What If We Viewed Public Space Like Tourist Attractions?

If you’ve even just started following this blog, you know that I tend to roll my eyes at the notion of putting tourism and vibrancy over the need for creating livable cities in which residents are empowered to create an environment that both suits them and welcomes others.  You know that when others speak of lavish, expensive projects that will “destinations” to downtown, I point out that this sends a message to our residents that we don’t trust them to do that on their own.

Today, I’m going to turn the tables and talk about some of our most iconic public spaces in cities across the country in the same way city government, developers and investors sell us on manufactured “entertainment districts.”  Instead of talking about how these amazing public spaces create elements of livability and urban gravity, binding our cities together, I will talk about them the same way we talk about expensive downtown projects that so often fail to deliver on their promised return.

Let’s start with three parks in New York City.  Everyone knows New York is one of our county’s most vibrant destinations for tourists.  But there are few destinations in one of the world’s urban Meccas that draw more visitors than its parks.  Central Park alone welcomes 25 million visitors annually, nearly twice as many as the theaters on Broadway.  The park is not only a gem for New Yorkers, it is one of the most visited destinations in the country.

The High Line in Chelsea, for those who don’t know, is an abandoned elevated railroad bed turned unique park space.  In 2015, the 1.45 mile long public space that hovers above the city played host to 7.6 million people and has stimulated more than $5 billion in local construction, business and investment.

How about Bryant Park?  While it’s not a place many would consider a “destination,” this 9.6-acre public space in Manhattan welcomes 6 million visitors annually, and is the anchor for establishments that ring the beautiful swatch of greenspace.

Let’s take a trip southwest and talk about San Antonio’s Riverwalk, an iconic and eclectic blend of retail and restaurant space lining the river that bisects downtown.  Eleven and a half million people visit the Riverwalk every year, which is the heart of life and vibrancy in downtown San Antonio.  Eighty percent of those who visit destination are from outside the county, showing just how much of an important tourist draw the Riverwalk is for the city.  Speaking of the city, the Riverwalk also directly influences 21,000 local jobs.

Now let’s move to Illinois and visit Chicago.  Millennium Park, which is just east of The Loop in downtown Chicago welcomed 13 million people in 2016, and is the most visited site in the entire midwest, according to the mayor.  This type of tourism in Chicago has created 15,000-20,000 jobs, a huge impact for a city that has lost a significant percentage of their population in recent years.

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Columbus Commons has been credited with adding a key dimension to a rare rust belt city that is gaining population, not losing it.  This public space is home to 200 events annually, bringing the community together, and is visited by over a million people each year.  It has also helped generate $400 million in local investment

While we should never build parks and public space for the purpose of generating tourism, well designed public space has the added bonus of becoming a vibrant destination whether it is intended or not.  However, we rarely think about these spaces this way because it is much more difficult to measure the direct effect these areas have on the local economy and on tourism.  Perhaps a better way to think of public space is thread that holds the fabric of our city together, keeping the patchwork of urban personality steady and firm. But the reality is, these spaces are also places that motivate the local economy and welcome guests into our uniquely beautiful urban centers.