ability to access spaces (ability, age, etc.) When we’re designing communal places, they need to be truly welcoming inclusiveness of all community members.

    What is a Communal Space?

    • The purpose of a communal space is to be activated and invite people in to gather and connect. From an urban planning perspective, activating a place means the use of a public space to advance community building and social interaction, using strategies to proactively bring people into a space. This can be a simple as free wi-fi or tables and chairs.
    • It’s important to acknowledge that you may have different spaces for different groups within your town and that some spaces may feel hostile to different groups, for instance to those that are unhoused (homeless) or disabled.
  • Benefits of Communal Spaces

    There are 3 main benefits of communal spaces:

    • Build social networks by encouraging people to grow their personal networks
      • Communal spaces provide infrastructure and a setting for people to gather and share experiences, and to safely interact with others who they may not see or interact with otherwise – for instance, those of differing gender identities or religious affiliation.
    • Spur economic growth both in the space and in nearby neighborhoods
      • Attracting people to a space can encourage patronage of local businesses through design and use improvements.
      • Brick and mortar stores, façade improvements, and venues for food trucks can all help small businesses thrive.
      • Communal spaces can also draw people to different neighborhoods
      • Adaptive reuse of historic buildings can give them uses that match the current residents and their needs, for instance converting old schools into community or recreational centers.
    • Improve health and wellbeing through facilitating physical and social activity
      • Can include things like parks with walking trails or game spaces, but also downtowns with walkable streets.
      • Can use design elements that encourage people to move from space to space which can improve health and wellbeing, especially in places that have historically lacked them. Examples include wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, public transit access
      • Examples of Communal Spaces
        • Parks – Green spaces that are visually attractive and allow for physical and social interactions
        • Markets – Vacant lots can be used for pop up markets or food trucks
        • Downtowns – in addition to commercial areas, they also house government buildings, libraries and social events like parades
  • How to Be Truly Community-Friendly

    To create places that are welcoming to the entire community, it’s imperative to incorporate key elements:

    • Accessibility – go above and beyond ADA requirements
      • The community’s ADA needs should be discussed at the beginning stages of planning, not at the end
      • ADA mostly focuses on physical accessibility but we should broaden our understanding of ADA or “universal” design to include mental cognitive ability and life cycle (i.e. kids, pregnant women or older people). For example, signage should be clear and easy to understand. Use multi-sensory signals, such as auditory signals at crosswalks. Haptic, or touch-based signals, (such as braille), help as well.
      • It’s also important to make sure access is continuous. Common obstacles are curb cuts that don’t connect to cross walks or protected bike lanes that end suddenly.
      • Incorporating accessibility elements creates an equitable opportunity for people to participate in these spaces.
    • Transportation
      • Active transportation gives people more ways to traverse a space. Think of protected bike lanes (and bike parking), protected bike lanes and wide sidewalks in addition to lanes for cars. Bollards and islands can be used to help separate lanes.
    • Green space
      • A community friendly space incorporates the natural environment for recreation, play and learning. Thoughtfully plan for and maximize green space – think about things like where you’ll you put it. What will it be like in real life? For instance, will trees work in the space or are planters better?
    • Safety & Comfort
      • This makes the place approachable and can include things like awnings over shops to provide shelter from the rain, trees for shade, human-scaled lighting, slower speed limits, and permanent and movable street seating.
  • Making It Happen

    • Begin by doing robust research
      • How do people use the space? How do they want to access it? What’s the history of the neighborhood? Is it changing? What are the community demographics? Why is the project happening here, now?
      • Talk to the community and observe how the space is currently used.
    • Make Your Plan
      • Once you have the research you can create your plan, laying out your goals and strategies. Include key milestones and successes, timeline, communication protocols, incorporate the community into the implementation, etc.
    • Implement Your Plan
      • Utilize connections made with businesses and community members to create some shared decision-making frameworks.
      • Bring the larger community in and get them excited about the project. While you’ll likely engage contractors for big changes, you might be able incorporate the community by doing site tours or things like group planting projects, ribbon cuttings, etc.
      • Clear communication will also help mitigate issues like construction noise or access. It’ll let you get feedback so you can respond to issues in a timely manner. Downtown managers are often key liaisons between the different stakeholders.
    • Manage Your Space
      • Discuss funding for maintenance and who will manage the space, have strategies to evaluate the space such as who’s using it at what time of day, then you can make changes as necessary.
    • Maintain Your Space
      • Weather and use can impact your space. What’s needed for maintenance on a seasonal basis? After a year or five years?
      • Report out to the community on your successes and efforts.
  • Real Life Examples

    • Syracuse Downtown Revitalization Initiative – Public Works was engaged to support the creation of a final strategic investment plan that’s directing $10m worth of state funding to select real estate and public infrastructure investments.
      • In this project they were reconnecting two different parts of the downtown to work against the affects of population decline and the legacy of urban renewal.
      • They facilitated a series of in person and virtual charrettes focused on things the community already said was important to them – pedestrian friendly streets, trees and green infrastructure, making streetscape and building improvements and preserving the cultural heritage of this neighborhood.
        • Their recommendations included improving sidewalks and streetscapes, adding lighting and wayfinding to encourage people to traverse the area, redeveloping certain properties to create commercial and pedestrian activity, and supporting outdoor vendor spaces.
      • Lessons learned
        • Important to reach out to people in a variety of way to meet people where they are.
        • Build on what’s already working and let community members easily identify what they already like, in this case a popular community center
        • Choose and incorporate elements that fit with the community.
    • NYC Streets Plan – Public Works led the NYC Streets Plan (NSP) Public Engagement Process (PEP) to support a NSP that would include the safety of all street users, the use of multi-modal mass transit, the reduction of vehicle emissions, and access for individuals with disabilities.
      • In many communities the most publicly owned land is actually the streets, so it’s beneficial to think how they can be utilized by all users, not just cars.
      • This purpose of this program was primarily to improve the safety of non-car users.
        • Had a online engagement platform, did phone surveys targeted to non-English speakers and people who traditionally didn’t participate, which allowed for a deeper reach into the community.
      • Lessons Learned
        • Defined the accessibility need for the engagement process and the plan up front
        • Provided flexibility around the times people could engage
        • Did a mix of small group engagement so everyone felt comfortable participating

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About Celeste Frye

Co-Founder and CEO, Public Works Partners

An AICP-certified planner, Celeste Frye co-founded Public Works Partners more than a decade ago out of a passion to help mission-driven organizations increase their positive impact on local communities. She is a known expert in designing and implementing multi-stakeholder initiatives, building strong connections across the nonprofit, government and private sectors. Celeste is a member of the Regional Plan Association’s Connecticut Committee and the Coro New York Leadership Center’s Alumni Advisory Board. She was recognized with City & State’s 2021 Community Engagement Power 50 and Crain’s New York’s 2021 Notable Women Business Owners. Celeste received a M.S. in Regional Planning from Cornell University and a B.A. in International Studies & French from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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