Want to Build a Community? Think Public Space.  

10 minute read

Publicly accessible space. The term doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Even if you shorten it to “public space,” it doesn’t strike most people as the most fascinating topic in the world. Hold back that yawn, however. There’s a whole world behind the creation of public spaces that transform it into a vital component of things we actually do: things like spending time with our favorite people (or, as the pros call it, community building).  

Lindsay Schwab, Director of Community Relations, Innovation Quarter

Community building is an important component of innovation districts like the Innovation Quarter. Some of the iQ’s public spaces have become iconic parts of Winston-Salem, and as the iQ continues the second phase of its development, it seemed like a good time to take a minute to look at this surprisingly integral aspect of the iQ.  

Jason Kaplan, Associate Vice President, Innovation Quarter

To help decode the intentionality behind public space in the iQ, Jason Kaplan and Lindsey Schwab lifted the curtain on planning for them. Kaplan, who is associate vice president of innovation districts with the iQ, is helping to lead the development of Phase II, and Schwab, director of community relations for the iQ, is responsible for placemaking and activation that includes the public spaces across the innovation district. 

To understand the role that public space plays and the value it brings to this community in particular, we first need to answer a couple questions about publicly accessible space. 

Part 1: What Are Publicly Accessible Spaces? 

When we talk about public spaces, what exactly does that include? You probably have a few ideas of public spaces you use, but the range of them might surprise you. To get a good handle on what public spaces are, we’re going to take you on a little vocabulary lesson. 

There’s a concept called “third place,” which encompasses the places that we spend time that are not home or work, but somewhere people spend their time. These places include everything from gyms to churches to parks, or anywhere that can be considered a “hangout spot.”  Even virtual gatherings can be considered third spaces. What they have in common is their role as community builders.  

“Third places are these spots in between the other places we spend our time and they’re all about connectivity and convening,” Jason Kaplan says.  

“Third places are really your space to bring in the community,” Lindsey Schwab adds. “That’s what these public spaces provide. They are spaces that are open to everyone and encourage  the community to engage in an innovation district in a way that they might not otherwise.” 

As you may have gathered, the iQ already has some of these third places, like Bailey Park and the Long Branch Trail, but there are many other places that fall into these categories that you might not think of.  

Gathering places can include atriums and other indoor sitting areas available to the public, as well as places like the Coal Pit behind Bailey Power Plant. Despite being a massive open-air area made of concrete, the Coal Pit has become one of the most popular gathering spaces in the iQ.  

It’s amazing what a few strategically-placed chairs can do for turning a bit of unused space into a place for people to mingle. 

But the key here is strategy. These third places don’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of intention that goes into planning for community building, something called “placemaking.”  

Part 2: How does the iQ create and use publicly accessible space? 

The concept of placemaking has been around for a while and generally refers to the idea that physical spaces can be designed and then used to create community, which strengthens ties between people and a particular place. The results of placemaking are inviting public spaces and vibrant communities, and come out of an intentional, collaborative process.  

When places like the Innovation Quarter are developed, decisions have to be made at the beginning of the process to ensure that public spaces are prioritized and carved out of the developable space.  

“When you embrace placemaking, you’re not going to develop every square inch of space into leasable space. You prioritize open space, green space, and trails by leaving spots open for them,” Jason Kaplan explains. “When planning, you have to fight for those places to be of equal importance, because it doesn’t bring the direct economic value of other kinds of redevelopment, like new construction, but it does offer value of other kinds.”  

From the beginning, the iQ was going to be a mixed-use development that included those public spaces. It wasn’t meant to be just another research park focused on utility, so priorities were placed on developing buildings for a variety of tenants and seeking out those spaces and places where community building could happen.  

“If you have the mindset that a project will be a mixed use development, you’re looking for opportunities to engage and support the larger community and to connect people,” Schwab says.   

“The public spaces in the iQ serve to stitch together the fabric of an innovation district in a meaningful way,” Schwab adds.  

So what has placemaking looked like in the iQ? One of the best ways to demonstrate how placemaking works is by looking at some of the places that have been made to date: 

Bailey Park 

Bailey Park was the result of the intentional development that Kaplan referred to. Its central location made it a prime spot for a building, but instead it was earmarked for a park. Now, when people think of public spaces in the iQ, Bailey Park is what comes to mind. The park has been used for programs and events of all kinds: food trucks, festivals, 5Ks, concerts, yoga, movies, and more. Those are the things people usually think of, but all of Bailey Park has been intentionally designed to have spots that the community can use for their own activities–games of frisbee, coffee dates, even photo shoots.  

“I’m always struck by the different types of activities and groups that are using that space on a nice day,” Schwab said. “It’s really a space for everyone.”  

The Coal Pit  

One of the tenets of placemaking is giving the community ownership of spaces, and nowhere is that more on display than in the Coal Pit behind Bailey Power Plant. The popular outdoor space is a great place to grab a beer and a bite to eat, and it’s become a popular spot for families, informal gatherings, and events. It has become a type of living room for the community. Yes, people gather for a drink after work, but they also use the space for birthday parties, reunions, or entertaining out-of-town guests. These gatherings aren’t organized by the iQ; instead, they happen spontaneously. 

“To me, the Coal Pit has been a really surprising space in the iQ,” Schwab says. “It’s lightly programmed, yet the enclosed space of this unique, historical environment brings together folks from all over the community who have made it their own. It’s always a popular destination.” 

Public Spaces for Everyone

Long Branch Trail 

The Long Branch Trail brings together other aspects of placemaking: wellness and connectivity. Providing for a community means giving them places where they can incorporate important aspects of their lives, like wellness. The Long Branch Trail provides a place for runners, walkers, and bikers within the district and from across the community. In addition to the function of the space, it was intentionally designed to create connection across the city by providing the downtown convenient access to the larger system of city greenways and literally paving the way into the next phase of the iQ by creating safe walkways between current and future development  

“It might sound kind of silly, but the Innovation Quarter is a favorite place for many dog walkers, and the Long Branch Trail is a big part of that,” Kaplan says. “Placemaking is about hearing what the community wants, and one of the things that the community wants is a place to walk dogs!” 

Part 3: What’s to Come for Public Spaces in the iQ? 

Earlier this year, it was announced that infrastructure development of Phase II of the Innovation Quarter was underway. For Kaplan and Schwab, along with the rest of the players in the development process, this was another chance to exercise their placemaking muscles and think about what public spaces could look like in the new phase.  

“What we learned from the initial development of the Innovation Quarter is that we want to compliment what we’ve already done, not duplicate it,” Kaplan says. “In Phase II we’re thinking about what’s not present in the iQ currently.” 

new public space in Phase II iQ

As the development of Phase II continues, what those public spaces will be is still to be determined to some extent (though Kaplan is personally wishing for pickleball courts). There are a few known spaces, like Fogle Commons, a linear park between new buildings that will serve as a central gathering spot for hosting events like performances and tenant gatherings, alongside more informal recreation. 

The buildings on either side of Fogle Commons will be mixed-use and include shops and restaurants, so this public space will bring that concept of porosity that has made the Coal Pit so successful. People will have a reason to be in the space, rather than simply using it as a passageway to their next appointment.  

One thing that will be expanded from Phase I is the Long Branch Trail, which will continue to be a connection corridor within the iQ and to the surrounding communities. Phase II will add a half-mile to the trail, and feature connection points to East Winston.

“​​We’ve been really intentional about the connection of the Long Branch Trail to the Third Street Bridge and to East Winston, making a meaningful connection from a design perspective to create a more welcoming entrance from all directions into the Innovation Quarter,” Schwab says.   

When thinking about the importance of the current and future public spaces to the iQ, it can be helpful to think about what would be missing if these spaces didn’t exist.  

“Without our public spaces, I think this area would lack the life and the spirit of play that is now inherent in the Innovation Quarter,” Schwab says. “Having space for people to want to hang out after work or enjoy with their families on the weekends, that’s what makes it feel like a neighborhood, a community.”   

public space for families

Kaplan agrees. “I really think these places add to the character and soul of the iQ and really sets it apart from other research parks. It’s the connections people make that give them pride in their community and in their place in it.” 

To learn more about placemaking in the iQ and the development of Phase II, visit the iQ website.