Read my Top 10
Public spaces come in different sizes, shapes and forms. Squares, parks, playgrounds, shopping and residential streets; all belong to the outdoor space. They can be found in inner cities and beyond. They can be both big and small. Despite this diversity, there are many factors that determine whether a public space attracts or rejects people. I have put together my Top 10 for the realization of an inviting, lively and attractive public space.
For a vibrant public space, it is important that there is an inviting design interlocking the buildings, the community space, and the users. This invitation is increased when the human dimension is considered: our senses are stimulated in narrow, compact streets where the facades of the buildings continually change in color, shape, function, height and detail. In attractive shopping streets, you pass 15 to 20 stores in 100 yards; you are surprised every five seconds with something new. The rule is that the facade of a store should not be longer than about 25 feet, or be changing every 25 feet.
Closed, passive walls with few doors, sealed off windows or deepened/hidden entrances creates a counterbalance effect. The goal is to bring the inside out.
You also need buildings around large squares for the so-called ‘edge effect’. People often use the buildings for protection and support in the back and it protects against rain, wind or sun. Additionally, the edges of a square offer a respite from a crowd, and great people watching!
A public space that is not easy to reach is already at a disadvantage. Therefore, it is important to ensure that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists can easily get there. Each type of public space has its own legalities and unspoken rules. For playgrounds, it is all about the walking distance from your point of arrival. For example, children up to 6 years have an action radius of about 100 yards. Over 12 years, the play facility may be further away (800-1000 yards). Other rules apply for the flow to a restaurant or shopping street. Here it is important that there is a parking, bicycle storage and public transport at a reasonable walking distance of up to 500 yards. The more alternatives the better.
In addition to the accessibility of the various modes of transportation, it is also important that a public space is easy found. Here you want to ensure that there are enough direct and logical routes to the destination. Marketplaces in older cities were always approachable from multiple sides.
Those different routes should also be passable. Busy motorways can provide an insulating effect. An extra pedestrian crossing or bridge can sometimes do miracles. Too many long-lasting traffic lights can prevent us from choosing a certain destination.
Finally, accessibility is also about the safe passage for people with physical disabilities. People with a walker or wheelchair must also be able to reach the spot easily. The same goes for parents with strollers and baby buggies.
The perception of comfort is subjective. Comfort is influenced by the things you see around you, by the diversity in colors, whether it’s clean, safe and secure and whether there is enough seating. Here it is about people feeling welcome. Questions that are relevant for this matter:
- Are you protected as a pedestrian and cyclist against unsafe situations, or is the focus on the car?
- Does the street have a pleasant, even surface and is the street free of obstacles?
- Is the sidewalk wide enough for crowds?
- Goldilocks, is the square not too big, and not too small?
- Is it possible to be yourself and feel included as part of a community?
- Are there enough places to protect yourself from wind, rain or heat? Are there any places in the sun?
- Is there not too much noise so you can have a normal conversation (a noise level of 60 decibels or below is optimum). Does the street seating support conversations?
- Is there excessive exhaust gases, stench or smog?
- Can you grab a drink nearby and go to the restroom?
- Is there free WIFI?
Monotonous and monofunctional places are less attractive than the place where you can do a lot of different things. A business park is often extinct after working hours. And on the street in a residential area it is quiet during office hours. Mixed use has a positive impact on the diversity of users and the times of the day and week in which the public space is used. Diversity can also be achieved by offering sufficient activities, and by using various materials and color in the facades and underground. The more diverse, the more interesting it becomes to visit. In addition, diversity means that a public space is not used by only one group.
Diversity can also be in small things. This is, for example, the starting point of the ‘triangle method’ of urban researcher William H. Whyte in which certain elements (telephone mobile, bench, bin) are placed close enough to allow people to converse. Where things are combined (playground, eatery, seating), meeting points are created.
Appearance does matter. Fully hardened squares are boring. Adding water elements or greenery (trees, plants, flowers, grass) gives a space a different atmosphere. Even more variation in color can be achieved with a brush and some paint. It’s cheap and it creates a totally different appearance. Examples are painted facades, stairs, gates, murals and street art.
With current techniques, color is also easy to add in public space by means of light. Many cities even hold light festivals to spot their facades and works of art. In Hong Kong, there is a light show every night.
With many of the principles mentioned in this blog, the solution does not resemble large-scale renovations of squares or parks (redevelopment). It is often a matter of small, temporary interventions that can already lead to a huge improvement (programming, management, maintenance). However, that does not mean that redevelopment can sometimes do much for a public space. Color often plays a major role!
- Pedestrian Friendly:
A public space can only flourish if the pedestrian is the starting point of the design, the facilities and the programming. In a car-free street for example you will see another dynamic (both in inner cities and residential streets): it creates space for front gardens (soft transition), terraces and children to play. More people are going to use these public spaces. Liveliness arises. People get the chance to meet other people.
That doesn’t mean that everything should be car-free, but slow traffic can create lively cities. It is about the right priority, with pedestrianism as part of the urban policy. For example, in the so-called shared spaces, roads are designed as living space so that they are not immediately interpreted as traffic spaces. The motorist is and feels like a guest. To achieve this, directional features such as traffic signs, traffic lights and sidewalks are absent as much as possible. Instead, riding obstacles such as bicycle racks, benches and flower boxes are placed. If it is not possible to create a shared space, the different traffic flows must be clearly separated, so that the safety of cyclist and pedestrians is guaranteed.
Pedestrian friendliness can also be increased by closing certain streets for ongoing traffic, expanding sidewalks, narrowing the motorway, placing additional pedestrian crossings, lowering the maximum speed, placing more trees and placing stop signs instead of traffic lights. Research shows that these measures will make drivers slow down, and be more cautious.
- Clean, Unbroken and Safe:
This speaks for itself. Detached paving, neglected parks, poorly maintained facades, street lights that are out of order, broken street furniture and contaminated squares are unattractive and will prevent people from visiting that public space.
- Clean: The extent to which a public space is clean can be affected by regularly cleaning litter, removing graffiti and placing sufficient trash cans. Research shows that green waste bins in public areas get 66% more waste than gray waste bins!
- Unbroken: For use intensity, it is important to repair loose tiles, broken lamps and worn out play equipment. In addition, public spaces are also a lot more attractive when trash cans, bicycle stands, benches, poles, tiles and street lights have an attractive design.
- Safe: It is also about social safety. Public spaces are a lot more pleasant (even in the evening) with the presence of clear sight lines (overview), enough light and enough “eyes on the street”. In other words, no blind facades or dark loading and unloading facilities, but buildings with sufficient visibility and interaction with the street.
This can be realized by actively combating shopping vacancy (possibly via pop-up stores). And by thinking about a good transition between the building and the street when new construction takes place.
In existing buildings, it is important that clad windows with advertising panels and fully closed steel shutters are avoided. They create a sense of insecurity, and a canvas for graffiti. Some municipalities have prohibited these shutters. Instead, semi-transparent shutters give a completely different feeling. Extended opening hours and houses above shops also have a positive impact on security feelings.
There are several ways to transform a place into a destination. That starts with the simple rule that there is something to do. Basics like sitting, eating, playing, walking, feeding animals, skating, biking, sunbathing, jogging, watching people, drinking, reading, working, etc..
In addition to these disorganized and individual forms of use, people go somewhere because there is an activity; something to experience. These collective forms of use can be of a structural nature, such as shops, restaurants, cafes, a toy rental, bowling, sports field, play and climbing attributes. Or it can be temporary activities: a skating rink in winter months, a weekly market, a fair, a festival (with for example food trucks) or a concert. Or more out-of-the-box: sports events (football, volleyball, car racing, an open-air cinema, a street dinner, a temporary beach or temporary water slides. They all get life on the streets. And that puts in place the most important rule: people attract other people.
These out of the box activities are often organized by creative individuals or entrepreneurs. For inviting public space, it is desirable that municipalities help facilitate such initiatives instead of controlling or banning them. For example, a municipality may prohibit barbecues in a public park due to a concern of fire and additional trash, or the municipality can choose to offer the appropriate support. The same applies for issuing a license for mobile outlets (such as food trucks & pop-up sidewalk vendors). When they are rejected by a municipality, the community may miss out on a richer public space experience.
In addition to activities and sporting events, public spaces often get extra appeal when there are ‘playing’ elements. Attributes that interact with people. This goes beyond the standard playing facilities we see in playgrounds. Interactive elements can also be realized for adults. Take for example large swings that make music or huge seesaws.
In addition, there are traditional board games that can be brought outside, such as chess, checkers and scrabble, or playing blocks, or musical instruments such as piano’s.
- Sitting and Standing:
Finally, a public space only works if there are enough opportunities to sit and stand. Imagine an empty square: plant a tree and put a bench underneath. A destination was born! The same goes for a bench on the street near your front door.
It’s not just about the number of seating possibilities, but also where they are located. Some people want to be in the sun, others in the shade. One prefers a quiet place to work or read, while another prefers interesting views. Research shows that benches with the opportunity to watch other people are the most used. This certainly applies to fathers and mothers who want to keep an eye on their child. Moveable seating is ideal for users of public spaces; this gives flexibility.
Lastly, people liked to be protected from wind, cold and rain. Portable outdoor heating devices, wind shields, blankets, awnings, canopies and large umbrellas will offer the various kinds of wanted protection. Natural elements such as trees, and hedges will play a role, as will the surrounding architecture.
Want to learn more? Contact us at JL Architects!
Kipp Happ, Project Manager