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publication February 11, 2020

The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces


Aerial view of Bahadur Shah Park in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Fariduzzaman Zabir; further permission required for reuse)

Photo: Fariduzzaman Zabir


  • Many cities around the world are missing out on significant development opportunities by ignoring, under leveraging or mismanaging public-space assets.
  • There is enormous opportunity for smarter use of public spaces, and to unlock the “hidden” value they create for communities, neighborhoods, and cities.
  • “The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces” identifies a rich palette of creative and innovative strategies that every city can undertake to plan, finance, and manage both government-owned and privately-owned public spaces.

[Click here to download a PDF version of the publication]

—ranging from city streets, neighborhood squares, parks to public facilities such as libraries and markets.

Despite this significance, the potential of public-space assets—typically owned and managed by local governments—to transform cities and improve urban life is often overlooked for many reasons: poor and ad hoc urban planning, financial constraints, and other pressing priorities arising from rapid urbanization. The resulting degradation of public spaces into congested, vehicle-dominated, and polluted places often becomes a liability, creating a downward spiral that drains public resources and exacerbating various city problems.

In contrast, They leverage public-space assets to create value for the surrounding area, supporting livelihoods and promoting local businesses; and spur urban revitalization and innovation, further attracting firms and talent. These cities are also able to reap the economic benefits of well-conceived public spaces.

Successful public spaces also add to a city’s quality of life by improving city walkability, public safety, social inclusion, neighborhood vibrancy, urban health, and citizen well-being.

They should also implement smart and sustainable strategies across their public-space asset life cycles to yield returns on investment far exceeding monetary costs, and ultimately enhancing city livability, resilience, and competitiveness.

These strategies encompass three broad areas of focus:

  • Stakeholders and partnerships: The creation of public spaces for and with communities and their well-being, and recognizing the need for strong partnerships between government entities, private sector actors, and citizens.
  • Policies, planning, and design: The adoption of effective planning policies, placemaking approaches, and creative design solutions to achieve equitable spatial distribution, inclusion, and access to a network of good-quality public spaces across the city.
  • Management, governance, and finance: The implementation of sustainable financial and management models across the entire public-space asset life cycle–from its initial creation, implementation, and maintenance and to its renewal.

The global city case studies contained in the publication reveal five key lessons and attributes:

  1. Actors and stakeholders: Successful public spaces are often a result of multi-actor collaboration and not the sole responsibility of municipalities who often face resource constraints.
  2. Strategy and approach: The creation and implementation of public spaces can take on several forms from an extensive menu of approaches, each focused on a different combination of actors, scales, and required resources.
  3. Data and planning process: Successful public space strategies require an evidence-based approach to ensure they are equitably distributed, are of good quality, well maintained, and respond to the needs of communities. Increasingly, cities are finding innovative methods and through technology to collect and utilize data to enable more effective planning, design, and management.
  4. Financing and funding: In many cities, governments are becoming less likely to be sole funders and implementers, given the clear trend of public spaces becoming joint undertakings between government, the private sector, and the community. Effective financing and planning instruments also enable governments to deliver public spaces through the private sector.
  5. Management and governance: Cities do much better when they consider the sustainable management of the entire life cycle of public spaces. Good governance elements built into the life cycle include a sound regulatory environment, a cost-effective ownership structure, and sustainable management, and oversight arrangements.

Download the publication to read the case studies and learn how city leaders, policymakers, and urban practitioners can better plan, finance, and manage both government- and privately owned public spaces to achieve livable cities for all.

The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces received support from UN-Habitat, European Space Agency (Earth Observation for Sustainable Development initiative), Centre for Liveable Cities (Singapore), Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, and Korea Green Growth Trust Fund (KGGTF).