Who's In? Who's Out? And Who Answers Those Questions When Planning for Downtown?

by Carol D. Barrett, FAICP

Note: Advice on ethical issues is available from APA Executive Director Paul Farmer, AICP. Formal complaints of alleged ethical misconduct should be transmitted in writing to Mr. Farmer. Such complaints are held in strictest confidence pending investigation.

Social justice, a topic that should be of concern to planners because of our responsibility to serve the public interest, is sometimes pushed to the back burner when planners are charged with the task of planning for downtowns. I recently read a newspaper story about a Texas city with a population of more than a million that enjoys a thriving and growing downtown with new major multi-story residential and office complexes. The newspaper writer focused on new restaurants emerging from vacant storefronts. The neighborhood was clearly in transition, although it remained within easy walking distance of the city's premier center for homeless services and accommodations. The newspaper photographs were impressive. In addition to the new eateries, weedy open spaces had been replaced with gardens. The story of volunteer efforts and self-financed gardening of abandoned spaces was impressive. Somewhere toward the bottom of the story, it was briefly mentioned that the garden of riotous color previously had been a homeless encampment for seven people.

Where had the seven people gone? The downtown, where the homeless or underemployed often congregate, is not often conceived of as a battleground for social justice, but it can be if planners are not attentive to the fundamental matter of who gets to use the space. In a nation where private property rules predominate, the homeless, who have no private property and therefore no protection, often are threatened by efforts to improve the public realm — the only space that is theirs.


Planning for downtown development means helping to choose who will be regulated and what form those regulations will take, though that is rarely the primary motivation of communities. Our downtowns provide space for public life. If not the site of grand public discourse, it is a shared physical space. While residents live, work, and shop in different neighborhoods, the downtown is a shared physical reality with the shared right to use that space, irrespective of income.

Most downtown plans conceive of the public as homogeneous, compliant, and reasonable. Most of these plans also accept that the right to public space imposes on us the duty of appropriate public behaviors toward others in that space. Downtown plans are often accompanied by "quality of life" initiatives that seek to regulate street behavior, sleeping in public, and panhandling. Through these laws and other means, cities seek to use a seemingly stable, ordered urban landscape as a positive inducement to continued investment and to maintain the viability of current investment in core areas. But criminalizing sleeping in public does nothing to address such root causes as the lack of housing, structural unemployment, and the despair of addictions. The problem is much more profound than individual disorder.

Consider the list of those often "missing in action" when downtown development plans are formulated: street vendors (unless it's coffee or sushi that is being sold from a tastefully designed cart), street performers whose music and mime are presented for tips, protestors and other agitators/concerned citizens, picketers, panhandlers, and the homeless.


Begin with the Data

  • What kinds of spaces are in your downtown?
  • Who uses the space?
  • Who does not?
  • Who is welcome?
  • Who is not?

Once you have gathered the data (see table below) by observation or conversation with nighttime users and others who work with those populations, you are better able to answer the central question of how the needs of all current and potential users will be addressed in the process of planning for and allocating downtown spaces.

The table below identifies the purpose of public spaces. They are used mostly for specific activities — recreation, transportation — rather than for spontaneous social contact between strangers and dialogue among citizens. Our social relationships have moved indoors and occur within organized groups. Many downtown users have a simple requirement to be able to pass through — to be a stranger among strangers and to move safely.

Some downtown users make us feel uncomfortable. For example, the homeless create regions that make us question our safety. Teenagers have no obvious right to private spaces, so they congregate in public places. They choose spaces adults do not want, such as parking lots and other isolated areas. Their behavior, which constitutes loitering and rowdiness in the minds of some, also can affect one's comfort level.

The Public-Private Space Continuum in Downtowns

Type of Space

Who Owns?

Who Maintains?

Who is Welcome and Why?




Everyone with a mobility requirement is allowed access to the streets — cars, bicycles, buses, etc. Occasionally access may be limited for special events. Permits can be granted for parades and protests. Provided there are sidewalks, those without vehicles will find their use limited to crossing the street. Similar prohibitions apply to those whose mode of transportation is not "street legal," such as skate boards, mini motor bikes, etc.



Public or Public Improvement Districts

Public, but expected to be orderly and reasonable. Used for mobility, casual meetings, civic life, entertainment, people watching, etc. Includes homeless and restless teens who may be only tolerated.

Used for festivals, events, or other less well-accepted activities like drinking by transients, day stops for homeless, etc.

Sidewalks and open space around public buildings



Public in general. Sometimes food service businesses also are required to keep front area clean.

Sometimes licenses to use sidewalks for food service are granted and also carry requirements for maintenance.

Public Improvement Districts — Special assessments of private property to maintain public areas to higher standards of cleanliness.

Public, but expected to be orderly and reasonable. Used for mobility, casual meetings, civic life, entertainment, people watching, etc. Includes homeless and restless teens who may be only tolerated. Use may be impeded by newspaper machines, dining tables, tent signs, etc., all of which limit the public's use for mobility.

May entail closer regulation of acceptable behavior based on regulations being developed and enforced by the private sector.

Vacant land/
Abandoned buildings

Primarily private but could be public due to tax foreclosures.

Often not maintained.

Not designed to be used, but provide important spaces for hidden populations — homeless, transients, teens. Used for hanging out, camping, etc.

Private open space like plazas.

Property owners

Property owners, but there is often a public agreement on design, use, and maintenance standards.

Customers and the public,* provided the public's use does not impede use by customers. Used for resting, dining, people watching.

* The essential difference between a customer and the public is that customers are welcome because they have money to spend. The public is welcome irrespective of income.


After establishing a clearer picture of how your downtown is used, planners need to use inclusive vocabulary when describing who uses the downtown. The planner probably will need to find and include those in the community who serve the homeless, work with teenagers, or organize street performers. I'd like to suggest that these groups participate directly in the planning, but this may be difficult to achieve. The planner has few incentives to offer, and there is much distrust to overcome. People struggling with difficult issues of survival may not find an evening workshop with cookies a compelling reason to participate.

The programs, alternatives, and policies outlined in the plan should recognize the legitimacy of uses by all the residents, including panhandlers and the homeless. The police know where all of the downtown's varied users can be found: the culverts and overpasses where people sleep; the hangouts for teenagers or those with substance dependencies, the corners where panhandlers most effectively work the crowds. Draw on these resources as well as information from social service providers.

In crafting downtown plans, cities have co-funded resource centers for the homeless, built transitional housing, built skate parks for disaffected teenagers, and provided public spaces for street performers. The planner can assist in brokering compromises among users.

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