The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www.emeraldinsight.


JPMD 2,3

Linking the quality of public spaces to quality of life
Helen Beck
CABE, London, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present how high quality public spaces contribute positively to people’s quality of life. However, sources of credible evidence in support of this statement are surprisingly scarce. One impact is that it can be frustratingly difficult to quantify links between investment in the public realm and improvements to people’s quality of life. Design/methodology/approach – CABE Space, the government’s national advisor on well-designed, planned and maintained urban public spaces, fund a scoping study which seeks to determine and understand useful correlative relationships between existing data on quality of life and existing data on the quality of public space. The researchers analyse a total of 34 national datasets to ascertain what they can tell us about how the quality of public spaces affects people’s quality of life. Findings – Numerous small scale research studies have examined the benefits of high quality public spaces in terms of their economic, social and environmental value. However, a national evidence base to inform policy agendas relating to well-being and liveability is lacking. Research limitations/implications – Better understanding is needed to maximise the benefits of provision for individuals and the areas that they live in, especially because the poorest areas suffer from the poorest quality of environments. Originality/value – Linking the quality of public spaces and the quality of life is a complex and multifaceted area that suffers from a meagre evidence base. This research aims to further this area of research and is original in its national scale of analysis. Keywords Quality of life, Open spaces, Gardens, Environmental management Paper type General review


Journal of Place Management and Development Vol. 2 No. 3, 2009 pp. 240-248 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1753-8335 DOI 10.1108/17538330911013933

Introduction High quality, well designed and managed parks and urban public spaces play a crucial role in promoting individual well-being and contribute positive social, economic and environmental value to our towns and cities. A growing number of small-scale research studies in the UK have examined the benefits of specific high quality public spaces and the association of these benefits with specific dimensions of quality of life such as health, safety and economic well being. However overall, the evidence base linking the quality of public spaces to peoples’ quality of life remains meagre and underdeveloped. In England, we lack national indicators which consistently measure or monitor the value of public spaces on a larger scale. There is no national evidence base to inform policy agendas relating to well-being and liveability, making it frustratingly difficult to quantify links between investment in public spaces and improvements in their quality or improvements in people’s perceptions of quality of life. The existing data that are collected are often skewed towards specific, easy to measure targets and do not reflect the reality of people’s lives (Lawlor and Nicholls, 2008). A better understanding of the links between the quality of public spaces and quality of life is vital to justify, and incentivise, greater investment in regenerating and

improving our public realm. It is also an equity issue as it is the poorest communities that suffer from the poorest quality of public space. The majority of existing national data collection in England however focuses on limited aspects of green and open space quality. CABE Space, the government’s national advisor on well designed, planned and maintained urban public spaces, carried out a scoping study in 2007 seeking to determine and understand useful correlative relationships between existing data on quality of life and existing data on the quality of public space (Heriot-Watt University in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University, 2007). Public spaces were defined in this study as those spaces that are publicly accessible, for instance: parks, squares, streets, play areas and civic spaces. The following paper presents the findings of the research carried out by Heriot-Watt University, in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University. It examines what we know about the relationship between good quality public spaces and quality of life and considers the implications of existing evidence gaps for academics, practitioners and policy-makers seeking to quantify the value and advocate the benefit of regenerating, managing and improving areas. The role of public spaces in regeneration and well being High quality public spaces create positive, lasting economic, social and environmental value in a very wide range of ways. Indeed, they are probably the only public service that are able to provide so many multiple, concurrent public benefits to the specific areas within which they are located. Conversely, neglected, poorly managed and maintained spaces negatively impact on their surrounding areas contributing to the onset of vandalism, anti-social behaviour, graffiti and rubbish (CABE Space, 2005a). Neglected spaces create the impression that areas are not cared about and contribute to circles of decline. Whereas successful, quality spaces can be the making of a place; attracting people to live, work, visit and invest in a particular area (CABE Space, 2005b). High quality public spaces create positive economic value. CABE Space’s (2005c) research Does Money Grow on Trees? looks at how well-planned and managed parks, gardens and squares can have a positive impact on the value of nearby properties and can attract inward investment and people to an area[1]. The study examined eight UK parks and a clear positive relationship was found between the value of homes and whether they overlook, or are close to, a park. The increase in value ranged from between 0 per cent and 34 per cent, with a typical increase of about 5 per cent. The study also identified other non-financial benefits arising from being close to a park and found that good quality parks and green spaces are essential in setting up strong, long-lasting communities (CABE Space, 2005c). Recent CABE Space (2007) research, Paved with Gold: The Real Value of Street Design, demonstrated a direct link between street quality and property prices. It showed that the quality of a high street can add at least five per cent to the price of homes and to the level of retail rents. This is the first study to connect economic benefits directly with the quality of street design, management and maintenance. Well-designed, flexible public spaces play an important role in the adaptation to, and mitigation of the effects of climate change; a role that will only get more important in future years (CABE, 2008). Studies that attempt to calculate the financial benefits of

Quality of public spaces


JPMD 2,3


this include the American CITYgreen model (see: productsandpubs/citygreen/) which analyses the ecological and economic benefits of tree canopy and other green space and the European-funded Creating the Setting for Investment (see project which investigates the impact of environmental improvements on investment decision making. Thus, in recent years, greater attention is being paid to the financial contributions high quality public spaces provide for the areas and cities within which they are located. The financial benefits that high quality parks and green spaces contribute to cities have been examined in detail in research by The Trust for Public Land (2008) in the USA. Its study enumerates the economic value of the city’s park system for clean air, clean water, tourism, health, property value and community cohesion. The research calculates the financial benefits that parks in the city of Philadelphia contribute to their users as $1 billion. The benefits to individuals of high quality, well managed, well-maintained parks and green spaces can include: . physical and mental health benefits from exercise and access to nature; . saving money due to access to a free public service; . educational benefits and contribution to children’s development through providing opportunities to explore and take risks; . adult personal development opportunities through volunteering to support park activities and initiatives; and . a general improvement in an individual’s quality of life, happiness and wellbeing. More than 70 per cent of people claim to visit urban green spaces “frequently” (National Audit Office, 2006) and the benefits of doing so are recognised and understood. For example a survey by MORI for CABE Space (2004) found that 91 per cent of those surveyed believed that public parks and open spaces improve people’s quality of life, and 74 per cent believed that parks and open spaces are important to people’s health and mental and physical wellbeing. However, despite their importance for area success and individual quality of life our public spaces are often taken for granted or neglected. For instance, in 2002 the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce estimated an under-investment of £1.3 billion of funding in English urban public parks between 1979 and 2000 (Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, 2002). Parks and green spaces, as a non-statutory function for local authorities, slipped down the political agenda in this period, losing out to formal recreation and leisure activities and other priorities. In 1999 the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee report on town and country parks concluded it was “shocked at the weight of evidence, far beyond our expectations about the extent of the problems parks have faced in the last 30 years. It is clear that if nothing is done many of them will become albatrosses around the neck of local authorities” (in National Audit Office, 2006). The improvement, regeneration and adequate resourcing of our public spaces is an equity issue. It is usually the poorest communities that suffer from the poorest quality of public spaces. Research on satisfaction levels with parks and open spaces between

2000 and 2003 shows that these have risen. However residents in deprived communities have not shared equally in improvements (National Audit Office, 2006). In response to this historic decline in the quality of urban parks, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions established an Urban Green Spaces Taskforce to identify action for improvement. The report of the taskforce, Green Spaces, Better Places specifically recommended the establishment of a new national agency for urban green spaces (Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, 2002). CABE Space was established in 2003 as a direct response. Funded by Communities and Local Government (CLG) and part of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), CABE Space is a unique and innovative organisation dedicated to championing excellence in the planning, design, management and maintenance of parks and urban public spaces in England’s towns and cities. Linking the quality of public space to regeneration and well being The increasing interest and importance afforded to the role of urban design in regenerating our towns and cities in recent years has coincided with a growing emphasis on quality of life, well-being and liveability among policy makers. Considerable work has been done to define and measure these individual concepts. Much less has been done to examine the links between them. There is no national evidence base to inform policy agendas relating to well-being and liveability. The New Economics Foundation, in its report Hitting the Target, Missing the Point, called for a more sophisticated approach to measuring the impact of regeneration, highlighting the significant gap in evidence about what works (Lawlor and Nicholls, 2008). Of particular interest to CABE Space is the link between good quality public spaces and people’s quality of life, about which there is a dearth of evidence. This was noted in 2005 by the (then) Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s State of the English Cities report which highlighted the meagre evidence base in regard to assessing improvements to quality of life within the core cities, through the Cleaner, Safer, Greener initiative (ODPM, 2006). Scoping and developing the evidence base Since 2004 CABE Space has established a suite of research investigating the economic, social and environmental value of well designed, well-managed, high quality public spaces (see In 2007, CABE Space commissioned Heriot-Watt University, in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University, to carry out a scoping study to answer the following questions: . What are the existing sources of national data that contain information that relate to the quality of public space, and existing data on people’s quality of life? . To what extent is it possible to identify meaningful relationships between datasets across the two areas? . If such relationships exist, what does the data reveal? The researchers analysed a total of 34 national datasets to ascertain what they can tell us about how the quality of public spaces affects people’s quality of life. Only those

Quality of public spaces


JPMD 2,3


datasets measuring both quality of life and quality of public space were included in the analysis. The list below summarises the range of datasets included in the study: . Survey of English Housing. . Health Survey for England. . Indices of Multiple Deprivation. . English House Condition Survey. . General Household Survey. . Best Value Performance Indicators. . British Household Panel Survey. . Citizenship Survey. . Survey of Public Attitudes and Behaviours Toward the Environment. . Census. . Generalised Land Use Database. . Three datasets from CityForm project[2] based on primary data collected from over 2,500 households in case study areas in Oxford, Leicester and Sheffield. Data gaps Even basic data are lacking. We do not know how many public spaces there are in England and we do not know in any detail what quality they are in. Planning Policy Guidance 17 states that local authorities must carry out audits of existing open spaces, taking into account the use and access to these areas. However, no standardised method of data collection is available hindering comparability between areas and the information is not yet collated on a national scale. The public space data that does exist is maintenance or cleanliness focused. For instance, datasets such as the English Housing Condition Survey provide information on the condition of public spaces but not on their design or functional quality. We know how clean and well maintained spaces are but not how valuable, vibrant or well used they are. There is no single indicator or dataset measuring the quality of public spaces. The information that is measured is narrowly defined, for instance data collected on the “state” of streets and roads in England focuses on traffic flows and accident statistics. There is a national quality scheme for parks and green spaces, The Green Flag Award, which recognises the quality of individual parks at a given point in time; but not the quality of service delivery as a whole. Ratings are given by independent judges for eight criteria: a welcoming place; healthy, safe and secure; clean and well-maintained; sustainability; conservation and heritage; community involvement; marketing; and management. This scheme is a voluntary standard and local authorities tend to enter their “flagship” parks. Entry levels to the scheme are improving year on year; 554 awards were given in 2008 and 55 per cent of local authorities have one or more parks with a Green Flag award. Nonetheless, coverage is not extensive or continuous as specific spaces may not be entered into the scheme every year National knowledge is not likely to improve in the short term. There is no single, national indicator or dataset measuring quality of public spaces. Communities and Local Government’s new system of local authority national performance targets in

England, introduced in April 2008, does not specifically include national indicators for parks and green spaces (CLG, 2009). CLG is currently putting together a database of green space quantity. However, this has not been able to involve any new detail collection; making use of existing data only and relying on the Generalised Land Use Database which categorises land parcels into nine key themes. Concerns have been raised about the accuracy of this data source; the boundaries of such areas are somewhat arbitrary and often do not correspond exactly to residents’ understanding of the area they are considering when answering survey questions. The situation is made more complex by the fact that the public space sector, in comparison to other service areas such as health and education, suffers from a critical lack of coherent data. Few local authorities collect specific information on the expenditure on their public spaces and demonstrate the link between this spend and ensuing quality (CABE Space, 2006). Results of scoping exercise Responding to the lack of indicators that measure the quality of public space, the researchers for this scoping study chose a combination of objective and subjective indicators relating to particular dimensions of the design, condition, function and ecological quality of public spaces. The reliance on the subjectivity of respondents to define the specific quality of particular spaces is acknowledged. It was outside of the scope of this study to supplement national data with “objective” locally based information on the quality of specific areas. A considerable proportion of the datasets examined measured the same features of quality of public space (safety, maintenance, comfort) and dimensions of quality of life (feelings of safety, health and social well being) repeatedly. This is symptomatic of the tendency for measurability and data availability to drive the particular definitions of quality of life and quality of public space (see Table I). Correlation analyses were carried out to measure the strength and direction of the statistical relationship between two indicators (Bryman and Cramer, 1997). The closer the value generated to one or minus one, the stronger the relationship. Regression
Type of feature of quality of public space Condition/maintenance Design Feature Robust Adaptable Well-designed Legible Has a sense of enclosure Healthy Has space for social interaction Fulfilling Relaxing Community resource Vital and viable Functional

Quality of public spaces




Table I. Features of quality of public space not measured in national datasets

JPMD 2,3


analysis was used where possible to show the nature and strength of the relationship between an affected indicator. To varying degrees it was concluded that the design quality of public space, condition/maintenance, user experience, ecological quality and the functional qualities of public space have positive associations with people’s quality of life. The study found that the specific indicators of quality of life that are most positively correlated with individual indicators of quality of public space are: . people’s perceptions of where they live; . satisfaction with their housing; and . feelings of attachment to people and place. Overall, associations between quality of life indicators and the maintenance of public space, safety of public space and comfort of public space were the most consistent and positive: . Maintenance. The stronger associations were found between maintenance and indicators relating to satisfaction with where people live; feelings of attachments to people and place and community safety; and feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment with life in general. . Safety. The strongest associations were found between safety and indicators measuring perceptions of where respondents lived; feelings of attachment to people and place; community safety; and individual feelings of safety and enjoyment. On the whole the same stronger associations for safety were also found for indicators of comfort in public space. Strong associations were also found between indicators measuring how attractive respondents agree the public space is and people’s perceptions of where they live, their satisfaction with their housing and their feelings of attachment to a particular place. Associations were found between amount of green space and indicators measuring respondents’ participation in culture and leisure, as well as their feelings of attachment to where they live, people and place. A number of datasets contain questions which include overlap indicators of both quality of public space and quality of life[3]. These questions were analysed separately: . In the British Household Panel datasets, where respondents were asked to give reasons why their area was a good or bad place to live in, 44 per cent of the reasons given related to quality of public space. . The Survey of English Housing asks respondents to list the three main things that would improve their local area. Issues relating to aspects of public space were cited as many times as factors relating to employment, health and housing. Next steps: making the most of the links between quality of public spaces and quality of life Linking the quality of public spaces and the quality of life is a complex and multifaceted area that suffers from a meagre evidence base. Analysis is complicated by a dearth of robust national data measuring the quality of public space (aside from cleanliness related data) and difficulty is compounded by the fact that public space

value consists of elements that may never be easily measured due to the difficulty of controlling for interfering variables. However, a better understanding of these links is important in order to justify, and incentivise, greater investment in regenerating and improving our public realm. A better understanding is also needed to maximise and advocate the benefits of public space provision for people and the areas that they live in, especially in light of the fact that many of our poorest areas suffer from the poorest quality of public space. In the context of target-driven performance and evidence-led policy-making, the shortage of evidence carries clear implications for those working in the public space, place management and regeneration sectors. First, those things that cannot be easily measured can be more easily overlooked and undervalued by politicians and local decision makers. Inevitably, things that are easily definable and understood tend to get the most attention. A better recognition of the positive value good quality places contribute to areas, and their integral role in both area success and decline, is key if we are able to convincingly argue for, and attract, sufficient resources to manage and maintain spaces. Second, policy initiatives or programmes that rely on assumptions about the role of public spaces in enhancing health, well being and liveability can be seen to rely on a weak evidence base. This is problematic and, if it is not possible to prove the “worth” of specific programmes, could impact on their continuation. A multiplicity of organisations have an interest in making a place a success, from public sector to private businesses, and it is important this “worth” is communicated clearly by those people on the coalface of place and space management. This is a complex and fascinating area. On the one hand clearer, more robust information is required to justify investment and processes of regeneration. On the other hand, it could be argued that in a sensible world this is a truth that does not need to be “proved”. We instinctively know that access to good quality parks, squares, streets and open spaces provide benefit. There is a half way house. Effort needs to be dedicated to sensibly growing the relevant pool of evidence and data base but it must be acknowledged by policy makers that it is not possible to “prove” everything. Sometimes we must make the leap of faith without the absolute proof. This is an exciting and valuable area with much to gain from further drilling down of associations and piecing together analysis of existing evidence in reference to specific areas. After all, 70 per cent of people claim to visit their local park “frequently”. Our parks, streets and other public spaces are the one public service that everybody uses on a daily basis, that are free and available to all and that impact on everybody’s well being.
Notes 1. CABE Space works with local authorities and other national, regional and local bodies involved with the delivery of parks and public spaces to help them think holistically about the value of well planned, managed and maintained public space. It aims to explain, persuade and convince people that parks and public spaces are valuable assets that benefit everyone’s wellbeing, not, as they are sometimes perceived, as nothing but a drain on local resources. 2. CityForm research consortium was funded by the EPSRC (GR/520529/01). 3. An example of such a question is, “Would vandalism and graffiti have an effect on how attached you feel to a neighbourhood?”

Quality of public spaces


JPMD 2,3


References Bryman, A. and Cramer, D. (1997), Quantitative Data Analysis with SPSS for Windows: A Guide for Social Scientists, Routledge, London. CABE (2008), The Role of Public Space in Adapting to Climate Change, CABE, London. CABE Space (2004), “Public attitudes to architecture and public space: transforming neighbourhoods”, unpublished research paper. CABE Space (2005a), Decent Parks? Decent Behaviour? The Link between the Quality of Parks and User Behaviour, CABE, London. CABE Space (2005b), Start with the Park: Creating Sustainable Urban Green Spaces in Areas of Housing Growth and Renewal, CABE, London. CABE Space (2005c), Does Money Grow on Trees?, CABE, London. CABE Space (2006), Urban Parks: Do You Know What You Are Getting for Your Money?, CABE, London. CABE Space (2007), Paved with Gold: The Real Value of Street Design, CABE, London. CLG (2009), “Performance framework, partnerships and local area agreements”, available at: (accessed 1 June 2009). Heriot-Watt University in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University (2007), Understanding the Links between the Quality of Public Space and the Quality of Life: A Scoping Study, CABE, London. Lawlor, E. and Nicholls, J. (2008), Hitting the Target, Missing the Point: How Government Regeneration Targets Fail Deprived Areas, New Economics Foundation, London. National Audit Office (2006), Enhancing Urban Green Space, ODPM, London. ODPM (2006), State of the English Cities: A Research Study, ODPM, London. (The) Trust for Public Land (2008), How Much Value Does the City of Philadelphia Receive from Its Parks and Recreation System?, The Trust for Public Land, Philadelphia, PA, available at: (accessed 1 June 2009). Urban Green Spaces Taskforce (2002), Green Spaces, Better Places: Final Report of the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, DTLR, London. About the author Helen Beck works as a Research and Futures Advisor at CABE managing and commissioning research projects relating to the successful design, management and maintenance of urban public spaces. Helen is currently managing a research project that aims to develop a methodology for local authorities to use to measure the asset value of public space infrastructure, and further research examining links between the quality of life and the quality of public spaces. Prior to CABE Helen Beck worked as a Research Officer for the London School of Economics on an action research programme aimed at building the capacity of social housing tenants to effect positive change in their communities. She holds an MA in Development and MSc in Housing and Regeneration. Helen Beck can be contacted at:

To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: Or visit our web site for further details:

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful