Urbanism Books : Public Space Stewardship Guide

The Street Plans Collaborative. (2016). Public space Stewardship Guide. Version 1.0. Cover page. [online].

Author : Nushrat Jahan

The post aims to give a brief overview on the toolkit ‘Public Space Stewardship Guide’. It elaborates on the different stewarding models, their strengths and weaknesses and how the principles could apply to Muscat. 

The ‘Public Space Stewardship Guide’ is prepared for the San Francisco Planning department by The Street Plans Collaborative, Inc. and MJM Management Group. It aims to showcase principles of stewarding in areas of funding, programming and maintenance of public spaces. The examples illustrated are mainly of plazas in different American cities. The guide begins with introducing data about the number of public plazas in San Francisco. It also outlines certain developments made in the city over the years with informal parklets, plazas, living innovation zones and Urban prototyping. It was interesting to note how the public spaces in the city developed on various scales. The toolkit mentions ‘’excess Asphalt’’and other unused roads which were reprogrammed into pilot plazas. San Francisco ‘Pavement to Park’’ program and ‘’SF Plaza Program’ oversees the development of the new public spaces. In other areas, local artists are invited to showcase their ideas to improve the streets in San Francisco. The guide also includes a glossary of terms and use level definitions, which are used to classify the various public spaces discussed within.

The guide describes five models of public space stewardship:
  • Event based model.
  • Grassroot partnership model
  • Public private partnership model
  • Self governing special assessment district models
  • Maintenance and/or Technical Assistance Partnership models
Event Based Model
The event based model focuses on programming and activating a public space for a certain period.
The guide describes an example of this model through the department of Transportation in Seattle where it has commenced the festival street program, encouraging activation of the streets through community participation. Festival street is defined as ‘public place that has been designated for recurring temporary closure to vehicular traffic for the purpose of pedestrian-oriented special activities’ (Public Space Stewardship Guide 2016). Funds were collected depending on the type of activation. Most of the initiatives were low cost, quick activation to promote the open space. In addition, there is also a festival permit that one must possess to hold events in these areas. The flexible fee structure encourages the community to make use of this initiative. The organizers are responsible for the signage, traffic and cleanliness of the area during the event. The overall maintenance of the area is taken care of by the city council.

The strength of this model is:
  • This method can be very efficient in rejuvenating spaces in the city through events. It draws people and often leads them to revisit the area by creating positive social interaction.
  • The Public Space managers often have to showcase detailed plans for event setup, cleanup, liability for permit purposes. They may collaborate with various stakeholders to achieve this.
  • The detailed planning leads to its high success rate and assists in creating a positive impact on the visitor.
The drawbacks are :
  • activation of the space is a non permanent.
  • There is no assurance that the public space managers will grow to be stewards of the space.
  • It also requires thorough planning which might be strenuous for small organizations or individuals

Grassroot Partnership Model
This stewardship model is steered by goal driven individuals - residents/business owners/others. The organization structure may vary here and is usually volunteer based. This model has been proven to be efficient mainly for small scale neighborhood public spaces. The guide cites an example of “Friends of Duboce Park”, a non profit , volunteer run organization which holds many events in the park. There is a general membership fee. Alongside they host an annual fundraiser event, the proceeds of which covers their running cost. The programming is carried out by the members, who host various events as per their interests. The maintenance is taken care of by the municipal body as part of their baseline service in the area. The organization also provides support with volunteer cleanup programmes.

The strength of this model is :
  • Strong partnership of various stakeholders builds a strong community ownership of the area.
  • The informal manner makes it easy to react quickly to community needs.
  • Can be cost effective while achieving outstanding results.
The drawbacks are :
  • The community often needs external support for larger amenities of the space.
  • The model's success is directly related to the enthusiasm and input from the organisers. Key members might change over the years.
  • High resource communities have a higher success rate as the members are more likely to be connected to well known individuals/organizations and can acquire the necessary funds.

Public/ Private Partnership Model
This model includes a collective collaboration between one or more organizations and an official government body which works in tandem towards the development of a public space. The scheme is often referred to as PPP. An example of the model is outlined through the Los Angeles’s Department of Public Transportation’s (LADOT) People St Program which promotes community efforts in enhancing LA’s public spaces. Community members are required to procure approval for small scale public space projects in three categories - plazas, bike corrals and parklets. LADOT provides guidelines for plazas and parlet projects which are binding. The programming and maintenance is carried out by the private steward. Funds are managed through neighbourhood councils, local officials or crowdsourcing.

The Strength of this model is:
  • This usually has a formal procedure in place, with responsibilities defined in an agreement.
  • There is a high level of engagement as both parties benefit from the results of the partnership.
  • The partnerships can differ in range involving either a large corporate partner and benefiting financially, or it may include many small scale businesses and benefit off the diverse stakeholders.
The drawbacks are :
  • The community might feel neglected by this partnership and might be worried about privatisation of resources.
  • The transparency to the public is vital to the future of this partnership and must be taken into consideration early on.
  • There is an underlying risk of 'losing' the urban identity with the involvement of private entities.
  • The framework might be restricted to the creative process while now guidelines can lead to higher expenses, which smaller organizations might not be able to cope with.

Self-governing Special Assessment District Model
This stewardship model involves the community funding their own initiatives for the public spaces, to supplement the baseline services provided by the local authorities. An example here is of the city of San Francisco as it has created a legal framework for establishing a community based district, which includes a detailed management plan, signed petition by the property owners and a ballot vote. Further details are explained in the toolkit. This has paved the way for successful districts such as Yerba Buena community benefit district. They created a roadmap for 36 streetscape projects focusing on the alleyways. The community completed a public plaza which has converted an alley into a public plaza. Backed by strong support from the residents, the finance has been provided by assessment of properties and reduced municipal fees. The district has tested pilot projects to activate the space. With baseline infrastructure in places, they are attracting local talents to use the space, as a method of activation. Maintenance is taken care of by various programs initiated by the district.

The Strengths of this model is :
  • The model benefits from community ownership along with clean safe desirable spaces than the baseline services.
  • The programming and maintenance is managed by themselves.
  • The district can be very efficient at activating the spaces and ensuring adequate management facilities are available.
  • The funding for the programming and maintenance is overlooked by the district.
  • Being self appointed managers, they can respond quickly to the community needs.
The drawbacks are:
  • The individual method of stewarding might lack consistency with the city's overall vision.
  • Financially viable neighborhoods will be able to tap into the resources required more easily than others.
  • It is expensive to set up a special assessment district and requires substantial resources.

Maintenance and/or Technical Assistance Partnership Model
This model varies from the others vastly and is focused on specialized organizations, programs or partners which assists public space managers. They may provide technical support, direct services or both. An example here is the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) which has assisted the growth of many public spaces in the city since 2008. They soon realized that low income areas will need extra efforts around plaza maintenance to be able to enjoy the same quality of public life as the rest of the city. The Horticultural Society of New York established a Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP) program in 2013, as a response to assist the public area managers in these high need areas. Initially funded by JPMorgan Chase Foundation, they employ three full time staff who assist the public space managers in gathering funds for the spaces as well as take care of the routine maintenance. Their range of services include ‘subsidized maintenance services using a workforce training model, organizational capacity-building, marketing advisory services, and citywide promotion of the benefits of the NYC DOT Plaza Program’(Public Space Stewardship Guide 2016). To acquire funds, one of their strategies was pairing well established spaces with plazas in high need neighbourhoods and approaching corporations for funds together. This is still in the testing phase. The activation is left under the care of the community organization responsible while NPP relieves them of the major maintenance duties. Where necessary, they do provide counselling for sponsor ships and marketing.

The strengths of this model is:
  • They can assist public space managers by distributing the tasks among various organizations, thereby reducing the workload. Organizations are more willing to take on smaller roles.
  • They can broaden the circle of stakeholders involved in a public space.
  • By providing subsided services, they can highly benefit low income neighborhoods.
  • They could train the public spaces manager to independently take on major roles towards funding, maintenance etc.
The drawbacks are:
  • There is an underlying risk of the project unwinding due to distributed management roles.
  • It relies on the proficiency of the public space managers.
  • It is time consuming and requires extensive resources.

Reflection on Models in the Omani Context:
There are many promising growing neighborhoods in the city of Muscat which could draw inspiration from these models. Here is my personal reflection on the applicability of these models to the context of Muscat.
  • Event based stewarding model can be seen in action in Souq Es Sabt, in Al Mouj. It is a farmer’s market hosted by Al Mouj (Development) every Saturday during the cooler seasons. Local businesses can reserve a slot in the souq/market, to sell their products. The event takes place on specific days and time. The stalls are dismantled and cleaned post the event. The event definitely has showcased a different type of use for the ‘walkway’ in Al Mouj and has gained popularity amongst the residents. Muscat municipality often engages this model to activate and introduce new developments to the community with public events such as 'Sur Al Hadid' beach carnival. However, in these cases the stewarding role is primarily carried out by the governing body with little to no involvement from community groups.
  • Grassroot partnership model could be implemented in various emerging neighbourhoods here in the form of small community groups, namely in Amerat and Alkhowd.
  • Muscat Municipality could employ a Public Private partnership stewarding model to activate various spaces around the city namely Seeb Waterfront, Sahwa Park. "Sur Al Hadid' beach carnival can be considered as a Public-Private partnership model, as its a collaboration between Muscat Municiaplity, Ministry of Tourism and Omran.
  • Self governing special Assessment model is an extensive process. It would be upto the municipality in Muscat to take the initiative to create a framework for Community Based Districts and assess the public interest. It would help if there is a mediator to relay the information and allow easy access to information. However, with the population and land use distribution in Muscat, it is debatable if this model is required.
  • Maintenance/technical assistance partnership model could be considered subsequently, once there are emerging initiatives in the city to steward the public spaces.

In Muscat, the need for attractive public spaces is plenty. In present times, Muscat municipality is the primary steward for all public spaces in Muscat. The various stewarding models could act as a guideline for the municipality and the residents to distribute this responsibility and alongside, empower the public to take initiatives, perhaps on an individual level. This would minimize the workload on the municipality and could also be the driving force to invite other investors and stakeholders to take part in shaping the city’s outdoor areas.