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What Makes a Great Public Space?

by Kevin F. on April 7, 2014

Have you ever been somewhere and noticed one of those great public spaces that grabs your attention and just draws you in?  Maybe it’s a small urban park, a plaza, possibly a fountain, or a water feature.  It could be almost anything but it is usually full of life, buzzing with people, and seems to be the place everybody wants to be.  As designers, we all strive to create those kinds of spaces, but far too often we come up short in our designs.  So, what is it that makes those spaces great?
When I was in architecture school in the 1990s the go to video on this subject was William Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”.  Those of you studying landscape architecture around that time know what I’m talking about.  This video was made in the 1970s; and the fascinating thing is that many of the principles discussed in that video, still hold true 40 years later.  While things like technology, design trends, materials, and culture change, some of the most basic things that affect people’s desire to be in a place never change.  That is why many of Whyte’s principles still hold true today.  A closer look at some of his thoughts reveal the following about public space design.
Some of the things that Whyte discusses as elements that draw people in to public spaces include the following:
  • Sittable Spaces- for a space to be successful, there has to be a selection of places to sit.  One of the biggest things that Whyte discovered was that the freedom to choose where and how to sit were more important than the aesthetics or comfort of the seating provided.
  • Movable Chairs and Tables – This goes along with the previous point, but people want to have the option to move around.  On cool days you may want to be in the sun, on hot days, the shade may be preferable.  It was also realized that people generally do not like to feel exposed or in wide open spaces.  So the ability to choose your seating area, or change it, was critical.
  • Ledges and Steps – These elements provide another opportunity for seating, but more importantly they provide a level of “implied separation”.  People do not like to sit in large areas where they feel exposed or watched.  These elements help to break up spaces and make them feel more intimate.
  • Interaction with the Street – One of the things that Whyte found was that some of the most successful spaces were the ones that interacted with the street.  The spaces that draw you in and extend into the sidewalk are more desirable.  For example, where a row of trees or a specialized pavement extends out of the plaza and into the sidewalk.  According to Whyte, it should be difficult to tell where the plaza ends and the street area begins.
  • Water – People are attracted to water.  Spaces with water are generally more popular.  It’s not just the look of the water; it’s the sound, the texture, the ability to touch and interact with it.
  • Sun, Wind, and Trees – These are other aesthetic features that make people feel good; and they enjoy being around.  The trees also help to break up spaces and create some of the “implied separation” that people look for.
  • Unique Characteristics – Things like street performers, musicians, public art and sculpture all add character to a space.
  • Food – The draw of food, especially when coupled with seating, is a big draw as well.  Any café-like experience is a big draw for visitors.
While the technology has changed over time, and things like WiFi or outlets to plug in laptops would all be major considerations now in public spaces.  For the most part, Whyte’s principles still apply and the concepts of good space design have not changed over the past 40 years.  I think too, often as designers, we focus on the visual aspects of the space or the materials; and we lose focus on the users or how the space will be used.  We try to design the perfect aesthetic space and spend all of our time thinking about what materials we’ll use or what type of benches look the best with our design.  Sometimes the best designs come when we put our own biases and egos aside and focus on the users of the space.