As people increasingly embrace the idea of trading sprawl and traffic congestion for life in high-density communities, demand is growing for well-planned public spaces, including community gardens, pocket parks, rooftop gardens, and reclaimed industrial land. A panel of planning and development experts at the 2014 ULI Spring Meeting in Vancouver last week discussed ways to find room for more urban public spaces and for maximizing their usability.

“As we densify, we must ‘green’ at the same time,” said Ed McMahon, ULI senior resident fellow and Charles E. Fraser chair for sustainable development. Developing high-quality public space adds value to surrounding real estate, he said, citing the High Line in New York City as a prime example. The city invested $115 million in public funds and raised $44 million from the private sector to convert an old, elevated freight rail line on the west side of Manhattan to a 1.5-mile [2.4 km] public park. The High Line park has boosted nearby property values by $2 billion overall and created 12,000 new jobs in the city, McMahon said. “If we don’t invest in the public realm, we don’t realize the public good,” he said.

One key to maximizing the usability of public space is to make sure that it is safe and accessible after dark, said James P. Batchelor, president and chief executive officer of Arrowstreet, an architecture and planning firm based in Boston. “If you want urban open spaces to work overtime, you want them working at night,” he said.

Popular open spaces do not have to be large, however. Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former planning director for Washington, D.C., noted that people need to feel safe and comfortable in spaces that are functional in all types of weather. “Some of the most inhospitable spaces are too big,” she noted.

Reclaiming public space along the water, whether it be an industrial shoreline, an old canal, or a daylighted urban stream, should be a high priority, panelists said. “If green open space is good, waterfront open space is gold,” noted Batchelor. As potential floodplains, such public spaces need to be reclaimed in a way that manages the risk of rising waters and storm surges. “You want to build in much more vertical height than you thought you did,” he said. “That will add value.”

Mary Borgia, president of the Borgia Company, a marketing advisory services firm based in Newport Beach, California, noted that “open space doesn’t have to be green.” Educational trails and areas that encourage people to walk about also serve as gathering places. The Inner Harbor in Baltimore, she noted, was industrial space reclaimed for use as a waterfront promenade. With museums, restaurants, hotels, and other facilities, it has become a defining feature of the city.

While panelists said programming with functions such as farmers’ markets, classes, and concerts helps energize a public space, it requires infrastructure such as electric outlets and water supply to support those uses. And they warned against designing and building spaces that cannot be adapted to different uses. “You can’t predict exactly how they are going to be used,” said Richard T. Reinhard, deputy executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District Corporation in Washington, D.C.

But Hart Howerton chairman David P. Howerton warned against overprogramming public spaces, especially when they are new. “Leave space that can evolve over time as communities mature,” he said. “Sit back and watch it happen.”