Places for People - The Art of Making Places

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

The art of making places - liveable public space

Text and illustrations except where stated © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2003

Ideas about design

Different professions, different approaches
Although the number of relevant research studies has greatly expanded, there remain many areas where the designer has to rely on common sense through a lack of research evidence. The continued need to mix research based evidence with common sense (the information derived from the design team's own past experience, the design literature and discussions with clients and potential users of given types of space) is because the designer has to operate in real time in real places, working on projects which have to be completed in given (and often short) time frames, when there is not always time to undertake original research.

As Greenbie (1976) showed, there is an almost inevitable but often unacknowledged communication difficulty between the researchers, planners and designers involved with the built environment and the making of places. It derives perhaps from the very different ways they use and regard information:

  • the researcher aims to provided information about people and situations which can be scientifically validated. In the end this is often seen by others as for knowledge's sake rather than to provide information of use in a particular design situation.
  • the planner uses information to develop theories which are used to make strategic decisions about given issues. Testing such theories happens over decades rather than in the relatively short timescales of the researchers and the even shorter ones of the designer. Yet what the designer can do is often limited by the planning process which results from these theories.
  • in contrast, the designer needs information 'now' which can be used to help make fixed decisions as to the shape and scale of buildings and spaces and how the spaces created by those decisions need to be laid out and furnished to support the needs of those who will use them.

Much research-based evidence relating to people's use of spaces and their needs when in public space is never used by practicing designers. In part this is because its relevance seems obscure to designers when they work under pressure of time and budgets and client's demands. There remains a real, often unrecognised, need for those from the social sciences to learn to communicate effectively with planners and designers and vice versa . The academic format of the journals which publish the social science findings can be a barrier. Many designers freqently just 'give up' when trying to work out what the social scientists' findings mean in relation to their design; it is almost easier as a designer just to worry about a scheme looking good by obeying a set of design rules drilled into designers during their education (and these are often baffling enough!).

It should also be acknowledged that there is a further issue about designers and how they operate which in effect slows down the application of the research findings: that is the manner in which so many designers are trained and how success as a designer is recognised within their profession. All too often what a building or place looks like, rather than how it works for the users, is taken by the design professions as the deciding factor in the success of a scheme. Perhaps this factor was one of the reasons that the post occupancy evaluation studies of UK housing, undertaken by environmental psychologists and others from the late 1960s onwards appear to have done so little to change the way housing was planned and built. In Britain at least there remains a clear need for researchers in the field of environmental psychology to do more work with planners and designers and together to set up research projects which identify the preferred characteristics of different types of public space for different groups within the population. Some designers might complain that such a situation would negate their freedom as designers. Here it is argued on the contrary that the more a designer knows about the people who will use a designed space then the better and more supportive a design can be of their needs. Perhaps it is easier to design a place as a piece of art and win plaudits in the professional journals than it is to make a space into a place which supports user needs and yet also delights the user.

The cost to society of failed designs
A further basic issue in relation to the need for further research, which directly relates to the design of the public realm within and around buildings, is the cost to society of getting the design solutions wrong.

Spaces which alienate the users are more likely to be vandalised. Vandalism in turn either leads to an excessive cost in upkeep or to a slide into decay of that part of the built environment. Decay brings costs in terms of rising criminality and the human despair associated with that social exclusion which inevitable develops in run-down locations. If a space cannot be used by those it was designed for, then it was a waste of limited financial resources to build it in the first place.

The increasing evidence from work by Ulrich (1999) and others of a link between human health outcomes and the qualities of the outdoor spaces, particularly the availability of views of vegetation, also suggest a possible saving in cost to society from planning to provide settings which optimise these characteristics. It is worth noting that in Britain at least, the latest government guidance on housing density and the implications of this for local greenspace and even for the long-term survival of pre-existing large trees on sites undergoing densification, is doing the exact opposite from what the evidence-based research suggests!

Other recommended reading
The 'common sense' approach to the design of public space is best illustrated in the excellent books which have been an inspiration to many designers: A pattern language by Christopher Alexander et al (1976), and Anatomy of a park by Donald J. Molnar and Albert J. Rutledge (1992). These books can also give researchers a useful insight into how designers need to operate and so suggest a multitude of possible research projects.

Relatively few authors from the design profession have concentrated on an evidence-based approach to the design of public space, but the best of these illustrate how designers can use the work of the researchers to improve and strengthen their design solutions: Life between buildings: using public space by Jan Gehl (1987), How designers think by Bryan Lawson (1997), People places: design guidelines for urban open space,edited by Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis (1990).

CABE's Regional Co-ordinator, Annie Atkins, has stated:

"Most people have favourite places, places which make them feel secure, happy, inspired, at home. And most people agree that better places make for better lives. But what makes a place? And how do you go about making places?"

liveable public spaces
Scope and approach

about design

Different professions different approaches
The cost to society of failed designs
Recommended reading

Liveability and design
Defining terms
Information needs
User needs
Design guidance - UK

Making places
The quality of the 'public realm'
How can we design user friendly places
Designs based on user needs

Links and References

Books and papers
Alexander, Christopher et al, 1976, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure Series), Oxford University Press Inc., USA.
Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis, 1990, People places: design guidelines for urban open space, van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
Gehl, Jan, 1987, Life between buildings: using public space, van Nostrand Reinhold, New York
Greenbie, B., 1976, Design for diversity, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Bryan Lawson , 1997, How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified , Architectural Press.
Donald J. Molnar, Albert J. Rutledge , 1992 , Anatomy of a Park: The Essentials of Recreation Area Planning and Design, Waveland Pr Inc.
Ulrich, R.,1999, Effects of Gardens on Health Outcomes: Theory and Research, in Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes, eds, Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, John Wiley & Sons.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the original copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 18 Nov 2003