Temple professor co-leads study on urban public spaces

The findings will examine the effects on economics, social interactions and health.

A woman walks her dog down a windy pathway. A couple sits on the grass while their children play tag a few feet away. A college student studies on a bench. 

This is a typical scene in one of Philadelphia’s more than 50 public parks. 

Hamil Pearsall, a geography and urban studies professor, teamed up with three professors from Drexel and Georgetown University to study urban public spaces in cities across the United States. The interdisciplinary group is looking at how access to public space in city neighborhood impacts people’s social interaction, economics and physical and mental health. It will also focus on searching for indicators of gentrification in public spaces.

Local nonprofit The William Penn Foundation awarded the team nearly $269,000 in Fall 2018 to fund the “Synthesis of the Benefits and Costs of Urban Public Spaces” literature research study.  The group began researching in November and will finalize its findings this summer.

The professors will also look at how urban public spaces are distributed throughout cities, Pearsall said.

“Do we find that more and more quality public spaces tend to be located in wealthier neighborhoods, while there might be fewer public spaces, and more poorly maintained public spaces in lower-income neighborhoods?” she added. 

The researchers created topics based on their areas of expertise, like public health, social issues and economics, said Anneclaire De Roos, an environmental and occupational health professor at Drexel. 

De Roos is focusing on how urban spaces affect public health and how people’s proximity to public spaces could increase physical activity in urban areas.

“Another whole area with a lot of information is looking at mental health in relation to the public spaces,” De Roos added. “Are people less likely to have poor mental health if they have access to public spaces and be able to live close to public spaces?”

The professors are co-leading the study alongside a representative from the United States Forest Service. Undergraduate and graduate students from each of the three universities are also helping. 

“I’m very excited that this is a very comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach in understanding public space,” said Yuki Kato, a Georgetown sociology professor who is working on the project.

Pearsall and Kato are researching the social aspect of public spaces and examining who benefits from public spaces and who might be excluded — like people experiencing homelessness, Pearsall said. 

“I found it to be very exciting to work with engineers, people from health sciences, sociology to get a very broad picture of what’s going on with urban public spaces in Philadelphia,” Pearsall said.

The team aims to discover gaps in existing research, find what areas need more research and see what specific research should be done, Pearsall said.

Patrick Gurian, a civil, architectural and environmental engineering professor at Drexel, said this project is not a simple “yes or no” to public spaces.

“We want to implement public spaces and maintain public spaces in a way that maximizes their benefits, minimizes their costs and is consistent with social equality, equity goals that we have,” he said.

Kato hopes the William Penn Foundation will use the group’s research as a guideline to determine which projects to support in the future and communities can use its research to advocate for public spaces, she said.

“They might pause and think about, ‘What are some things that we need to do so that we can ensure that this park can become not just a better park for some people, but as many as possible?’” Kato said. “There is definitely that public outreach that could happen out of this report.”

Though the study isn’t exclusive to Philadelphia, Pearsall and her colleagues hope their findings will result in funding for new or renovated parks and more public spaces in the city.

“My hope is that our report is widely read by policymakers and practitioners and it will inform the way that we think about public spaces moving forward, certainly in Philadelphia, and beyond,” Pearsall said.

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