Places for People - The Art of Making Places

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

The art of making places - of the public realm

Making Places
The quality of the 'public realm' - who is responsible?

Making places is the mechanism by which those concerned with the quality of people's daily lives in the built environment can have an impact on the design process. To succeed, the approach has to involve professionals, the public and their representatives working together at both the planning and detailed design stages. Here we are dealing with the detailed level of making places by design - the term 'Urban design' is normally used to describe the process which enables 'making places in cities for people to enjoy and use'. It deals with spatial planning issues as well as the detail of design decisions. 'Planning for real' describes a well researched method of involving the public in the design process for the spaces they will use - but its effectiveness relies on the right questions being asked. Too much so called research into public needs concentrates on the relatively simple question "what do you want to do in the space we are designing?" The answer to that, without the additional question "what feelings would you like to experience when you are there?" is almost worse than useless. For instance, the limited "what do you want to do there" approach has resulted in many inadequate children's play areas which have been built at great expense (by covering an area of ground with a suitable hard surface and then placing the desired play objects apparently haphazardly across the surface), without any sense of place being created by the way the space has been designed.

If place making is to be successful, it needs to be understood as essentially about the liveability of cities (Carmona et al, 2003). To function effectively as a process, place making has to be concerned with both the physical (the spaces and the buildings), socio-cultural (people) and, when it is outside, the natural (climate, geology, biodiversity) characteristics of spaces.

As Tibbalds (1992) stressed: "places matter most". He points out that we tend to miss the "whole" by worrying about "individual buildings and other physical artifacts" at too early a stage in the planning process. This is a particular problem for larger projects, where a range of clients and designers are responsible for different parts of a site.

Understanding the interconnection of the space between the buildings is an important part of making places. Very often concentration by planners and designers on a specific part of a large project has been the cause of neglecting to make joined up, liveable places. The outside public realm is not just the hard-surfaces of 'plazas' or the 'walkways'; it is the totality of the space between the buildings. Designing public places excludes working directly on the private open space that is never open for public use, but even then such spaces can have an impact on the user of the city and, therefore, on their perception of the liveability of the city.

Lynch and Alexander and their followers tried to look for ways of bringing the urban designers back to their principal task of making places. Their ideas have been used in many different countries for developing design guidance. For instance, in the UK the government-sponsored design guidance, By Design: Urban design in the Planning System (DETR/CABE, 2000) developed the following useful list of considerations which can be applied by designers and others involved in 'making a place':

  • Character: a place with its own identity
  • Continuity and enclosure: a place where public and private spaces are clearly distinguished
  • Quality of the public realm: a place with attractive and successful outdoor areas
  • Ease of movement: a place that is easy to get to and move through
  • Legibility: a place that has a clear image and is easy to understand
  • Adaptability: a place that can change easily
  • Diversity: a place with variety and choice


How can we design user-friendly places
The probable user needs for outdoor and indoor public spaces need to be agreed at the site planning stage. For example, in relation to a city centre site
Clare Cooper Marcus's (1990) has suggested that spaces need to be provided with at least some of the following characteristics and allow for the following activities (note: this is a very brief 'taste' of the information in her book and the reader is advised to take a thorough look at her book People places when working on a design project):


  • Spaces which are visible to passers-by (they should not be too sunken and should have at least part of their boundary open to viewing by passers-by)
  • Spaces accessible to a wide variety of users
  • Spaces which accommodate a wide range of users: local residents, office workers, shoppers and tourists
  • Spaces which are sunlit for much of the day if they are outdoors and part of the day if indoors
  • Spaces with plenty of seating, both formal (benches} and informal (ledges, steps, lawns}
  • Spaces with a variety of green and hard-surfaced subspaces
  • Spaces designed with a focal place or feature and which if a large space can be usable for civic celebratory events
  • Spaces which also encourage use for walking through as shortcut
  • Spaces with a range of seating areas which can attract individuals and small groups on a regular basis
  • Spaces which have small lawn areas functioning as semiprivate "outdoor rooms" within the public space (for safety they should not be totally screened)
  • Spaces where it is possible to enjoy some of the following experiences:
    • watching people
    • watching water moving
    • being in an atmosphere different from the business of the crowded city (a place where the air seems fresher because of the vegetation, where the noise seems deader because of the reduced area of hard surface or because a fountain makes more noise)
    • looking at plants and lawns
    • finding the place "attractive" or even "beautiful"
    • looking at art (note: this is not just objects but the whole space can be designed as a piece of art)
    • looking at a place full colour and pleasant smells (seasonal flowers and leaves)
    • looking at a lively or quiet place
    • looking at a peaceful place
    • enjoying a place sheltered from buffeting winds
    • enjoying a place which is warm and sunny and sheltered
    • buying refreshments
    • listening to music
    • watching events
    • making new friends/ meeting friends
    • Spaces where people can:
      • walk through
      • walk and watch
      • walk and talk
      • stand and watch
      • stand and talk
      • sit and watch
      • sit and talk
      • sit and listen
      • sit and eat
      • sit and read
      • wait for some event (a bus/ taxi)


Designs based on user needs
When making an overall plan for any site the planners and designers should ensure that the public realm is shown as clearly as the proposed building layout. It should include a detailed consideration of the external spaces formed by the proposed layout and show how each might be used, owned and managed. It should consider the situation at the different phases of the project and the impact on the users.

It would be possible to do this at this early stage in the planning process by developing:

  • a typology of spaces linked to
  • a preliminary assessment of the range of user needs likely to be encouraged in each type of space
  • descriptions of the characteristics of the spaces in experiential terms

In order to carry out a qualitative analysis of new public spaces, a yardstick for the evaluation is needed. It is suggested that one developed by Gehl (1997) which considers the quality of the public spaces as viewed from a pedestrian perspective, walking at a pace of 5 kilometers per hour, could be used.

  • produce a descriptive analysis of the actual physical conditions provided for pedestrians in the existing development
  • produce a descriptive analysis of the probable physical conditions for pedestrians in the proposed new developments

In each case Gale suggests that answers are needed to the following questions:

  • How are the public spaces composed? (classify the different types of urban space)
  • How large are the areas available for pedestrian traffic and public life?
  • Where are they situated ?
  • What are the conditions offered for walking and spending time in the city?
  • What is the traffic situation like and how do pedestrians cross the main arteries and the minor roads and what are the major conflicts with pedestrian movements?


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
Alexander, Christopher et al, 1976, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure Series), Oxford University Press Inc., USA.
Carmona M. et al, 2003, Public Places: Urban Spaces, dimensions in urban design, Architectural press, London.
Cooper Marcus, Clare and Francis,Carolyn , 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
Lynch, K., 1960, Image of the city, MIT, Cambridge, Mass.
Tibbalds, F., 1988, Ten commandments of Urban Design, The Planner, 74 (12).
Tibbalds, F.,1992, Making people friendly towns: improving the public environment in towns and cities, Longman,Harlow.
Tibbalds, F., 1993, London's Urban Environmental Quality, London Planning Advisory Committee, Romford.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
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© Anne Beer, 2000
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Latest update 18 Nov 2003