Principles for public space design, planning to do better

Public spaces of all forms are an important part of citizens’ everyday routines and social actions. This article, written by professor Matthew Carmona, presents a series of well-grounded positive principles for public space design towards successful planning and design of inclusive public spaces.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This paper sets out a series of normative principles for planners and others to use when planning for and regulating public space design and management. The article draws mainly from an exhaustive examination of various types of public space in London, but it nevertheless proposes a set of rules that are vital for planners, regulators, and managers of such spaces in their attempts to design and develop usable, inclusive, high-quality public spaces. The research involved the gathering of 70 stakeholder narratives, 650 interviews of users of public space, time-lapse observations that captured the multiple uses of each space, and secondary data collection of policy documents. The outcome of the analysis suggested three main considerations for the strategic planning framework for the development and regeneration of public spaces that need to be taken into account in order to safeguard the key qualities and interests of designing public spaces:

  • What are the processes through which public spaces evolve, and how does planning and other forms of regulation interact with them?
  • What types of public spaces should be provided, and where?
  • How should rights and responsibilities for public spaces be safeguarded over the long term?

The paper states that these process-related considerations further reinforce the argument that decisions regarding public space design and provision cannot be taken lightly, and that it is vital to understand, and get the process of designing such spaces right before focusing on desired outcomes. In order for this to happen, planners will need to be:

  • Flexible enough to understand and embrace the evolving nature of public space, whether formal or informal
  • Understanding of the diversity of lifestyles, preferences and needs of citizens, and avoid one-size-fits-all aspirations of public space
  • Willing to not undermine the freedoms associated with public space, and negotiate with long-term owners and managers of public-private spaces the rights and responsibilities that users have in such spaces.

Carmona then outlines a number of critical factors that are likely to be important in the design of most public spaces. These are related to:

  • The delineation of public space, meaning that “public spaces (including all varieties of pseudo-public space) should be designed to appear welcoming, inviting and visually and physically accessible, avoiding any doubt in users’ minds that they are clearly public, regardless of who owns and manages them”
  • The creation of engaging public spaces, with active uses carefully designed into the public space from the start and letting people engage with them
  • The incorporation of notable amenities and features (kiosks, sports facilities, fountains, play equipment, rest areas, etc) that give meaning to the space
  • The function of such spaces as venues for public debate, protest, communication, and collective experience that encourages social engagement
  • The re-balancing of space in order to accommodate both pedestrian movement and traffic
  • The feeling of being safe and use public spaces in a relaxed and comfortable manner, with opportunities for users to stop and linger in they wish so
  • And finally, the ability of such spaces to be robust and successfully adaptable by changes to society and technology.

By taking these principles and factors in mind, planners and managers can set out “a series of well-grounded positive principles for public space design” in advance of development of public spaces.