The Elements of a Great Public Space

by Mallory Knee

Many cities are justifiably famous for their piazzas and parks. The elements of a great public space combine to offer recreation, relaxation and socializing.

Rome has the Piazza Navona. Chicago has Millennium Park with the Bean and Daley Plaza with its Picasso. Cities all over the world have public spaces that succeed or fail based on several grounding principles. The elements of a great public space include accessibility, activities, sociability, and comfort. In your travels, you’ll notice that public places that lure you and cause locals to linger tend to share these attributes.

Scenic urban park in a business district

Scenic urban park in a business district

Comfort

Comfort goes well beyond having a place to sit, although that is certainly important. Safety is critical for comfort—people won’t gather in a place that’s dark, dingy, or deserted. If seating choices are limited to hard benches under a blazing sun, the space is not likely to be viewed as comfortable.

Many great public spaces feature works of art, fountains, or recurring festivals. These require extra maintenance and clean up. Unless you’re visiting Venice, you’ll notice subtle but effective drainage around fountains, splash pads, and parking lots to keep them from harboring stagnant puddles that attract pests.

Landscape view in public park with old green big trees and smooth surface of pond with reflections

Public park beautiful landscape with smooth surface of pond and reflections of plants on a background of old green big trees in a spring day.

Accessibility

Successful public squares, parks, and plazas are easy to see, easy to get to, and useful for people of all abilities. They link to their surroundings by maintaining a human scale, flowing seamlessly from storefronts to sidewalks to open and green spaces. People can get there by walking, cycling, driving, or taking public transportation. The space is organized so that transportation delivers visitors but doesn’t interfere with them once they arrive. From these spaces, people can get to other places they want to visit, like shops, museums, and theaters.

Man with dog in spring public park

Morning in spring public park . Man playing with his dog (labrador retriever) between blooming trees. Prague, Czech Republic

Activities

There are a lot of things to do in or near a successful public space. These give people a reason to visit and a reason to stay. There will be choices for people of all ages and abilities, from chess to baseball and from picnicking to reading. People can do things in groups or on their own. Kids can play basketball or climb around on playground equipment. Lovers can hold hands and find a quiet place to sit together, away from boisterous children. Seniors can admire a garden, rest, and enjoy people watching.

Sociability

When you visit a public space alone, something about it should make it easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger. It’s a place you’d designate for a meetup with friends or family. It’s diverse, and the people who visit the space care about it enough to clean up after themselves (and waste receptacles aren’t overflowing but instead are emptied regularly). These places make you smile just because you’re there.

Public spaces that are over-scaled, lack comfortable seating, or that are too removed from their surroundings tend to be empty and forbidding.  They fail the tests of accessibility, comfort, activities, and sociability.

When post-pandemic travel resumes, make a list of public places you visit based on the elements of great public spaces described above. Then, you can make informed recommendations to your friends and family about places to visit and those to avoid.

 

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