Enhancing Public Space Accessibility and Inclusivity in Residential Neighbourhoods: A Methodological Framework and Pilot Application
This paper thus adopts a dual parallel approach: spatial analysis, through the construction of a GIS database, and collection of citizens’ perceptions, through a public survey, to implement punctual regeneration interventions at different scales in the public open space. The sustainable parameters adopted to improve the inclusivity, safety, resilience and sustainability of cities were tested in Parma, a city in Northern Italy.
The main contribution of this research resides in its ability to provide an integrated methodology that combines established theoretical approaches with innovative tools for urban analysis and intervention. The innovation of this study consists in the way it combined established urban planning concepts with more recent methodologies. This integration allowed not only to identify priority sites of intervention and design solutions for urban development, but also to assess the ecological impact of proposed interventions. Given the extensive existing literature, our aim is to fill this gap by devising an implementation approach.
The public space transformation should bring back to the community attractive social spaces, previously characterised by a sense of insecurity and discomfort, so that everyone can benefit from them. To this purpose, the methodological approach also leads to the identification of factors that contribute to urban insecurity, starting from an analysis of how the city is planned, designed and built.
2. Materials and Methods
References, methodologies and diagrams played a key role in defining a logical and coherent methodology. In the analytical phase, the following references were employed.
Equally significant was the adoption of the Sankey diagram as a visual and conceptual connection tool as it allowed for a clear representation of the relationships between intervention themes and potential design solutions within the abacus.
2.1. Definition of a GIS Database
The implementation of a GIS database aims to map and spatially analyse all of the main urban components and systems, e.g., mobility, built-up space and open space, morphological, functional and environmental aspects. A comprehensive data model was designed for the urban area studied, to systematise a large amount of information obtained from diverse sources.
The database was populated by acquiring an initial base map from the Spatial Information System of the Municipality of Parma and the Geoplatform of the Emilia–Romagna Region. This base was integrated, through cross-referencing, with the urban data information from previous analyses conducted by the research team. Finally, the informative layers were updated through the photointerpretation of recent satellite images, supported by in-field surveys and photographic documentation.
2.2. Preparation of a Public Survey Form
A customised public survey “Public spaces and mobility in the San Leonardo district of Parma” was prepared to collect citizens’ perceptions and opinions on the quality of public spaces, mobility and accessibility. The questions were not compulsory to answer and can be completed by anyone in terms of gender, age and employment status.
The survey includes 21 questions specifically addressed to the resident population and 20 specifically addressed to non-residents and is structured in 8 thematic sections:
Section 1 requests generalities: age, profession and place of residence;
Sections 2 and 3 investigate the most frequented areas in the neighbourhood (both for residents and non-residents);
Sections 4 and 5 analyse mobility issues: most frequently used means of transport, frequency of use of public transport and sustainable means such as cycling (both for residents and non-residents);
Sections 6 and 7 evaluate public spaces, economic activities and public facilities and services: perception of road infrastructure, parking, lighting, green areas and children’s spaces, noise and air pollution, cleaning, stores and activities, schools, offices, health facilities, cultural facilities, facilities for the elderly, sports centres and preferences for redevelopment of public spaces and activities;
Section 8 gathers suggestions for possible future interventions with the aim of improving citizens’ well-being in the interest of the community through an open question.
Thanks to the collaboration with Manifesto San Leonardo, an active local group dedicated to preserving and enhancing the neighbourhood, which had previously submitted surveys to citizens, the questionnaire was distributed within the local community.
2.3. Setting Criteria to Identify Priority Nodes and Axes for Intervention
Axes are identified as spaces of circulation for the daily mobility practices of citizens, and represent primary connections between nodes. Besides fulfilling this role, they also occasionally act as commercial attractors due to the presence of economic activities, fostering social interaction opportunities.
2.4. Definition of Key Topics to Frame Potential Planning Solutions
The ‘accessibility’ and the ‘implementation of sociality’ recur particularly in several nodes and axes. The improvement of both accessibility and the creation of multicultural spaces concerns public open spaces but also to street areas, which are often used as a social areas rather than simply as moving spaces.
Urban regeneration and tactical urbanism offer effective solutions to the challenges identified. Therefore, the aim is to incorporate some intervention strategies from tactical urbanism to implement them as an integral part of urban regeneration interventions.
However, a radical intervention that envisages a permanent physical transformation of public space may not be the preferred solution of public administrations, firstly, because of the costs implicated, and secondly, because this kind of radical practice has been demonstrated to often cause a first-impact negative response from citizens.
The pedestrianisation or semi-pedestrianisation of squares and streets: this involves the closure of private vehicular traffic in certain areas, allowing the passage only to pedestrians, cyclists and, sometimes, public transport or authorised vehicles. It has several benefits for the community because it creates safer, sustainable and more pleasant spaces for citizens, promoting sociality, active mobility and reducing air pollution [38,50];
School streets and playstreets: like the previous case, they are obtained through the restriction of motorised traffic at certain periods of time, creating a safer, more pleasant and learning-friendly space for students and can be customised to the specific needs of the school and the surrounding community ;
Pocket parks: small green spaces that play a vital role in improving the quality of life of residents and contribute to a more sustainable and lively urban landscape ;
Parklets: spaces reclaimed from street parking, either temporary or permanent. Their design and implementation often involve the participation of the local community to ensure that they meet the needs and preferences of residents. Their installation may require authorisation from local authorities, as they involve the conversion of one or more public parking spaces .
In this context, the question is whether it is possible to regenerate a neighbourhood starting with temporary interventions involving public spaces. To do this, the goal is the identification of mechanisms and criteria that define prioritisation of intervention.
3. Results of the Analysis
3.1. Case Study: San Leonardo District in Parma (Italy)
This area is characterised by a largely residential fabric, but with well-defined productive character due to its origin. In fact, it arose soon after the development of the train station and the first railway line (mid-19th century), indicating its favourability for the establishment of new industrial activities. However, the completion of the railway lines also created a kind of barrier separating it from the city centre, resulting in discontinuity.
During the last ten years, a considerable morphological and identity transformation has occurred. The dismantling or demolition of old production sites produced few large brownfields and numerous small vacant lots scattered throughout. These voids left in the continuous residential fabric have produced a progressive degradation of the built environment, affecting the connected public space and disfiguring the image of the neighbourhood. The lack of control over urban space, caused by the widespread divestment of businesses and abandonment of urban areas, has also led to an increase in micro-crime phenomena over time. At the same time, the progressive obsolescence of the residential building stock, mostly built between the 1940s and 1970s (or earlier), has caused a process of filtering down, favouring the settlement of a share of the less affluent and immigrant population. This scenario has generated a climate of uncertainty and an increase in the perception of social insecurity, which is reflected in the degree of dissatisfaction of the still settled historical local community that nevertheless demonstrates considerable rootedness and attachment to the neighbourhood’s public spaces.
3.2. Results of the Spatial Analysis with GIS
Numerous analyses, conducted within a GIS environment, enabled the development of the subsequent research phases. These include the study of the road and mobility system, land use and the associated property and accessibility.
Some analytical processing carried out using the QGIS 3.28.4 software is shown below.
In addition, this software also provided an in-depth study of issues such as access, types and opening hours of economic activities and facilities, soil permeability, urban greenery and heat islands.
It can also be observed that there is a good concentration of economic activities and facilities, particularly along four main roads across the neighbourhood.
3.3. Public Survey Results
A total of 192 citizens participated in the public survey, delivered from 18 May 2023 to 24 July 2023. The varying number of responses for each question was due to their non-mandatory nature. The questionnaire enriched the vision of the neighbourhood with new insights and considerations from the residents first hand, making it possible to clearly identify areas with the highest potential of transformation for regeneration interventions.
Most of the participants (75.9%) are residents in San Leonardo neighbourhood (which means a total of 0.7% of the neighbourhood residents), while the remaining part frequents the neighbourhood for work or other activities. The questionnaire did not make any distinction in terms of age or employment field, and therefore a wide variety of responses were received from students, employees, freelancers and retirees.
The public survey highlighted aspects such as the most interesting sites for the citizens. Furthermore, the most congested times for work, sports or leisure activities are from 16:00 h to 19:00 h.
The crucial issues that emerged from the questionnaire include poor surveillance, resulting in micro-crime, the presence of architectural barriers, neglected public places, poor hygiene and insufficient children’s playgrounds. This increases the sense of insecurity.
Most people visit public spaces six or seven days a week for work or because they live nearby, but few visit the area for other reasons.
Most people move around the neighbourhood on foot or by bicycle daily (62.0%), but a greater extension of bicycle lanes and their regular maintenance can improve travel and encourage more people to cycle because almost all destinations can be reached within 15 minutes. Public transportation is underutilised due to inefficient routes.
The participants highlighted the main former industrial site as an area requiring regeneration and requalification, suggesting the implementation of services such as libraries, parks and a sports centre. They might also appreciate a cultural centre, a theatre and a cinema. This suggests a need for cultural aggregation activities. Other suggestions include measures to improve safety and hygiene, an increase in green spaces equipped for children, elderly and people with disabilities, and a better connection between the neighbourhood and the city centre.
3.4. Selection of Priority Nodes and Axes
The public spaces selected as preferred by the questionnaire results are located in nodes N1, N4 and N7.
To connect the ten nodes, ten axes were evaluated, classifying them by type according to their intrinsic characteristics. Regarding the choice of axes, citizens expressed a preference for axes A3 (Via Milano), A5 (Via San Leonardo), A6 (Via Trento) and A8 (Via Venezia) through the questionnaire. This facilitated the selection process.
The selection of the other axes, i.e., the connecting axes, is linked to the mainly private road mobility system, the permitted speed limits (almost always above 30 km/h) and the amount of traffic they support. The connecting axes found include A1 (Viale Europa); A2, i.e., the connecting axis formed by Via Ravenna and its continuation Via Camillo Prampolini; A3 (Via Milano); A4 (Via Cagliari); A7, identified with Via Paradigna; and finally A9 (Via Palermo). The presence of businesses is not the fundamental prerogative of these routes, which, rather, have only sparse economic activities.
3.5. Identification of Planning Strategies and Solutions
As a result, it emerged that green connections are scarce, affecting the psychophysical well-being of road users, so that vegetation can be implemented along all axes. Additionally, accessibility to public transport should be increased on longer streets, where the walking distance exceed ten minutes.
The planning strategy shows that the range of themes from N1 to N10 is remarkably diverse. However, the essential challenges are mostly related to the transformation and use of public space, as it is considered underused or degraded, and the vocations are very often socially oriented. In N1 and N8, issues and vocations are interconnected as both related to sociality.
In general, transformation and use of public space and the implementation of sociality are the most frequently occurring themes, while intervention involving new functions and the transformation and use of the built environment are localised.
The variety of potential solutions highlights the difficulty of the process but positively contributes to the richness and feasibility of the planning strategy.
Two possibilities were considered: a permanent type of intervention, e.g., the drastic reduction of roadside parking, which is difficult and problematic, and a tactical urbanism type of intervention. The latter is preferable, temporary, lower-cost, removable and aligns with the majority of selected planning solutions for nodes and axes.
Urban regeneration and tactical urban planning interventions contribute to the growth of the multicultural identity of the neighbourhood. This occurs through participatory planning and design, improving public and built space.
The issue of accessibility can be solved through the inclusion of bus stops, the reduction of parking lots, the pedestrianisation of streets and squares, shared mobility services and environmental aspects through paving and greening.
Subsequently, the suitability of the site-specific methodology was verified by determining to which nodes and axes the abacus design solutions were applicable.
The study revealed that nodes N1, N2, N4, N7, N10 and axes A3, A4, A8, A9 show a plurality of feasible design solutions for each theme. Particularly, those related to accessibility and sociality are by far predominant.
4. Discussion of the Results
The section discusses the results by interpreting which of the ten nodes and ten axes were most urgent based on findings investigated through the academic study and the questionnaire.
Analytical studies, on the other hand, showed that node N1 is the most representative of the neighbourhood because it offers a multitude of diverse economic activities, facilities and public spaces.
In addition, a strong relationship between node N1 and axis A3 should be noted. In fact, axis A3 of Via Milano is directly connected to node N1 as it is the tangent route that provide access to the public facilities and urban park of the node. Moreover, it allows connection of squares, economic activities and facilities of public interest arranged along its length.
Therefore, among the identified nodes and axes, the selected cases include node N1 and axis A3, which provide an example of intervention form.
The form is articulated in two parts: 1) summary of the analyses and assessment of the site’s current state and potential transformation, 2) scheme of the planned interventions.
4.1. Node N1 Intervention Form
Possible actions and design solutions of the abacus include:
Increase the accessibility to the Parco dei Vetrai enhancing the existing access to the east (on Via Milano), e.g., enlarging the pedestrian path, marking it with vertical signage, highlighting the paving, introducing elements of street furniture and considering the path as an integral part of the park itself through the addition of hybrid gardens, hedges or rain gardens. Moreover, creating suitable conditions to add new access points, e.g., by providing a new cycle and pedestrian path along the high-traffic road to the west (Viale Europa) achievable by converting the roadside verge and rightsizing car lanes that are currently too large; trees and shrubs might also be appropriate to provide shade and reducing environmental and noise pollution.
Improve and make safer the connection between the church (Chiesa San Bernardo) and an urban park (Parco dei Vetrai) by reducing the speed on Via Ravenna through the introduction of chicanes, appropriate signage and by adding green traffic islands.
Qualify the other urban park of the node (Parco Nord) as an intermodal hub, through the inclusion of recharging stations for electric vehicles and a bike-sharing station. To transform it into an attractive node for leisure and recreation, it is necessary to integrate elements of street furniture such as benches and tables, with power sockets, trees, drinking fountains, children’s playgrounds and bicycle racks.
Facilitate the access to the comprehensive institute Micheli which is not safe enough.
4.2. Axis A3 Intervention Form
Expand the footpath which is sometimes absent or not wide enough (for example by reducing roadside parking spaces);
Add a bicycle lane by removing parking spaces on one side of the road. Perhaps the solution of semi-pedestrianisation of the street is preferable. This potential includes the establishment of a playstreet/school street (also given the proximity to the Micheli school) in which only bicycles and public transport means are allowed. The temporary pedestrianisation can also have a social purpose by providing a safe environment for children to play and adults to interact and socialise;
Include services to support slow mobility such as bike racks and bike-sharing stations; furthermore, intramodality can be improved in the proximity of public transport stops, e.g., near Parco Nord, including bike-sharing stations or electric charging stations;
Reduce car speed through speed humps and other traffic-calming devices to increase safety for pedestrians;
Make public transport stops more accessible through wheelchair ramps/pedestrian walkways, horizontal, vertical, acoustic and tactile signage, shelters with seating and rest areas, and boarding/landing areas.
This detailed study of a node and an axis is useful to validate the procedure for selecting priority sites, key themes and possible strategic planning solutions for public space redevelopment or enhancement. The definition of detailed design solutions in the abacus necessarily descends from site-specific characters and relations with the urban environment. However, the methodology endeavours, through technical and interpretative analysis developed on a neighbourhood scale, to recognise the public space backbone with specific vocations and criticalities for its nodes and axes, and to prefigure intervention key themes for enhancing accessibility and a rich urban system of social and environmental relations.
This “a priori” recognition simplifies the intervention planning phase in two manners: on the one hand, by allowing the definition of priority sites within the public space network; on the other hand, by helping to select design solutions from the options presented in the abacus, based on delimited key themes.
Moreover, it is validated and better specified through the detailed intervention form. In particular, the form section on the current state verifies criticalities and transformation potentialities of the node/axis; it also checks the node/axis perimeter and the possibility to include or exclude conterminous urban spaces. Meanwhile, the form section with the proposal identifies a series of interventions useful for planning/programming future public works, starting from the previously selected key themes.
The foreseen public interventions may have either a durable nature or even temporary nature to allow a testing phase of the citizens’ response. In this second case, intervention forms can also be useful material for public administrations to support a participatory or co-design process together with local communities.
The paper presented a methodology applied to the case study of the San Leonardo neighbourhood in Parma, identifying priority nodes and axes to be upgraded for improving the accessibility and inclusivity of public space. The proposed approach provides the integration of different levels of investigation aimed at identifying priority areas for intervention within the public space network. The methodological framework consists of four steps and leads to the definition of vocation and criticalities of priority nodes and axes, selecting key themes that guide the planning strategy through the identification of suitable actions for the social and environmental regeneration of places. The suitability of the resulting intervention strategy is then verified by investigating two sites, a node and an axis, and planning possible site-specific design solutions.
The study methodology investigates public space through the innovation of traditional analytical approaches (expert and technical knowledge) with public engagement techniques to collect the instances of local communities. This collaboration between the two competences is a positive thing because it facilitates dialogue between two very distant worlds, such as GIS and social life.
The technical interpretation of the questionnaire permits a sociological analysis of the neighbourhood that provides a better understanding of the meaning of productive and multicultural identity. Indeed, the perceptual sphere of users allows urban planners to better identify priority areas for intervention. This encourages the search for nodes and axes that provide quality space for citizens to gather and socialise, enabling them to determine, through the technique of urban expertise, how to intervene in these sites.
Selection criteria guide the choice towards the identification of several potential intervention sites (crucial places for neighbourhood life, aggregation nodes and most critical/vulnerable places), themes and abacus of design solutions. The intervention strategy highlighted in the paper aims primarily at improving accessibility for all by reducing the impact of cars within the public space and enhancing the neighbourhood’s economic activities and public facilities which can provide a natural control over the urban space, especially if characterised by disuse, degradation and consequently by a perception of low security. One suggested way of implementating experimental design solutions is with a temporary approach, e.g., using tactical urbanism. This approach allows public administrations to involve local communities in a participatory transformative and regenerative process and to have an interpretative tool to select the initial sites in need of urban regeneration or tactical urbanism interventions.
The methodology was only applied to the San Leonardo case study to verify the methodology potentialities and limits, and it was found to be useful and adaptable (site-specific) for this case. To assess the positivity of the research, therefore, a follow-up with other districts should be carried out. This first application approach permits identifying future work perspectives and other case studies. In fact, it can be adopted by urban plans or public policies of medium-sized cities for the construction of strategies to improve urban accessibility and inclusivity.
The research makes it possible to choose on which areas to concentrate efforts, both economically and regeneratively, to achieve a strategic intervention not only for an individual neighbourhood, but for an entire city.
The paper can be considered innovative in its integrated approach to urban planning, in paying specific attention to local needs and in adopting more flexible and participatory solutions.
The methodology approach is discerning and inherently upscaling-oriented; indeed, it can be easily replicated in contexts of suburbs adjacent to historic centres in both medium and large cities. Conversely, it presents some limitations: in fact, it is challenging to adapt in Italian contexts such as historic centres, rural areas and small cities due to their frequent inaccessibility and unsuitability for urban transformations.
Another limitation of the methodology may relate to the scale used. Although it seems appropriate to develop the methodological framework at the neighbourhood scale, its possible use in urban planning instruments may require an upscaling to the entire urban area. This extension can complicate some steps, such as the construction of the GIS database, but also the public consultation phase by means of a questionnaire.
In this sense, the question can also be raised as to whether the methodology designed for a medium-sized city can be transferred to larger cities or metropolitan areas. There might be several issues to consider in this upscale phase, including revising the criteria for selecting nodes, imagining considering only polarities with higher-level facilities, but also techniques for public engagement and bottom-up involvement.
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