Embrace Commerce to Unleash the Full Potential of Public Spaces

By Darren Proulx

Edmonton Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park Empty
An empty plaza near Edmonton’s popular Whyte Ave

It may have happened to you, one day you may have passed by a public space with distinguished, clean and polished design and landscaping but it is empty except for a handful of people. On other days it may be full of energy and people but only when there is programming like a festival or concert. While programming is a great way to give back to your citizens, cities should focus on making plazas great destinations at all times.

PPS Placemaking Chart
The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents a place’s key attributes, the middle ring its intangible qualities, and the outer ring its measurable data. (Source: http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/)


When a place is designed correctly you will know, there will be people in it.  Project for Public Spaces offers a great rule of thumb for inviting people into a space, the Power of 10. Design public spaces to offer at least 10 activities for people to attract different to the space for different reasons at different times of the day. This can include things like water features for people to interact with. People are also a natural invitation for other people, most people like to be around other people even if it is to just sit quietly and people watch. When you design public spaces around accommodating large events like the new Art Gallery in Vancouver and Churchill Square in Edmonton, when there is no programming to invite people the space feels out of scale, empty and uninviting. With public spaces, scale plays a big role in their success, smaller spaces feel more vibrant and full with less people.

Edmonton Legislature grounds public space water fountains

Cities do a great job activating public spaces with water features and meandering paths.

Most cities do a good job at introducing the water features, seating, greenery, nice views and paths. However the most critical element that will tie them all together often remains elusive. Commerce. Commerce in the form of food and beverages is often best since everyone needs to eat and drink which invites them to stay in the space while they consume it, especially if there is a patio or movable chairs. Patios, where people can eat and drink, naturally attract people, which will in turn attract more people. However other commerce such as retail will also do the trick, but not as well.

This was first identified by Jane Jacobs in The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ astute observations led her to conclude that parks should be immediately surrounded by buildings of fine grain retail shops that open up towards the park. While Jacobs at the time may not have had the hard data to back this up, but this has since recently been confirmed. A City Observatory study found that surrounding a park or plaza with fine grain retail businesses will indeed increase the number of people using the space. “As we showed with our recent Storefront Index (which measures the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses in cities), the difference between an under-utilized park and an activated one is substantially explained by the presence and density of adjacent storefronts.”

Since stores tend to attract people, the benefits of storefronts include improving safety,  having people around adds eyes on the street which deters crime and makes other feel a space is inviting and safe.  Commerce around and in parks also create jobs and support the local economy. Having a cafe on public land is also a new revenue source for governments on what would have otherwise been a sunken cost.

Think about your favourite cafe. Do you use it as a meeting point, have you ever gotten the inspiration for a great idea, have you laughed or met new people. Our private establishments can bring a wealth of social benefits and done well they can extend this to our public spaces.

The following are examples of great public spaces around the world that have integrated commerce effectively to produce vibrancy.

Copenhagen’s Numerous Public Spaces

Copenhagen is renowned internationally as one of the leaders in creating great public spaces, and sure enough in every space you will find either a cafe or a perimeter of ground floor retail. For more information on Copenhagen’s place making continue to this article.

Director’s Park – Portland

Portland’s Director’s Park is one of the best examples of a well designed public space. The space is activated with many activities that include a wonderful splash park, movable chairs, games but most critically the space is surrounded by buildings with ground floor retail. In addition to the ground floor retail surrounding the plaza, there is also a cafe that anchors and spills out into the space.

Portland Pioneer square

Portland’s Pioneer Square utilizes a cafe (seen off in the distance) to help anchor this vibrant space.

Portland’s Pioneer Square utilizes a cafe (seen off in the distance) to help anchor the space.

Madison Square Park – New York City

The Shake Shack in New York city compliments Madison Square Park in New York City nicely. The activities from the Shake Shack spread out into the park as people enjoy their spoils.

Memorial Park – Calgary

Calgary’s memorial park is another great example of a public space done well. It does a good job creating ten activities with a splash park, movable tables and chairs. However it is the Boxwood Cafe that anchors one corner of the space which serves to really tie it together and draw people into the space.


Plaza Del Teatro Vs Plaza Santa Domingo – Quito

Quito’s Plaza Santo Domingo consistently fails to fill its over sized plaza. The buildings that wrap the plaza offer little to interact with other than to look at.

One of my favourite examples are these almost identical plazas from Quito (the capital of Ecuador). On the one hand you have a space that was consistently empty. In another nearby plaza musicians were commonly playing which resulted in people gathering around to listen. However when you look at the rest of the plaza it is wrapped by fine grain retail and restaurants.

Streets are public spaces that naturally do this well, their problem is often the reverse they have the people attracting commerce but often also the loud noises and little space that cities mistakenly sacrificed for the sake of moving cars through quickly which contributes little to the local economy.

London street that attracts people

While it may take considerable effort, planning and capital to install a permanent cafe, quicker, faster and cost effective solutions already exist. Changing the bylaws and permitting food carts and trucks can add the commerce element for little expense on the city’s behalf, yet the results will be immensely rewarding.

power of temporary retail food truck olympic village vancouver
The power of temporary. Despite the cold and rainy day and an empty plaza at the plaza in Olympic Village, this food truck was enough of invitation for this handful of people to brave the cold and wet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s