Places for People - The Art of Making places

© Anne R. Beer, 1997

The art of making places - liveable public space
Text and illustrations except where stated © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2003

Making places which people feel comfortable using is now recognised as central to effective urban planning and the successful design of the public realm, both inside and outside buildings (see Carmona, 2003). This presentation deals with public space.

Public place is defined here as all the spaces within a city which the public access. They can be spaces between buildings, adjacent to, or within buildings. In northern and western Europe most of these spaces are in the open air because of the climate, although even here they are increasingly likely to be covered or within a building when associated with large building projects. Covered public spaces can be found within hospitals, schools, campuses, governmental buildings, shopping centres, transport interchanges. Public spaces as they are defined here can be open to public use for all or part of the day.

"The quality of our public space affects the quality of all our lives"-
John Prescott , UK - Deputy Prime Minister

This presentation is in six parts - these can be accessed by clicking on the menu at the top of the page.
Each part contains sections which can be accessed by using the menu to the right on each web page.

The scope and the approach

The issue addressed here is that so many public spaces are still being designed and built which do not fully support user needs and, therefore, never fulfill their potential to enhance people's experience of the public realm. On the contrary, some have even become associated with increased levels of criminality through the way they are laid out. How can the site planners and designers, and their clients react so as to ensure that public spaces are more consistently found satisfactory by their users? Is there something wrong with the planning, design, space management and financing process for large projects at present - if so,can we identify what it is?

It is not that there is a lack of skilled designers - the increasing number of award winning public spaces shows that this is not the case (see the library of best British spaces at CABEspace). But even these highly regarded spaces, where the designers have often received an award from their profession (given for aesthetic merit in the main), the space can be rejected by their potential users. If even the 'best' of spaces in aesthetic terms remains empty of people, then it is a failed design in reality - spaces not adopted by the public and so used regularly by them are at the very least prone to vandalism and clearing this up is a drain on always limited financial resources. It is argued here that 'good' designs are both aesthetically pleasing and also support the users' needs for a range of those experiences which allow them to feel comfortable, happy and even delighted to use a space.

Equally, it is not always that inadequate funds are available, as can be seen in the money spent on some civic spaces and the 'objects of art' to be found within them. However, many of the less prestigious spaces planned for new developments and redevelopments are frequently underfunded. In some cases there is barely the budget to pave their surfaces, let alone add those elements which would turn them into recognisable "places" within the urban fabric.

The problem that faces us is that public spaces are so often seen as a byproduct in large design schemes where the spaces are an integral part of the package to be built, rather than central to the success of the design: where the buildings will go, how large they will be, how to sort roads and car parking become the brain teasers. In these circumstances public spaces do seem to be regarded as of minor importance - almost as the decorative elements which can be dealt with at the end.

There are undoubtedly examples where the architects have understood the public spaces associated with their project and have made wonderful and delightful designs where everything works together to the satisfaction of the users. But equally there are others where the spaces get forgotten until the end, often because a project is so big that the different parts are dealt with by different designers. This is particularly so if those spaces are outside the building and the consequences of this lack of status in the design process for the quality of the public realm, especially in terms of money set aside to pay for the making of 'new places', can be dire.

The present situation is that in the main the issue of how to plan, lay out and undertake the detailed design of public spaces continues to be of secondary importance in the considerations of those who commission major buildings, major urban developments and re-developments. Such public spaces are almost always seen as secondary to the major built structures because of the disparity in costs between them and the buildings and the roadways. Yet most people experience city environments and buildings on foot and form their reactions to them as places on the basis of the experiences they have. It is these 'corridors for pedestrian movement' and 'spaces' and the detail of their design that allow the public to form its perceptions of the characteristics of a particular place. The buildings are the backcloth, the walls to the spaces and sub-spaces within them. A beautiful building will add to the joy of being in a particular part of a city. Such buildings can be world renown architecture as with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (museum) or locally appreciated structures such as the new Winter Garden in Sheffield. In these situations the building almost acts as a large piece of sculpture. However, most buildings cannot and perhaps should not be seen as such - the public spaces that they help to define are the city we use or the building we enter.

Bilbao - Guggenheim Museum

Sheffield - Winter Gardens

So what makes the general public like and use some spaces rather than others and does it really matter whether they use these spaces or not?

To start with why it matters - even if you are not convinced by the arguments about creating places which enhance people's quality of life (which are put elsewhere in this online presentation - see the part entitled Settings), there is the issue of finance and the long-term costs to society of getting the design of spaces wrong. Put simply, the places which people like cost society less to look after; the places which people dislike are frequently 'trashed', left to decay or maintained at great cost to no real effect.

With regard to what makes the public like and use some places in preference to others, there is a growing literature on people's reactions to spaces and the places they become - how people think about them and use them. This presentation suggests that the design of public space should be based, where possible, in evidence based research (see Ulrich, 1999). The approach reflects the ideas presented in the best books dealing with the topic: People places: design guidelines for urban open space edited by Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis (1990) and Life between buildings: using public space by Jan Gehl (1987) and New City Spaces by Jan Gehl and Lars Gemzoe (2000).

These authors have recognised that the end users' needs must strongly influence the client's, the site planner's (often now termed the urban designer) and the designer's decision making process, if the places that are created through the design process are to be found 'satisfactory' by the users. In relation to the Art of Place Making this presentation is designed to be used by by professionals and students in conjunction with books by authors who have addressed the question of 'how to make a design in a space' more directly. The reader is referred to two books in particular:

Form and Fabric in Landscape Architecture by Catherine Dee (2001) and Responsive Environments by Ian Bentley et al (1984).

The best website on the topic is that maintained by the Project for public spaces. It is full of useful links and information and illustrations.

There will be a conference on open space in Edinburgh in October 2004

Liveable public spaces
Scope and approach

Ideas about design
The cost to society of failed designs

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
Bentley,I, et al (1984), Responsive Environments, Architectural Press, London.
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.
Dee, Catherine, 2001, Form and Fabric in Landscape Architecture, Spon, London.
Gehl, Jan, 1987, Life between buildings: using public space, van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
Jan Gehl and Lars Gemzoe,2000, New City Spaces, danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen.

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.   

Back to top

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
Web pages by
Map21 Ltd

Latest update 18 Nov 2003