Concept of Public Places

In order to understand the relationship between people and their environment (place), we need first to consider the concept and quality of public places to achieve a vibrant urban environment. Public places are a component of the public sphere. The public sphere is where strangers meet, it stands in contrast to the private sphere, where close relationships, such as the family flourish (Hampton, 2014).


Public Square – Courtesy of

One: Characteristics of Public Places

A public place reflects ourselves, our larger culture, our private beliefs and public values. It is the common ground where civility and our collective sense of what may be called “publicness” are developed and expressed. Our public environment serves as a reflection or a mirror of individual behaviors, social processes and our often conflicting public values (Altman, 1989). Thus, to consider the relationship between people and their place is to start with architectural or environmental determinism, where the physical environment has an influence on human behavior. When we are trying to talk about public places, first we have to understand and conceptualize that public places are considered as an opportunity for the exchange of messages with diverse others. Public places include the city’s streets and markets, sidewalks, parks, plazas, playgrounds and neighborhood spaces in residential areas to which all persons have legal access. Thus, public places are considered to be important in the social life of people and communities (Worpole, 2007).


Public market – Courtesy of

Two: Improvisation That Happens in Public Places

On one hand, a discussion of public place raises the question, who is a public place for? In reality, public places are considered as the meeting point of interests of many different groups. Studying the needs and agendas of these unlike ‘publics’ is important for understanding how public place is developed, used and valued. In addition, public places provide avenues for movement, a means of communication, enjoyment and relaxation. The ability of public places to educate and offer knowledge is also a significant aspect, particularly when these spaces play an important role in the history of the city and the social life of its citizens.


Brooklyn Bridge Park (New York) – Courtesy of

Over time, many public places have been the epicenter of social life by providing people with opportunities to gather and socialize, to celebrate, for children to play in and for the understanding of economic, cultural, religious and political activities.


Public playground – Courtesy of

However, changes and transformations in public places evolved since everyone is entitled to make use of public places. Sometimes we see in the same park or square people we don’t know or do not care to associate with. They might sit next to us and they might do things that are unpredictable, things that we might find offensive or annoying. Some people are not always welcomed in public places, some uses no longer fulfill traditional normative expectations of what is considered to be appropriate behavior and some groups can be privileged over others (Kostof, 1999). Lawson (2001) argues that whenever we find people gathered together collectively inhibiting some part of our world we also tend to find rules governing their use of space. The queue for example, is a form of conventionalized behavior triggered by environmental signals. This means that, when someone pushes in front of you in a queue, you feel offended not just because you are one place further back but also because they failed to respect the rules. In most situations where we queue, there are also token signals from the physical environment that we should behave in this highly artificial way. The rope barriers sometimes used to form queues in public places are hardly able to contain a crowd physically, and yet without them the crowd would probably push and shove in a chaotic and possible an aggressive manner (Carmona, 2003).


Queuing in front of a supermarket ( Japan) – Courtesy of

Another example, in one town center where a new fountain had been installed, local traders, who regarded it primarily as an attraction to shoppers, resented the fact that children used it as a play facility. This means that, the needs and interests of children and young people should be overlooked. Another example is how local parks may often be used by young people for hanging out, or by groups of street drinkers. In the absence of other facilities or spaces for these groups, this might be regarded as legitimate, as long as no harm is caused to others (Aghostin, 2007).

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Street drinkers in the parks – Courtesy of

Three: The Role of Architects and Planners

By now you must have asked yourself what is then the designer’s role in including or restricting this freedom of action? The answer to this question is that changes in public life are transforming the design and management of public places. Existing places have become more controlled by owners, managers and urban designers. Moreover, built environment professionals should adopt a more sensitive approach when dealing with issues that can affect human behavior and influence patterns of human activity and thus, of social life. It does this by suggesting methods by which designers can ensure that public places are receptive to people’s behavioral responses (Attia, 2011).

This can be seen in Superkilen public park in the Norrebro district of Copenhagen, Denmark. Designed by the arts group Superflex with the collaboration of Bjarke Ingels Group and Toptek 1, a German landscape architecture firm. The park was officially opened in June 2011. Superkilen is a park that supports diversity. It is a world exhibition of furniture or everyday objects from all over the world including benches, lampposts, trash cans and plants. The conceptual starting point is a division of Superkilen into three zones and colors – green, black and red. The different surfaces and colors are integrated to form new, dynamic surroundings for the everyday objects.


Superkilen public park site plan Courtesy of Topotek 1 + BIG Architects + Superflex

The Red Square is conceived as an urban extension of the internal life of the Norrebrohall. A range of recreational offers and the large central square allows the local residents to meet each other through physical activity and games. Also, the Red Square creates the setting for an urban marketplace which attracts visitors every weekend from Copenhagen and the suburbs.


The Red Square where public residents meet each other Courtesy of Torben Eskerod

 As for the Black area, the Mimers Plads is the heart of the Superkilen master plan. This is where the locals meet around the Moroccan fountain, the Turkish bench, under the Japanese cheery-trees as the extension of the area’s patio. In weekdays, permanent tables, benches and grill facilities serve as an urban living room for backgammon, chess players, and the like.


The Black area Courtesy of Iwan Baan

The Green Park includes a number of moved sports facilities including the existing hockey field with an integrated basketball court as it will create a natural gathering spot for local young people. The activities of the Green Park with its soft hills and surfaces appeals to children, young people and families. A green landscape and a playground where families with children  can meet for picnics, sunbathing and breaks in the grass.


The Green Park Courtesy of Iwan Baan

The neighbors asked for more green so it ended up making the Green Park completely green, not only keeping and exaggerating the curvy landscape, but also painting all bike and pedestrian paths green

Finally, we are trying to focus that the main goal of planners and urban designers is to develop the quality of public places and at the same time respond to the context of the surrounding environment.

Above all, urban designers and planners can link the gap between design and behavioral science by identifying not just the users’ preferences but also the value of the environment. Here comes another question; how important is it to involve people in the design and planning process? The most compelling argument is presented in the way of using and determining the public spaces. Also, it is important to emphasize on the social participation of users in the design and management process which can create the public place quality and can achieve the integrated relationship between people and their environments.


Written by: Riham Nady

Edited by: Aiysha Alsane



– Aghostin, Venetin. (2007). Human Behaviour in Public Spaces. M.Sc. Dissertation, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South  Wales. Sydney

– Altman, Irwin and Zube, Ervin. (1989). Public Places and Spaces. Plenum Press, New York

– Attia, Sahar. (2011).Rethinking Public Space in Cairo: The Appropriated Tahrir Square. Trilang, pp. 10-15

– Carmona, Mathew and Tiesdell, Steve. (2003).Public Place-Urban spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design. Architectural Press, London

– Hampton, Keith. (2014). Change in the Social Life of Urban Public Space: The Rise of Mobile Phones and Women, and the Decline of Aloneness Over Thirty Years. Department of communication, The State University of New Jersey. U.S.A.

– Kostof, Spiro. (1999).The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form through History. Thames and Hudson, Boston

– SustainableCitiesCollective official website. (2013). “5 Inspiring stories of Public Space”.

– Worpole, Ken and Knox, Katharine. (2007).The social value of public spaces.  Joseph Rowntree Foundation


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