What Makes a Great Public Space?

Placemaking is defined in many ways. For the National Association of Realtors, we look at placemaking as a way to transform an unused or underutilized public space into a vibrant gathering place for the community.

I just read a short article posted by the Penn State Extension Economic & Community Development Team that shares some of NAR’s views of placemaking and thought it’s a nice recap of what makes a public space great.

Repost of What makes a Great Public Space
Penn State Extension
Written by Peter Wulfhorst, AICP

Have you ever been somewhere and noticed a public space or gathering place grabs your attention and just draws you in? Maybe it’s a small urban park, a plaza, a town square, marketplace, or a water feature. It could be almost anything but it is usually full of life, buzzing with people, and seems to be the place everybody wants to be.

College Avenue & South Allen Street, State College PA

College Avenue & South Allen Street, State College PA

So, what is it that makes those spaces great? Great public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic interactions take place such as friends running into each other, and cultures mix. Great public spaces are accessible to people, engage the public with activities, are comfortable, project a good image and foster a sense of community.

Other characteristics of a Great Public include:

  • Promoting human contact and social activities
  • Is safe, welcoming, and accommodating for all users.
  • Has design and architectural features that are visually interesting.
  • Promoting community involvement.
  • Reflects the local culture or history.
  • Relates well to bordering uses.
  • Is well maintained.
  • Has a unique or special character.

It is important for a great public space to provide a sense of comfort and safety to those people using the space, encourage social interaction amongst users of the public space and provide activities or events that attract and engage people in the public space.

Walking through the center of some communities in this country can be a profoundly alienating experience, as if the whole place had been evacuated for an emergency no one told you about. The decline of public places represents a loss for communities because the street, the square, the park, the market, the playground are the river of life for our communities.

In the 20th century, towns and cities spread out, with houses on big yards. Merchants moved to outlying shopping malls. Inventions like telephones, television, and computers transformed our lives. People withdrew from public spaces. Many new developments neglected to include sidewalks, parks, downtowns, transit, and playgrounds. Many people today wonder if public spaces serve any real purpose.

The PA Chapter of the American Planning Association is recognizing Great Public Places in Pennsylvania such as:

  • Market Square in the City of Pittsburgh, a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented public space in Pittsburgh’s Central Business District that attracts commuters, tourists, students and others.
  • The Oval, city of Philadelphia, a thriving pedestrian environment that connects the many cultural venues on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and provides a gathering place for residents and visitors.
  • Allen Street & College Avenue in State College, known as the “Corner” serving as a link between Penn State University and downtown State College a year-round gathering place, multi-modal transportation hub and community events.
  • Steel Stacks Campus, City of Bethlehem, home to many community events, festivals and concerts that attract well over one million residents and visitors annually.
Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA

Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA

These public spaces exhibit the characteristics of great public spaces while connecting people with each other.

The key to restoring life to public places and to our communities as a whole is to understand that most people today have more options. A trip to downtown, the farmers market, or the library is recreational as much as practical, a chance to have fun, hang out, and enjoy the surroundings.

People are not out in public spaces because they have to, but because they love to be there. People can choose to go elsewhere if the place doesn’t appeal to them.

So do you have a public space in your community that attracts people for community events or social gatherings. I would think Pennsylvania is home to many great public spaces.