Wednesday, October 3, 2012

10 Ways to Improve Your City through Public Space

Union Square, New York City.  Image source:
Public spaces are increasingly being recognized as a crucial ingredient for successful cities, and for their ability to revitalize and create economic and social development opportunities. But actually finding ways to build and maintain healthy public space remains elusive to many municipal governments, especially in thedeveloping world. The vast web of streets, parks, plazas, and courtyards that define the public realm is often lacking, too poorly planned, or without adequate citizen participation in the design process.
Recognizing these challenges, the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) released earlier this month a draft of their handbook Placemaking and the Future of Cities. It’s intended to serve as a best practices guide for those wishing to improve the economic, environmental and social health of their communities through the power of successful public space.
10 fundamental principles for placemaking have been identified by PPS as the keys to vibrant, safe, and attractive public spaces:
1. Improve Streets as Public Spaces
Rue Mouffetard, Paris. Image source:
Streets are the most common public spaces, but they are often hostile to pedestrians and cyclists, and end up congested with vehicular traffic. This simple principle is about planning streets for people and places, with the deliberate decision to design streets around all users with a range of street types to help strike the right balance. Creating good public space where it is most prevalent and most accessible adds to the social cohesion of the city – the street.
2. Create Squares and Parks as Multi-Use Destinations
Bryant Park, New York. Image source:
Parks and squares are important places in cities when planned right – building economies, civic pride, social connection and happiness. The great public parks and squares of the world, just like other great places in cities, are multi-use destinations. By collectively deciding on what will make the park or square desirable to come to, they will attract a range of people for a multitude of reasons, coming together for a shared public experience.
3. Build Local Economies Through Markets
Carmel Market, Tel Aviv, Isreal.
Image source:
Cities originated because of the market – the crossroads for the exchange of goods and knowledge. This principle embraces that history and recognizes that that essential function has not changed. Like parks and squares, they bring together all types of people to share in the space including low income groups who are given an entrepreneurial opportunity with little capital investment. While they declined in the North American context with the rise of the supermarket, urban markets are reemerging across the developed world as viable alternatives that help preserve surrounding farmland, stimulate the local economy, and invigorate surrounding neighbourhoods.
4.  Design Buildings to Support Places
Rapid urbanization around the world is leading to unprecedented building construction. Buildings play an important role in the shaping of the public realm through their visibility and they way they interact at street level. They should be built to be permeable and respond to the block and building fabric around them, built at a human scale, function as multi-use destinations, and enhance the liveliness of the neighbourhoods they are in. These tenants hold true especially for public buildings, as they are the anchors of civic life for the entire community.
5. Link a Public Health Agenda to a Public Space Agenda
Design for Health Bicycle Parking
Design for Health Bicycle Parking
Image source:
Public spaces need to be recognized for their contributions to public health: markets can provide fresh and affordable food, good streets with efficient transit can encourage walking or cycling, and good public parks and squares can relieve stress and reduce the amount of crime through the amount of people out on the street. Equally, public health institutions can serve the public spaces by acting as community centres and providing health and education services.
6. Reinvent Community Planning
Integrated Community Sustainability Planning Course, Toronto
Integrated Community Sustainability Planning Course, Toronto
Image credit:
This principle is about tapping into the collective wisdom of those that know the community best – its citizens. By engaging those with a historical perspective, insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of what is meaningful for locals, it will help to create a sense of ownership and better ensure the success of public space projects. Institutions and key community stakeholders should be brought in as partners to work with locals, and together guide professionals to act as facilitators and resources to help implement their vision. Public space must also be given the ability to evolve and change over time along with the community to ensure it continues to function as a great destination.
7. Power of 10
The Power of 10 aims to develop a critical mass of public space elements that comprise a larger whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  10 is not a strict number, but is intended to serve as a foundation. The idea is that if you can provide 10 things to do that attract people to one spot, you’ve started to create a great place. Building on that, aim for a neighbourhood to provide 10 of these great places. Further, a city with 10 of these neighbourhoods has now given residents access to quality public spaces within walking distance of their homes. It’s the sort of comprehensive goal that municipal decision makers can strive for while giving citizens something tangible to create at the local level.
8. Create a Comprehensive Public Space Agenda
Comprehensive strategies are required for the development, enhancement, and management public space. An assessment is needed to create a city-side inventory of the performance of existing public spaces across the city. Using this inventory, public space goals can be created for the community that strengthen existing successes and improve areas that are underperforming. This agenda should be linked to new development projects to preserve and enhance public environments and use the economic activity of development to help fund other civic public space improvements.
9. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: Start Small, Experiment
West Philly Parklet
West Philly Parklet
Image credit:
Great spaces are the products of an evolution which have increased in complexity over time, beginning with small, inexpensive improvements. Capatalize on the creativity of citizens who can continuously try new things. Municipal leaders can get the ball rolling by creating demonstration projects of light, quick, and cheap improvements that the public can add to and expand upon to suit their needs. Where there are successes, build upon them. Light, quick, and cheap improvements are low risk and low cost, but with time, money and effort, successes will lead to more successes, and great public spaces will emerge.
10. Restructure Government to Support Public Spaces
The principles listed above are about catalyzing local leaders, funding, and strengthening local resources for the goal of creating great public spaces. However, government is not usually set up to support this. The achievement of this goal requires the development of consensus building, city consultation processes, and institutional reform in order to enhance inclusion and build citizen engagement. Government needs to develop and implement bottom-up policies for this purpose, strengthening inclusion in the process. Removing bureaucratic obstacles helps to make participation monetarily feasible for all and quickly implementable.  Empowering citizens through institutional restructuring helps drive all the other principles necessary to create a positive public realm with health, attractive and well-used public spaces that are a true reflection of the needs and values of the community they are in.
Download a full copy of the draft Placemaking and the Future of Cities here, which features case studies on how cities around the world have employed these principles for public space success. Learn more about the Project for Public Spaces and their work at their website:


I'm an Urban Planner/Designer based in Toronto, Canada. My work is focused on commercial/residential/mixed use development, visualizations and urban design studies, preparation of site and master plans, municipal planning, and community engagement. My interests include form-based urban design tools, downtown...