It's one thing for a city to possess or create public spaces. It's an altogether different thing to get people to use them.
To advance the cause of populating existing and potential public spaces with people who crave being there, a new study received partial funding Monday from the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission.
A “Public Space, Public Life” study focusing on downtown and the riverfront area will be conducted this fall and next spring by the Gehl Institute. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, with offices in New York and San Francisco, the institute focuses on how people interact with urban environments, according to P.J. Thuringer, the city's redevelopment manager.
The Redevelopment Commission voted 3-1 to spend $20,000 for the $240,000 study. Another $20,000 will come from the budget of the city-county planning department, while $200,000 will be from a partnership between the Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne.
City Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, voted against the expenditure. Commission members Christopher Guerin, Mark Becker and Thom Obergfell voted in favor. Members Steve Corona and Win Moses were absent. Arp could not be reached by telephone after the meeting to discuss his vote.
According to Thuringer, Gehl will observe and record life in the study area, which generally extends from the north shoreline of the St. Marys River to Nelson Street on the west, Brackenridge Street on the south and Monroe Street to the east. Those boundaries might be altered somewhat, he said.
That means identifying public spaces and places where people gather and asking questions of people there, including what they are doing there, whether they feel safe and comfortable, whether the space is walkable, whether they want to linger or simply pass through or are engaging in commercial activity, he said. Demographics will also be measured.
“We have so many projects that are in the works in and near downtown,” he said. “This will help us further understand what spaces we can either create or enhance that will help make our downtown even more vibrant.”
Vibrancy increases the likelihood for successful downtown businesses and further investment, Thuringer said.
Gehl visited Fort Wayne in September 2016 to give presentations to community groups and led a tour to Lexington, Kentucky, attended by Thuringer last year, he said.
Having people from Gehl in the community would also offer training opportunities for city staff members to take on similar surveys in other parts of the city, said Nancy Townsend, executive director of redevelopment.
The company has done work in 50 countries and 250 cities, according to its website. The company helped New York City several years ago in deciding to close Times Square to automobile traffic, Thuringer said.