How University City District, Philadelphia is defining and measuring ‘justice’ in public space

University City
Editor's note:

Placemaking Postcards is a blog series from the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings where policymakers and practitioners guest-author promising placemaking efforts from across the U.S. and abroad that foster connected, vibrant, and inclusive communities. In line with the principle tenets of placemaking, the goal of the series is to recognize the community as the expert, highlight voices from the field, and to create a community of learning and practice around transformative placemaking.


Over the past decade, public, private, and philanthropic investors have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and renovate public spaces in Philadelphia. We at University City District (UCD)—a partnership of anchor institutions, small businesses, and residents—have invested a few million of these dollars to create public spaces like The Porch at 30th Street Station, Trolley Portal Gardens, pedestrian plazas, and Parklet installations.

These investments were inspired by a growing national recognition that public spaces help facilitate community connections, encourage civic engagement, and promote healthy outcomes for people and places. Yet, as income and wealth inequality reach unprecedented heights in Philadelphia and across the nation, these inequities are bleeding into our public spaces too—resulting in places that prioritize some groups, while excluding others on the basis of race, class, gender, age, sexual preference, ethnicity, and ability differences. Philadelphians are taking notice of these inequities, and are expressing anxiety about demographic shifts and public space transformations in formerly black-majority neighborhoods, pointing to age and gender imbalances that leave women and others feeling unsafe in public spaces, and hosting public conversations about the lack of black architects in the majority-minority city.

Given these disparities, we took a hard look at our own spaces. We realized that although we do prioritize users and their desires in our planning process, we have rarely asked the important question: who is not using our spaces, and why?  

Understanding justice in public space

The Just Spaces project is born out of this tension. Planners, designers, and place managers— ourselves included—typically lack the tools needed to create and sustain deeply inclusive places. Often, community members are engaged at the outset of a project, with very little follow-through to ensure diverse perspectives drive the entire effort. We have even fewer tools to hold place managers accountable to inclusive outcomes, resulting in public spaces that may be well-maintained, but exclusionary.

Faced with this challenge, we launched Just Spaces to assess social justice in our spaces, to think deeply about the meaning of “justice” in the context of place, and to develop an accountability mechanism—a data collection and analysis tool—to measure if our spaces are truly inclusive and just.

But before we could measure justice, we had to define what “justice” means in the physical realm, and what specific questions need to be addressed to bring it to bear. To get us there, we grounded our efforts in a five-dimensional framework developed by anthropologist Setha Low and vetted by an advisory group of experts in design, architecture, public education, public safety, and public art. This framework is centered on answering the following questions:

  • Distributive—Who has physical access (by walking, bike, transit, and vehicle) to a public space or network of spaces?
  • Procedural—How do people feel about their influence over the design, operations, and programming of a public space? What is the process to access public space facilities?
  • Interactional—What makes people feel welcome (or unwanted) in a public space?
  • Representational—Do people feel their experience and history is represented in a space?
  • Care—How do people demonstrate their care for the space and each other?

These questions are meant to be asked throughout an entire placemaking process—from physical design to operations, programming, and governance. And although the framework itself is not a guarantee that public spaces will meet these criteria, it is a first step in defining aspirational outcomes for places committed to accessibility, inclusivity, and justice.   

Promoting accountability through the Just Spaces tool

Our understanding of justice cannot be achieved without an accountability mechanism. To keep us on track toward our goal of improving inclusion in public space, we’ve developed a web-based tool that allows University City District and other planners, designers, and managers to measure inclusivity and justice in their spaces. Its premise is simple, and it distills Low’s framework into discrete organizational questions that public space owners, managers, and advocates can answer. These include: Who is using our spaces? Who is not using our spaces? What kinds of interventions (e.g. programming, operations, design, regulations, security) impact who does and does not use our spaces? After answering these questions, we can consult the framework to explore more in-depth solutions.

The tool functions by:   

  1. Collecting and storing data from observational and intercept surveys to provide insight into who is using a space and their opinions of that space.
  2. Comparing demographic results to census data that allow one to see who is not using a space, or simply understand how respondents compare to the demographics of a user-defined area.
  3. Improving through open source design, which allows stakeholders to freely build improvements into the tool as they use it. 

Figure 1: The Just Spaces tool allows stakeholders to compare users at a specific site to defined areas such as a district or those with easy accessibility to a transit line. It’s currently available for Philadelphia, and will be expanded to more cities soon. 

Fig1AFig 1B

We are just beginning to discuss the metrics and inclusion goals we want to reach in our spaces, and any decision we make will require deep, intentional reflection on the role of public space in combatting social inequities. While the tool is not a cure-all in creating inclusive public spaces, it provides us (and anyone who decides to use it) with a resource to understand our impact, identify areas of improvement, and launch new initiatives with justice and inclusion in mind. 

Looking beyond the tool 

Creating and sustaining just spaces is about more than technology. It requires coupling our analysis with community engagement efforts to identify exclusionary social dynamics that a tool might miss.

We realized this early on, when we asked West Philadelphians for their input on a public park—one that appeared to be racially diverse from available data. But focus groups revealed significant procedural and interactional injustice in the space, with white residents feeling at home in the park, while black residents recounted negative and exclusionary experiences. This was an important reminder that although tools can help ensure accountability for inclusive outcomes and tell us who is using a public space, they must be combined with efforts to consistently solicit feedback from community residents on hidden factors technology won’t reveal.

Since defining our framework, developing the tool to measure it, and engaging community members for feedback, we’ve made some changes to our public spaces, each aimed at making our landscape more just. Some of them are small, but they move us closer to spaces that invite all members of the community to participate. Such efforts are replicable in other places, and include:

  • Reprogramming movie nights to include more films with directors and casts that are majority people of color;
  • Relocating Parklet installations from food and beverage establishments to places like laundromats.
  • Implementing historic signage programs to highlight the role of notable women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.
  • Raising money to fund supplemental horticulture and maintenance services in the parks near where our employees live (beyond our district’s boundaries) to ensure they also have access to quality public space.

These efforts are not just about making public spaces more diverse—they are about embedding principles of justice within everything we do. People of color, women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups have been excluded from enjoying the full benefits of public space for too long, and it is time for us to use every tool at our disposal to correct this injustice.

Photo credit: University City District