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Public Space, Power, and Prosperity

Activating public spaces for private and public stakeholders through the unifying concept of home.

Carol Nguyen


Throughout 2020, we've seen public stages as stages for civic engagement, mutual aid, democracy, solidarity, connection, and creativity. Public spaces are essential for our social infrastructure, but it's the people who invigorate and breathe new life into public spaces. However, though public spaces are meant for the public, inclusion does not always mean welcome. The politics of ownership and stewardship shape the dynamics within a public space, in who is welcome and what is allowed. Drawing from the unifying concept of home as identified by immigrants, first-generation, and people of color, how might we transform the narratives within a public space to be hospitable? Both public and private stakeholders have an interest in nurturing their home. In considering our post-COVID recovery, we have an opportunity to embrace our interconnectedness, in bringing in our whole selves, public and private, to build back better.


This exploration into public spaces as an extension of home centers New York City as the main case study. In delving into the dynamics of ownership and stewardship within public spaces, I was intrigued by the paradoxical phenomenon of “Privately Owned Public Spaces” or “POPS.” Any land reserved for public use and enjoyment in New York City cannot afford to be neglected or dismissed. Initially, I was eager to translate the information available on POPS to a mobile app prototype so users would have easy access to locate POPS near them, rate their quality, and suggest public programming to entice people to visit. However, upon my research, I found even native New Yorkers were unaware of these public spaces and that they have access to them. I pivoted to a focus on communication, in letting people know what they can use POPS for and where they are located.


Through my research, I was encouraged to shift my philosophy beyond physical spaces to investing in tools for shared stewardship. The lack of awareness and underutilization of these POPS as well as other public spaces can be addressed through conversations on the quality of and ability for a public space to be an extension of home. A public space that manifests the qualities of home is welcoming. My prototype, “For Rapport” is a set of cards to facilitate conversations on shared stewardship and investment in a public space as home. It seeks to function as an artifact for generative co-creation and co-innovation by inviting community members and private owners to examine a public space together, noting areas of success and opportunities for improvement. Business Improvement Districts can host sessions inviting community members and private owners to architect a future where the public comes before spaces in public space.

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