Principles for Designing Great Public Spaces

Public spaces shape community ties in neighborhoods. Great public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other and the government. When these spaces work well, they serve as the stage for our public lives.

The principles given below are not strict criteria but merely some organized thoughts that should be considered while designing a public space.

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” – Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces

1.  Put the square at pedestrian crossways

Public squares or plazas are important elements of city design with different shapes and sizes. It is the way of designing a good setting for public and commercial buildings in cities.

When designing public squares, the location of squares should be at the convergence of many walking routes. This means that as many people will happen to be walking through the square, even if they are going to other locations. This will generate more opportunities for engagement with activities in the square as well as encourage more movement through the square.

2. Maximize the number of entry points

A great public space should be sociable: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit. They also ensure more chances for informal contact too.

Providing an abundance of entry points into a public space disperses and multiplies walking routes, thus increasing the number of public squares, resulting in more engagement.

3.  Co-Locate the Square with Major Attractions

The public squares should be designed keeping in mind the major attractions (with historic significance) amplifies the activity of the spaces and improves their vibrancy, social capital, and commerciality. The major attractions should have entries directly to the square to enable the flow of people in and out of the buildings.

4.  Establish a daytime and nighttime presence

At night, public squares can become dangerous places. The most successful squares exhibit a mixture of uses; residences, cafes, perhaps theatres to complement retail, institutional, and office activities, which all extend the hours of presence and surveillance within the square throughout the evening. 

Another way is to provide efficient and people-oriented lighting that facilitates the occupancy of public spaces at night, enhancing safety. When installed on the pedestrian and cyclist scale, public lighting creates the necessary conditions to move more safely when there is no natural light.

5.  Encourage active edges and robustness

Successful Public Spaces Are All About Edges. Every living organism has a response to the stimulus of contact or touch, generally known as Thigmotaxis. In the context of placemaking, it is generally used to mean edge-seeking. When selecting a place to stop and rest, people, and most animals, head for the edges of open space. This is a behavior long cultivated by evolution. If you sit with your back to a wall, no one can sneak up behind you.  And an open space in front of you gives you a good command of the general goings-on. 

The life of a square is often determined by the activity around its edges. It should have people going in and out of shops, cafes, apartments, and offices. It should enable positive lingering; seats outside apartments, tables outside restaurants, perhaps trade displays outside shops. There should be the capacity to see into and out of buildings in the manner most fitting to their use. Residences or offices should be designed away from the flow of pedestrians.

6.  Create serial imagery

Cities are not experienced statically; we perceive them as a part of a continual sequence. Gordon Cullen (1961 urbanist) conceived the concept of “serial vision”. He said: Urban experience is one of a series of revelations, with delight and interest being stimulated by contrasts. He saw particular significance in the tension between “hereness” and “thereness”. and considered, the urban environment should be designed from the point of view of the moving person.

Great civic spaces often show consideration for the conscious mapping of the sequence of scenes, as our experience unfolds as we move through streets, corners, and lanes towards them. 

7.  Visual enclosure

Visual enclosure refers to the degree to which streets and other public spaces are visually defined by buildings, walls, trees, and other vertical elements. Spaces, where the height of vertical elements is proportionately related to the width of the space between them, have a room-like quality.

In an urban setting, a visual enclosure is formed by lining the street or plaza with unbroken building fronts of roughly equal height. The buildings become the “walls” of the outdoor room. The street and sidewalks become the “floor”; and if the buildings are roughly equal height, the sky projects as an invisible ceiling. The total width of the street, building to building, should not exceed the building heights to maintain a feeling of enclosure. Visual termination points also contribute to a sense of enclosure.

Visual enclosure helps to affirm many crucial attributes required for space, such as overlooking/surveillance, edge activation, weather protection, etc. Enclosure also helps to immediately identify the nature and hierarchy of the space; any visitor will immediately understand an enclosed square to signify they are in a central location or high activity area.

8.  Reflecting a sense of space and culture

There is a correlation between urban space and society. Different types of urban spaces are associated with the specific activities of different social groups. A key to a successful place that is both meaningful to visitors and residents alike is preserving or capturing a unique sense of place.

Sense of place describes our relationship with places, expressed in different dimensions of human life: emotions, biographies, imagination, stories, and personal experiences. In cities, a sense of place echoes the intersections of culture, environment, history, politics, and economics, and is impacted by global mobility, migration, and blurred boundaries between the natural and built environment.

9.  Create Landmarks and references

“Landmarks are geographic objects of outstanding visual, cultural, or structural properties” (Sorrow and Hirtle’s definition). Their experience must structure human mental representations of space.

Public spaces should contain unique and instantly recognizable reference points that help people to anchor them, but also to helps in orientation around the city.

10.  Design to a human scale

Designing to “human scale” means design that is optimized for human use. This can apply to any perspective from physical to psychological. It is a quintessentially Human-Centered Design of urban spaces.

The height of buildings should always relate to a human scale. The traditional architecture always contained the detail and richness of elements that could attract and hold the gaze of a passerby, and create a sense of comfort.

In an aesthetic context, the design of any space should be built to look good to someone standing at street level, not sitting on a plane miles above it.

11.  Design to enable eye contact

The most important in designing a public space is to make sure that civic spaces don’t throw up barriers to visibility and enabling eye contact. This ensures the recognition of friends, acquaintances, and reinforcing social bonds.

Avoiding huge level differences is a good starting point (unless well designed of course), as is maintaining a line of sight across the public space at natural eye level. 

12.  Provide weather shelter and Places for pausing

Resting places should be provided, whether they be ‘formal’ (eg, seats, benches, or ‘paid’ café seats) or ‘informal’ (eg, planters, low walls, steps, or even shaded grass). This allows them to relax independently or socialize with their family or friends.

Great public spaces should aim to provide as much weather protection as possible, trees for shade, effective awnings or colonnades for year-round shelter, or risk discouraging visitors from returning, except in the finest of weather.

13.  Design for all

A great public space should be accessible to all social groups; the aged, the young, the elite, the disenfranchised. The square should contain play areas for children, breakout spaces for adolescents, resting and ablution facilities for the elderly or have given thought for sleeping or feeding the homeless.


  • Paper presented by Peter Ciemitis at September 2015 Urban Design Forum (WA), Perth, Western Australia.

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