What Makes a Space a Place?: Place-making in Urban Design
By Claire Robertson
The built environment is arguably one of the most significant ways that design affects our daily lives. Architecture constantly shapes the way that we behave and feel, and so do public spaces, such as parks or public squares. The eminent urbanist and “people-watcher” William H. Whyte studied human behaviour and presented his findings in his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980) and the documentary film of the same name. Effective place-making revolves around human scale and walkability and can be applied to both historic and contemporary places.
Whyte’s “Street Life Project for the New York City Planning Commission” discovered that, to his surprise, there were many empty urban spaces in New York City. He set up time-lapse cameras so that he could study people’s behaviour to find what makes an urban place successful or unsuccessful. He concluded that there should be spaces to read, eat, talk and play games. Ample comfortable seating for people to relax and socialise were also important. He praised the movable chairs in Manhattan’s Paley Park and Greenacre Park and noted that Paley Park also had an active relationship with the street.
Architect and urban designer Jan Gehl is also a strong advocate for human scale. In his 2015 TEDx talk entitled “In Search of Human Scale,” Gehl says that cities must be designed at ground level. He states that a modernist city such as Brasília looks impressive from an aerial view, but it is in fact an unpleasant place to live. It is argued that modernist architects designed buildings and areas that were so large that they forgot about the people they were serving. Gehl contrasts this with Copenhagen, saying that while it may not look special when approaching by aeroplane, it has great street life and a design that is focused on the people who live there.
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a non-profit organisation that attempts to develop and implement Whyte’s ideas. PPS has devised four qualities common to all successful public spaces. These are accessibility, engagement with activities, comfort, aesthetics and sociability. Desirable public places tend to be accessed easily by walking, cycling, or public transit. They cater to those with disabilities and foster a welcoming atmosphere for all. Successful places will be clean and free from litter: they will typically contain multiple locations to recycle or throw away rubbish. A mix of groups and single people show that the place can be enjoyed by a variety of visitors. People tend to be smiling and interacting well with one another. The four qualities outlined are important for city planners to keep in mind as they design successful public places, and are also vital in the enhancement of existing areas. PPS’s How to Turn a Place Around: A Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces gives examples of what makes an unsuccessful space. Poorly-designed spaces will lack seating, have limited spaces to socialise, and will contain unwelcoming entrances or useless paths. Furthermore, they will usually be automobile-oriented and have limited access to public transit or pavements. The book also reiterates the effectiveness of Whyte’s “people-watching” technique. It says that personal observation is the best way to gauge how people interact with a public space.
The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is an excellent example of good place making in Scotland. Located at the heart of the city’s Old Town, the area is especially vibrant during the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Before the New Town was constructed, the Royal Mile and surrounding area housed people of all social classes in tall tenement buildings. Today, the area is largely aimed at tourists; there are countless visitor attractions and architectural delights including St. Giles Cathedral, Gladstone’s Land (A National Trust for Scotland property) and Mary King’s Close. According to PPS, the Royal Mile is a great place because of its walkability. The largely pedestrianised streets allow visitors to explore a multitude of attractions easily. There are several hidden gems for visitors to discover. A notable example is the idyllic garden at Dunbar’s Close, which is a short walk away from the Canongate Kirk.
Venice’s Piazza San Marco is another historic European example of a successful place. The square is home to significant civic buildings, coffee shops, clothing shops and the Basilica di San Marco. The square is notable because it is a central hub of public activity. Architecture enthusiasts are drawn to the plethora of styles including Gothic, Middle-Eastern and Asian buildings. Piazza San Marco provides an archetypal image of the city and, like the Royal Mile, is perfect for pedestrians. Furthermore, visitors are made to feel welcome through the square’s movable seating. This allows viewers to take in the architecture and ambience at their leisure, and to engage in casual social interaction. As a result, it embodies central tenets of Whyte’s place-making philosophy.
The Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington was established 110 years ago. The market attracts more than 10 million visitors every year and covers an extensive area of nine acres. PPS assert that the market is a successful place due to the variety of products on offer; this includes fish, meat, vegetables, and even arts and crafts. There is something to cater to anyone’s interests. As well as stalls, the lower level contains additional shops and information areas. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the market immensely. Local citizens enjoy meeting friends there, and it is easily accessible to all. Its neighbourhood location is aimed at pedestrians and cyclists and public transport serves the market well.
Conexão Cultural São Paulo Edição in São Paulo, Brazil, is an example of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) place making. This type of place making engages with local communities and proves that great design does not have to be costly. The city’s Museum of Image and Sound (MIS) and the place-making organisation Conexão Cultural collaborated on this one-day event. The project showcased local painting, photography, installation art, graffiti, and interactive games. This created a fun, interactive environment where visitors could learn about the role that place-making organisations play in São Paulo. Its temporary and inexpensive nature adds a new dimension to place making and shows that it can relate to a plethora of urban spaces.
Place making is a diverse field and can be utilised by designers to revitalise historic places and to create new innovative recreational areas. Whyte says that a city street is “the river of life … where we come together.” It engages the community and strengthens the social life of a city. Real people are at the heart of the approach; observing how people behave is critical to its success. Place-making’s ability to be applied globally is a sure sign of its effectiveness.
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