The past year has made us aware of the crucial role public space has in our lives. Parks, squares, public markets, streets and alleys have already become essential infrastructures for the well-being of societies, and they are emerging among the few places for safe social interaction since the beginning of the epidemic. Given its importance, is it not time to make it a priority for 2021 and the coming years?
While many of our government assistance measures are in place to support sectors affected by the health crisis, the public space remains largely forgotten. However, it is enough to note the number of visitors to the parks that citizens have invaded since last spring, to know their importance for our physical and mental health. However, many public spaces have been victims of budget cuts that, over the years, have led to a gradual deterioration in their infrastructure and reduced services.
It is time to step back from what urban planner and activist Jane Jacobs once called “the Great Imbalance” or “the Great Imbalance”, which is to prioritize the construction of new, expensive facilities at the expense of urban development, the public living spaces. Nonetheless, these places are essential components of our social fabric and neighborhood vitality – especially in the context of the recovery we are witnessing.
Given the limited budgets available to municipalities, one solution could be to increase the contribution of companies to financing public spaces, whether through philanthropy or sponsorship.
This cooperation between cities and the private sector is key to organic and resilient recovery, as it provides a structural legacy to societies.
A profound change is also occurring in the corporate sector. More and more companies are placing the concept of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) at the core of their organizational culture, and wanting to have a positive impact on their society and the environment. By opting to fund public spaces, companies are thus involved in improving the lives of communities in the long term, rather than ad hoc during the event. Thus, public-private partnerships allow companies to achieve their social responsibility goals, while giving more communities the opportunity to create, transform and maintain their public spaces. It’s a formula that works for everyone.
From a purely strategic point of view, companies investing in local communities have a significant competitive advantage, particularly with regard to “employer branding” and staff recruitment.
Also, consumers are increasingly informing themselves of corporate social commitment and making consumption choices that align with their values. In terms of marketing, financing local public spaces is a tactic that is paying off, given the bond that has been created with the residents. These public spaces are anchored in people’s daily lives and provide long-term visibility to companies, in contrast to an event sponsorship approach that essentially measures attendance at a limited-time event. By contributing financially to the neighborhood, companies have the opportunity to generate significant social benefits.
The path to follow
Many companies are developing social responsibility goals, but they still need to be done in a real way. There are many examples of outstanding companies that have developed innovative initiatives related to public spaces, in areas with major offices, offices, or production and distribution facilities.
We could think of Southwest Airlines through the Community Heart and Resilient Communities Impact Program grant programs, Canadian Tire’s Jump Start or Desjardins’s Fond des districts, all of which have worked together for the well-being of many local communities.
Let us take for example the Bleu Blanc Bouge Circuit. This program, a flagship project of the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation, aims to build outdoor frozen arenas.
The foundation responds to the urgent need for high-quality sports infrastructure for the less affluent neighborhoods, thus enabling thousands of families to adopt an active lifestyle. To date, 11 Bleu Blanc Bouge races have become places of pride for the local communities in which they are located.
When municipalities start planning summer projects, developing public spaces will likely be one of their priorities. This summer is shaping up to be very similar to last year and there will likely be a few major unifying events. By the way, even after a pandemic, residents will need safe, friendly and sustainable outdoor spaces. For companies wanting to contribute to the health of local communities, this is the ideal context for including public spaces in their social responsibility goals.