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Are we missing something in Public Space Design?

how can we design better public spaces?

Are we missing something in Public Space Design?
In the process of re-urbanising our cities to be more suited for people, public spaces have become a key component of many regeneration and redevelopment schemes. Active public spaces are a vital ingredient for liveable cities, thriving economy and socially cohesive society. To improve the quality of public space design, place-making principles of human-centred design and stakeholder engagement are increasingly being advocated. There are many place-making design guidelines and books on how to design spaces that are meaningful, adaptable and well-used. However, something doesn’t seem to be working. Shopping streets are continually redeveloped to re-invigorate them and initially popular shiny new public spaces turn into places-less spaces after a few years, despite including everything communities have requested? What is it that we are missing when designing public realm, and how can we design better public spaces?

While the methodologies and design guidelines are becoming increasingly detailed in the types of information they document, missing is a description of an underlying process about decision making connected to use or non-use of public space. This remains unclear in both place-making practice and the underlying theory of place. Place-making in practice is a design methodology based on the theory of place where associations of activity with physical spaces are used to define place. But how do people make meaningful connections with space? The process of how individuals generate meanings which drive the associations is absent from both place-making in practice and the theory of place. In addressing this issue, here is a summary of a study that seeks to respond to these questions. 

There are as many interpretations of public space as there are potential users of the space. A review of the literature indicates that every person understands places differently and recognise each as a separate entity. These views may overlap, but people assess environments based on their past experiences. Comparisons involving both emotional bonds to the setting and its potential to accommodate planned activities in that space. A decision-making process about a place includes affective (emotions) and cognitive (thinking and reasoning) responses. That emotion, what some refer to as sense of place, frames evaluations and decisions about the space based on anticipated behaviours. The quality of the place in terms of social and physical resources to satisfy goal-directed behaviour. Using this framework, we examined user’s preferences as a function of affective and cognitive processing of design elements in public space. 

 Participants in the study were 160 stationary users of four public spaces in the city centre of Wellington, New Zealand. To test the interrelationship between elements in the theory, we used a facet theory questionnaire (a questionnaire design used in environmental psychology). We examined the relationship between affective and cognitive preferences, and natural and artificial design elements in public spaces for using the space alone or with friends. The research found that both the emotional (affective) and analytical (cognitive) process are involved, with the emotional image of the physical setting providing a gateway for a thoughtful evaluation of design elements. Which means if a place succeeds to a positive impression, a place they like or a new place that matches their likes, it will then be assessed based on its suitability for intended activity. If the initial response is negative in the respondent’s framework, a thoughtful evaluation is unnecessary. Evidence for this two-stage process showed preferences for the same space changes based on how people intend to use the space. For people using public space by themselves, they prefer relaxing areas that have exciting design elements. When meeting friends, they prefer relaxing public spaces with furnishing is the key. If a place is pleasant, but it cannot accommodate a larger group, it will not be selected at that point in time. 

While the initial emotional response frames subsequent evaluations for anticipated behaviour, they are not necessarily fixed. Choices and evaluations can change over time because experience is on-going. Rapid changes in technology, social condition, travel, and economic and cultural globalisation influence user’s needs and preferences, and their expectations can change over time. If public space design is based on needs of stakeholders engaged in the design process at a specific point of time, how could it adapt to changing preferences, changing user populations, and a constantly changing world environment? Place-making at a specific point in time places a temporal constraint on design. Users and preferences change. Long-term use will become more dependent on promotion of activities and eventually re-development to re-invigorate the space. 

Place-making as it is commonly practiced is a good methodology to inform designs for installations with a static purpose and/or limited timeframe, but as a model for ongoing use it has limitations. Once-the popularity fades, places return to placeless spaces requiring re-development. A circularity of ongoing expenditures generated by a participatory methodology conducted in isolation from an adequate theoretical framework. 

This paper suggests place-making specifically and design practice in general to shift from designing public spaces and built environments based on preferences collected at a point in time to enabling opportunity and interpretation for different users and for change over time. Although understanding stakeholders needs and inspiration for public space is necessary, designing to only accommodating those needs is a constraint on the potential of design. Too often designers rely on checklists of design attributes, counts of movement patterns, surveys of stakeholders or their individual preferences and assumption, rather than an understanding of scientific knowledge of the way people use and respond to physical surroundings. An alignment of theory and design practice is required to provide a more sustainable approach to the design of public space. 

This blog is a summary of the paper, Theory of Place in Public Space, published in a thematic issue of Planning Journal “Public Space in the New Urban Agenda: Research into Implementation” 

Read the full paper   


 

About the authors:

Ensiyeh Ghavampour, PhD, is the founder and Director of 4UrbanUniti, with a vision to address loneliness and social isolation in suburban communities. She holds a PhD in Urban Design and a master’s degree in landscape architecture. She has experience working with educational institutes, public and private sectors across Iran and New Zealand. Her current research focuses on placemaking, public open space, participatory design and loneliness.
 
Mark del Aguila, PhD, is joint Co-Ordinator of the Gerontology Network for the International Association of People Environment Studies (IAPS). He has published in gerontology, technology, environmental psychology, and multivariate descriptive statistics.

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