Great public spaces – guide and evaluation tool

This resource from the State of New South Wales, offers both a guide into what makes a great public space (including advice for open spaces, public facilities, and streets), alongside a practical toolkit for evaluating public spaces, to understand their strengths and areas for improvement. Both can be used in conjunction to inform the planning, design, and investment in better public spaces for our cities, town centres, and high streets.

Date added 20 April 2021
Last updated 20 April 2021

*This resource is about public spaces. It is not specifically about the High Street, but has been included in response to requests for more studies/information about this topic, as well as linking to the recreational space priority for High Street vitality and viability*

This resource from ©State of New South Wales (Department of Planning, Industry and Environment) [2021] provides a readable great public spaces guide, to inform the planning, design, and investment in better public spaces. It argues that great places “provide diverse opportunities for social interactions, have a strong character, and are welcoming, inclusive and beautiful”, identifying four key aspects impacting upon the quality of a public space as:

  1. Location- coordinates and scale of place
  2. Locale- physical attributes
  3. Purpose- identity and character; and
  4. Place attachment- activity and meaning.

The guide then presents four key questions that can be asked when evaluating the quality of public space and public life:

Q1. Am I able to get there? (accessibility, walkability, connectivity etc.)

Q2. Am I able to play and participate? (diversity, activity, vibrancy etc.)

Q3. Am I able to stay? (attractive, clean, safe etc.)

Q4. Am I able to connect?  (inclusivity, welcoming, sociable etc.)

These four questions are then applied in evaluating different types of public space, including:

Great public facilities- located in heart of neighbourhoods (Q1); artistic and cultural activities (Q2); Wi-Fi access (Q3); and sharing knowledge and skills (Q4).

Great open spaces- near public transport (Q1); diverse and affordable activities (Q2); places protected from weather (Q3); and places for social gathering (Q4).

Great streets- clear wayfinding and signage (Q1); regular programmed events (Q2); businesses and services nearby (Q3); and authentic local character (Q4).

The resource also contains a practical toolkit that can be used to assess the quality of public spaces and public life, across a range of different seasons, times of the day, and weather conditions. It draws on existing methodologies by Gehl and the Project for Public Spaces, and comprises a series of questions and practical activities to form an evidence base as to what is working well, or not so well, in a given public space, including recording information through:

  • A sketch of the site area being evaluated.
  • Taking photographs of the public space.
  • Recording the amount and types of people, either moving or dwelling in the space.
  • Observations of activities, sensory elements (e.g. what can be seen and heard), and potential improvements to enhance quality.
  • Ranking the public space out of 5 based on: accessibility, participation, dwelling, and social connections (the four questions detailed above).