The Importance of
Public Space

    Everyone agrees that public space is important, but why? We know that quality public space is the bellwether of a healthy society. Strong communities supported by well-conceived public spaces are better positioned to defend against a range of social ills including physical deterioration of the environment and crime, particularly in times of economic hardship. The best public spaces foster a sense of civic optimism that is critical to building the social cohesion necessary for a vibrant culture and democracy. Obviously public space should be beautiful and well designed for circulation, but what else should it do?

    How can public spaces be designed to help individuals become more active participants – socially, economically, intellectually, physically – in the life of their communities?"

    Good Public space is a diagram of civilized society. How we behave in public, how we interact with others and what happens in public space is about participation. And participation is the essence of the body politic, the Demos.

    Density: empty spaces are not participatory, so public spaces should be dense enough to encourage confrontation…the good kind.
    Continuity: buildings participate by providing continuity, either by style, by continuous street wall, by geometry, spatial focus or by materials. A Public Space needs some glue to hold it together. Otherwise it’s a World’s Fair.
    Activity: if you’ve passed through it before you realize you passed, it’s not really a Public Space. Public Spaces need some magnetism or friction to slow people down and attract use. Good food always works.
    Hierarchy: if cars are the most important things in a Public Space it’s a freeway.
    Scale: all spaces are not created equal. Like any personal accessory fit matters.
    Authenticity: there is a reason that Las Vegas has no real public spaces
    Information: Great public spaces often have information as an integral part of the offering.

    I would say there are design notinos that can help spaces be successful, participatory environments:

    For buildings it is believing that the façade is more than just yours; a façade is, by definition a ‘public face’ and it should do its public job as well as it does its private one.
    For pedestrians participation is a sense of ownership in every public space.

    For government it means acknowledgment that the automobile cannot create meaningful public space. It takes human interaction face to face, not bumper to bumper.

    For the DOT is to allow traffic inefficiency if it promotes public interaction.

    There are very few truly public spaces (as opposed to the myriad of mandated leftover spaces) designed by a single hand. Very few successful spaces, that is. And the ones we love are almost never ‘designed’ in the modern sense. Urban space is often created by managing rules, not by individuals or ‘the public’.

    It’s like a Sol Lewitt work: define the rules of engagement and space will be shaped by ‘natural; forces as diverse as Zoning, Papal fiat, destruction (WTC), unification (Berlin Wall), historical property lines or bargaining (Grammercy Park).

    It’s an interesting way to think about it and maybe why modern spaces are so difficult and contrived; the rules are either too prescriptive or too unstructured.

    Complexity is hard.