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Four must-have fundamentals to drive success in your next placemaking project

Wil Wylie • 8 min read

Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximise shared value.

The best public spaces are those in which friends meet, cultures blend, social and financial business takes place, and people come together to celebrate. These are effectively the front yards of public entities such as universities, schools or libraries, where the population interacts with fellow citizens and their government. When such spaces are properly functioning, they act as the playing field for public life.

More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. However, not all spaces are successful; some fail to fulfil their public purposes. We must ask what makes a successful space.

Previous studies have found that the most successful public spaces typically have four elements in common:

  1. Encourage social interaction
  2. Provide multi-purpose use
  3. Make it accessible (physically and psychologically)
  4. Ensure it’s comfortable Ensure it’s comfortable

Encourage social interaction

Considerable effort has to be made for a place to achieve sociability, but once it has been established, it becomes an integral part of the space. If a space encourages, social activities such as mingling with strangers, meeting friends, seeing neighbours, etc., the place will promote a sense of social attachment and encourage warm feelings towards it.

Points to consider:

  • Is the space somewhere you would consider appropriate for meeting up with friends? Are there other people meeting their friends here, by chance or design?
  • Are people in the space gathered in groups and conversing?
  • Do any of the people appear to be acquainted, either intimately or casually?
  • Do locals bring visitors to the space and show it to them with pride?
  • Do people seem happy? Does the crowd feel homogenous?
  • Does a substantial proportion of the visitors come to the space regularly and voluntarily?
  • Is there a mixture of ages and ethnicity that is reflective of the wider community?
  • If litter is present, do people generally pick it up?

Provide multi-purpose use

Activities are the foundation of good public spaces: They are the cause of people visiting and revisiting. They also contribute to the unique nature of a great space. If there are no activities available in a public space, it will swiftly become empty and disregarded; a symbol of design failure. Planners should give consideration to providing a wide range of activities for visitors, which should appeal equally to both sexes and all ages; retirees and parents of small children should have things to do during the day. This will help the space to be used for the whole day. There should be accommodation for group activities, not just single visitors, as this will create a more social atmosphere and encourage social activities. The success or otherwise of management is an essential element in the effectiveness of any public space.

Points to consider:

  • Is the space being used, or is it frequently deserted?
  • Do a variety of age groups use the space?
  • Is the space mainly visited by individuals or do people come in groups?
  • Are a variety of activities taking place; e.g., sunbathing, strolling, eating, playing sports, playing games, reading, etc.?
  • Is there a wide variety of activities from which visitors can choose?
  • Is it clear who is managing the space, and are they accessible?

Make it accessible (physically and psychologically)

The accessibility of a public space can be judged by assessing how it connects to surrounding areas, both visually and physically. Good public spaces are easy to reach and travel through and can be seen from numerous viewpoints. The fringes of public spaces have an important role to play; streets with rows of shops and restaurants are more aesthetically pleasing and safer than, for example, blank walls or vacant lots. The most accessible spaces are those that have ample parking for vehicles and are easy to reach via public transport.

Points to consider:

  • Is the space visible from distant viewpoints? Can those outside the space see into it?
  • Does the space connect well with the buildings surrounding it, or is it hemmed in by blank walls? Do those who live and work in nearby buildings regularly visit this place?
  • Is it easy for pedestrians to reach the space, or do they have to cross busy roads or unsafe areas?
  • Are there pavements leading to and from surrounding districts?
  • Does the space cater to those who have special needs?
  • Do the space’s pathways and roads lead visitors to areas they will want to visit?
  • Is there a multiplicity of options regarding transport to get to the place; e.g., cycling, motor vehicles, buses, trains, etc.?
  • Are the stops for public transport placed where they are convenient for key destinations, e.g., libraries, restaurants, parks, etc.?

Ensure it’s comfortable

The comfort of a space and its image – having a good public presentation – is central to its success. The comfort issue encompasses how clean and safe people think a place is and also the opportunity for them to sit down; planners often neglect the importance of offering visitors a range of places where they can rest.

Points to consider:

  • Do people get a favourable first impression of the space?
  • What is the gender mix – are males favourably outnumbered?
  • Is there sufficient seating in convenient places? Does the seating design provide options for visitors; e.g., sunny and shady seats?
  • Is the space clean and regularly maintained? What entities perform regular maintenance, in what way, and how often?
  • Does the space have a safe feeling? Are security staff or police on duty and, if so, what are their duties and when do they carry them out?
  • Do many people take photographs in the space? Are there numerous photo opportunities?
  • Do pedestrians have to share the space with vehicles, and does traffic restrict access to, or enjoyment of, the space?

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