Places for People - The Art of Making Places

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

The art of making places - liveable public space

Liveability and design

Information needs

Design is a very complex process. A designer working to make a space into a place has to bring together all the relevant information. This might include:

  • the requirements of the client
  • the needs of the users
  • local environmental and sustainability considerations - climate
  • the limitations of construction techniques and materials and the prevailing built form
  • aesthetic considerations
  • the money available for construction and for long-term maintenance

Using all this information the designer has the difficult task of coming up with a solution which works by creating the desired setting for the activities of the users.

Note: Understanding what makes people define a places as ' liveable' does help to identify some of the characteristics that good urban spaces should have. However, such information does not produce a design on the ground and for designers there are potential dangers in following the liveability information too rigidly. For instance, the data on safety could result in the production of bleak, characterless spaces if taken to the limit, with none of the visual stimulation or variety which cause people to prefer one space over another in the first place. We need people to use public space, as we know that an empty city space is an unsafe space.

Designing for people in public environments is about compromises and balances - there are no 'right' designs, but some work better than others, some delight us more than others.

User needs

A consideration of what the users might need from a built environment is most often considered in terms of the objects that they need to support the activities that they will undertake in any specific space. However, the experiential needs of these same users are often neglected and yet it is these which make the difference between a place that people like to be in and a place which has little impact on the quality of their life and may even cause them unnecessary stress in the using of it.

Environmental psychologists have shown that the experiential factors such as finding the way around the town, feeling secure in public spaces, not being too crowded but at the same time having enough people around to feel safe, all impact on livability. Factors such as the feelings of delight and fascination, of being stimulated by the qualities of a place add another level by making the place something special. It is worth being aware that the designer needs to distinguish between places where it might be appropriate to add an extra, in say the level of delight, and others where such experiences are less necessary. The characteristics of a place that cause delight, through beauty or fascination or both can become unnoticed, if they are found everywhere. The human mind needs contrast to be able to appreciate the special. 

The impact that micro-climate and the presence or absence of green and nature have on users' sensible or sub-concious reactions also need to be considered.

However, there is a further set of factors which influences users in their assessment of liveability. These relate to whether the environment created by the new public space facilitates or hinders the daily life of those who live and work in the area and of those who visit it. In relation to the outdoor parts of the project these factors can determine the level of enjoyment and pleasure that users get from being in a city area.

The totality of the spaces outside the buildings needs to be considered. That is both public and private spaces and those linked to the communications network of paths and road. What happens within private outdoor spaces directly affects the public spaces and therefore people's perception of liveability. Early consideration (before a plan or design becomes fixed) can even allow reduced capital and long-term maintenance costs to the funders.

Delight, enjoyment, diversity and complexity
Many public spaces are formed between buildings during regeneration schemes or during the building of new urban areas or of large public buildings such as hospitals, education facilities, government buildings and such amenities as major shopping centres or business complexes. Large-scale schemes can be themed to help users know where they are within a development (something that can be done through the choice of a style of street furniture and way-marking), but it is always important that not all spaces within a major building or within a city district appear the same. Allowing the users an element of delight should not be forgotten. Users also have a need for a diversity of experience if they are to get enjoyment from being in an area.

Enjoyment is critical to the long-term success of this type of area. People will only return to a part of the city if they like the place; if they return, then the place is successful and so will add greatly to the perception of quality of life for the city as a whole.  

The human mind enjoys complexity. Where the main building blocks are likely for structural reasons to be large scale and simple to look at, it is particularly important that the outside spaces add visual complexity and, therefore, interest. This can occur through the way in which the individual spaces and the links between them are designed.

Design guidance - available in the UK

Government Planning guidance

Other information




liveable public spaces
Scope and approach

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

Liveability and design
Information needs
User needs
Design guidance

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
DETR/CABE ( 2000) ,By Design: Urban Design in the Planning System: Towards Better Practice.
CABE (2001), Better Places to Live by design: A companion guide to PPG3
English Partnerships (2000), Urban Design Compendium,
Lynch, Kevin. Site Planning. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1962.
Lynch, Kevin. Theory of Good City form. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Books and papers
Project for public places - the best website on public place

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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 webpages with the proviso that they always make reference to the original copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 6 Nov 2003