Build It So They Will Come: 11 Principles For Creating Great Public Spaces

Project for Public Spaces | September 24, 2015


How do you create an effective public space? It’s not as easy as you might think. As the urbanist (and PPS mentor) William “Holly” Whyte said, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

At the Project for Public Spaces, we have has identified 11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common. These elements are:


Danny Woo Community Garden
Danny Woo Community Garden

The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talentsand assets within the community. In any community there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people. Tapping this information at the beginning of the process will help to create a sense of community ownership in the project that can be of great benefit to both the project sponsor and the community.


If your goal is to create a place (which we think it should be), a design will not be enough. To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” physical elements must be introduced that make people feel welcome and comfortable, such as seating and landscaping. In addition, “management” changes in the pedestrian circulation pattern and developing effective relationships between the surrounding retail and the activities going on in the public spaces is also vital. The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image, as well as a setting and activities and uses that collectively add up to something more than the sum of its often simple parts. This is easy to say, but difficult to accomplish.


Partners are critical to the future success and image of a public space improvement project. Whether you want partners at the beginning to plan for the project or you want to brainstorm and develop scenarios with a dozen partners who might participate in the future, they are invaluable in providing support and getting a project off the ground. Potential partners might be local institutions, museums, schools and others.


We can all learn a great deal from others’ successes and failures. By looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces and finding out what they like and don’t like about them, it is possible to assess what makes them work or not work. Through these observations, it will be clear what kinds of activities are missing and what might be incorporated. And when the spaces are built, continuing to observe them will teach even more about how to evolve and manage them over time.


NYC's High Line
NYC’s High Line

The vision needs to flow from each individual community. However, some common elements are essential to any vision. They include: an idea of what kinds of activities might be happening in the space, a conception of a space that is comfortable and has a good image, and is an important place where people want to be. It should instill a sense of pride in the people who live and work in the surrounding area.


The complexity of public spaces is such that you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces experiment with short term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years! Elements such as seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks and pedestrian havens, community gardens and murals are examples of improvements that can be accomplished in a short time.


“Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other,” said Holly Whyte. In a public space, the choice and arrangement of different elements in relation to each other can put the triangulation process in motion (or not). For example, if a bench, a wastebasket and a telephone are placed with no connection to each other, each may receive a very limited use, but when they are arranged together along with other amenities such as a coffee cart, they will naturally bring people together (or triangulate!). On a broader level, if a children’s reading room in a new library is located so that it is next to a children’s playground in a park and a food kiosk is added, more activity will occur than if these facilities were located separately.


One of Yogi Berra’s great sayings was “If they say it can’t be done, it doesn’t always work out that way,” and we have found it to be appropriate for our work as well. Creating good public spaces is inevitably about encountering obstacles, because no one in either the public or private sectors has the job or responsibility to “create places.” For example, professionals such as traffic engineers, transit operators, urban planners and architects all have narrow definitions of their job – facilitating traffic or making trains run on time or creating long term schemes for building cities or designing buildings. Their job, evident in most cities, is not to create “places.” Starting with small scale community-nurturing improvements can demonstrate the importance of “places” and help to overcome obstacles.

RELATED: Los Angeles Taps Community and Crowdfunding to Transform its Streets

The New Economic Development: Tackling Inequality by Building Community Wealth


The input from the community and potential partners, the understanding of how other spaces function, the experimentation, and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers provides the concept for the space. Although design is important, these other elements tell you what “form” you need to accomplish the future vision for the space.


Green Market
Green Market

This statement can apply in a number of ways. For example, once you’ve put in the basicinfrastructure of the public spaces, the elements that are added that will make it work (e.g., vendors, cafes, flowers and seating) will not be expensive. In addition, if the community and other partners are involved in programming and other activities, this can also reduce costs. (In other words, crowdsource!) More important, following these principles should generate a level of enthusiasm that allows the cost of the project to be viewed much more broadly, and consequently as not significant when compared with the benefits.

By nature good public spaces that respond to the needs, opinions and ongoing changes of the community require attention. Amenities wear out, needs change and other things happen in an urban environment. Being open to the need for change and having the management flexibility to enact that change is what builds great public spaces and great cities and towns.

This article is a slightly revised version of a piece published by the Project for Public Spaces. 


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply