Elements in Designing Public Spaces
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Published: Tue, 01 May 2018
Now a days more attention is given on to the human dimension in the city planning and the need for quality in the public spaces. Importance of public spaces is universally accepted by one and all. The question is what makes public space more successful? The designer is trying to give best model of good public spaces. However we find that many times well designed public space also doesn’t generate good public response. In this essay an attempt is made to study a place evolved organic growth through accumulation and flourishes of public at large design public space to know which place is more successful.
- What makes a successful public space?
- Have people who use it had any role to play in making it a successful?
- What role a designer can play in making a space successful?
Public space defined:
If one has to define public space in one liner, it means space for public at large.According to public space book, ‘public zrealm includes all the space accessible to and used by people’ (p.111).So we can say it is a space which is made for people and it is made by people.
As Loukaitou sideris and Banerjee (1998, p.175) observe: ‘public life involves relatively open and universal social contexts, in contrast to private life, which is intimate, familiar, shielded, controlled by the individual, and shared only with family and friends’.
Public space is the place where one likes to spend more time not doing anything special and enjoy surroundings. This can be libraries, community centers, streets, plaza and parks. The dimensions of public space are ‘physical and social’. (p.109) Physical means space- which occur social activities. These spaces may be or may not be privately owned. For example hospitals, theaters etc are privately owned public space.
‘The public space can be external or internal and it might be quasi external and internal space.’ (p.111)
William White (1980) in his study in New York gave more emphasis on ‘small scale open spaces in towns, squares, piazzas, plazas, pocket parks and street as the important public space,’ which are external public spaces.
Primitive man moved from place to place in search for food and shelter. Agriculture helped him to settle at place for security and protection. Family life and sense of ownership were the important factor which weighed with him for the establishment of settlement. Communal living gave rise to social interaction. He then stated exchanging goods and services with others in the community for his personal and family need and here started business and commerce. Good and bad events in the community brought inmates closer and this is how, a life outside the private house originated. Initially no particular space was identified as public space. Shady place under the tree on the outskirt of a village or habitat served the purpose. Common well near the village, lake side land, riverbank or the market place was the place where people of all walks of life gathered and discussed their serious and non serious issues. Still in villages people use to gather at the Chauraha of the village. Chauraha is the space where the community meeting takes place in village. It might be under tree or open space at the junction of street. Here they did their routine activity, enjoyed the community life. This was the most primitive public space created by the people without any deliberation or active participation. Market places, squares, plazas and gardens are the extended versions of such places by evolution.
All these places have grown organically by evolution. The man is the most inquisitive and innovative creature on earth. He has the ability to think, evaluate, accept the good and forego the bad. These mental faculties have made it possible for a man to improve by evolution. The change may not seem in a short time, in the longer run, the change is substantial. By evolutionary process man has tried to make his habitat more and more suited. Man has improvised his society by accumulation, adaptations and additions.
Henry Sheftoe has raised a question ‘can we design such places at the drawing board?’
Critics of formal architecture and planning such as Bernard Rudofsky (Architecture without Architects) and Christopher Alexander (The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language) suggest that ‘we are better of ‘growing’ good places and spaces, rather than trying to build them from a blueprint’. Henry Sheftoe has said ‘I think we have a lot to learn about how plans and natural environments grow, evolve and adapt to local circumstances and then to mirror this in the development of the built environment’.
What do we mean by a city or town? Is it just a place of land where houses have been built for human settlement? Or it is a living organism of people staying there. If one knows the basic different between ‘house’ and ‘home’, he will appreciate this important difference. A building may be just a structure of four walls and roof for an outsider but for a person residing there is more than that because he is attached to the same sentimentally. This sense of attachment to a public place works at macro level. Therefore, when we talk of evolved public space, they are the places created be people for themselves to suit their taste, culture and tradition.
‘The city is discussed in barren eviscerated terms and in technical jargon by urban professional as if it were lifeless, detached being. In fact it is a sensory, emotional, lived experience.’ (Landry 2006,p.2).
When a city or town is to be planned from the scratch, the designer can defiantly give his best with the help of his design input. He provides for the well designed public spaces for the common use and the same will be used by people who will stay there. But this is not the easy case every time. How well the people will accept a public space if it is designed without taking in to account their taste and needs? It may fail through it may be the most ideal design situation.
Sennet (1973) in his critical statement said ‘… they have failed, not for lack of technical expertise, but because they have lot had the power to be adaptive over the course of time’ p100.
Barnad (1994) in his account of ‘ How Building Learn’ suggested that good architecture is nor necessarily produced by design specialists but by the spontaneous and continuous activity of the people’.
Christopher Alexander asks ‘why our modern cities so often lack a sense of natural growth, and goes on to suggest a set of rules and guidelines by which we can inject that organic character back into our high streets, buildings and squares’.
People who stay at a place, have by their long association to the place and style of living, developed an affinity towards the same and material change in that space will never be accepted by them. Spaces are for people to suit the designed place. Such attempts will arouse condemnation from the people and will result in failure of the space to serve the purpose. One can treat the body but not the soul.
What is successful public space?:
Successful public space are the place which is universally accepted by the community, where one can see and enjoy multiple activity and accessible by all kinds of member of society from children to aged.
According to Francis Tibbalds, successful public spaces ‘consist of rich, vibrant, mixed use environment that does not die at night or at the weekends and is visually stimulating and attractive to residents and visitors alike’.
Successful public spaces contain overlapping use of different activity and where person can join and participate without any hesitation. It must be a safe place. This is the place where society like to meet daily and enjoy the pollution free atmosphere.
Henry Sheftoe has used word ‘convivial’ for a successful public space. He says ‘convivial’ is defined in dictionaries as ‘festive, sociable, jovial and fond of merry- making’; usually referring to people, but it can equally apply to a situation. He says ‘without such convivial spaces, cities, towns and villages would be mere accretions of buildings with no deliberate opportunities for casual encounters and positive interactions between friends or strangers’.
How to evaluate public space?
Despite the fact that the public space is important for good urban living, question still remains, what places are good or bad. Evolution of public space is a subjective issue and decisions may vary from person to person. Here we are not concerned with the decision form the designer’s point of view, but only from the point of vew of an individual common man on the street. Experts in the subjects have given different parameters for evaluating the success of a public space. However ‘project for public space’ have after many case studies and surveys propounded four important parameters and they are ‘access and linkages, comfort and image, user and activities, sociability’. All other parameters given by others are more or less covered within the sweep of the aforesaid four issues. Therefore in this essay, success of the public spaces is examined by applying these four parameters only. Accessibility is most important factor which affects the willingness of the users. People are ready and willing if the space is nearby, in the neighborhood or approachable easily. Comfort and images decides the attraction of people.
According to book ‘Image of the City’ (Lynch, p.9), ‘the quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability to evoking a strong image in any given observer’.
Good comfort of space also create good image on the mind. Comfort is the abstract perception in the minds of the user and good seating, lighting, mobility, traffic free environment are the physical criteria. People coming to certain public space have different reasons to come and therefore multiple activity options on the space make it more convivial. Mixed used activities generate maximum public response. If space is used by only one type of users, other users may not find place interesting. Space must provide welcoming environment to all the residents at all the time. Activities in short are the reasons to visit the place, they will interact and communicate with each other. They will love the company and will have sympathy for others. Tolerance, compassion and love are the natural fallout of a good public space.
Why Banaras Ghats and Pershing park?
Case study of ghat in Banaras as evolved public space:
Banaras is perhaps the oldest living city in the world. It is said that (singh, 1993) ‘city has been lived since 4th century.’
According to Mark Twain (1898) ‘Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them together.’
It is situated on the bank of holy river Ganga. According to author P. B. Singh (1993), ‘From the ages this river front of Ganga is used by people of India as a place for performing rituals and holistic activity from birth to death.’ Visitor from all over the world make a point to visit Banaras either to perform Hindu rituals or be witness to them.
River bank of Ganga and especially the Ghats has been acclaimed as public places and their existence since time immemorial does make it evolved public place. It is a classical example of evolved public place.
According to the Merriam Webster’s online dictionary (2009) Ghat means ‘A broad flight of steps that is situated on an Indian riverbank and that provides access to the water especially for bathing.’
Banaras is bound on the east by river Ganga which flows from north to south and while bending continuously makes a beautiful crescent like riverfront. The left bank is flanked by city while right bank is plain and undeveloped. The right bank lands are reserved for agriculture and no construction is permissible.
People of Banaras are strongly related to river. The river nurtures their life. It is respected mother like. All the people living there regularly visit the ghat for bathing and routine. Earlier the ghats were muddy platforms to sit near the river. However by evolution the muddy platforms are regenerated as stepped ghats. ‘Most of these ghats have been improved during the 17th and 18th centuries.’ (Singh, 1993). High contours and different water levels in the river during different seasons, the stepped embankment -ghat is perhaps the best type of river front.
There are almost 84 ghats along the river in span of 5 kms. However study is confined to Dasashvamedh ghat, Darbhanga ghat, Munshi ghat, Ahilyabai Ghat.
Accessibility and linkage to the edge of the river (Ghat):
Study area Ghats are interconnected with each other and one can walk from one to other easily. Access to the ghat is little bit mysterious and confusing. But in plan, one can observe that all roads in the city directly lead to the ghats. Ghats are connected with two types of street. Dasashvamedh road is the Commercial Street and main approach for visitors. Other streets are Secondary Street and connect internal part of the city to the ghats. Other clear accessibility to the ghats is from the river, which is very clear and inviting. Transit points are the main bazaar street. Ghat is accessible on foot and by the boat from the river.
The overall experience from city to the Dasashvamedh Ghat:
From city to the Ghat is a human scale. Person can’t perceive the Ghat while moving from the street. River is not visible from the inner parts of the town. Arrival to the Ghats is quite surprising. Organic development of the building on the edge of river diverts the user’s movement towards Ghat at certain angle and cut the vision from the distance.
The experience from Dasashvamedh Ghat to the city:
This experience is quite opposite to one stated above. At the ghat edge buildings are monument scale, which create image of the city from the river and image of skyline gives clear interpretation of activity on the edge. From the ghat one can observe whole city skyline because of the topography of the city. This scale slowly disappears while moving towheads the city.
Dasashvamedh road is a main connection between Kashi Vishvanath temple and the Dasashvamedh Ghat. The whole street contains commercial life and full of mix use character houses. Surprisingly street has two way roads with divider at the center but does not give access to cars. Only two wheelers can pass on this road. The flow of people on this route is so high and black head crowd leads everyone towards the Ghat. At the junction of the Ghat street goes down in slope.
These streets connect Munshi Ghat, Darbhanda Ghat and Ahilyabai ghat which are mainly attached with residential area. These streets are quite narrow and flanked by row of 3 to 4 storied residential houses with small shops on the ground floor. Street creates shadow on the road all the time which gives good comfort all the time of the day to user. Cows and dogs also stroll in these narrow streets and pedestrian found comfortable. Dark street have over looking spaces from the houses create secure and safe walk for users. At the junction of Chaustti Bazaar streets widen up and that generate community activity with the help of Chaurah (cross road) and temple or shrine. Here edges are the mediator who play major role to generate public spaces at the certain intervals.
Accessibility to the Ghats is crowded and appears mess to a designer. On the linkage of the ghat and street, small temples and stalls which make it porous and active in nature. Crowd on such points make the movement on foot also difficult.
Edge of the Ghat:
Edge of the Darbhanga Ghat and Munshi Ghat are quite dead because of the fort wall but still we can observe activities there. On Dasashvamedh Ghat, shops and temples make edge quite porous and live.
Comfort and Image:
Ghats have its own individuality on the bank of rive Ganga. Here we can really appreciate what Kevin Lynch thought about the city image (1981, p.1 ) ‘At every instant, there is more than eye can see, more than ear can hear, sitting or a view waiting to be explored.’
According to Rishma Parikh (2000, p.39) ‘the nature of the ‘place’is sensorial as well as physical. Both, physical environment and the manners of its consumption are responsible for an image.’
Ghats are very unique in nature. The steps on the contour make it full of life and activities. One can notice that number of people, mostly tourist are busy with cameras taking photograph. But those busy in their routine activities of bathing, praying, performing rituals are unperturbed. The space is full of people from all walks of life.
The stone steps provide sitting for people as well as provide accessibility to river. Here Ghats face east direction so direct sun light will be there in the morning hours but in let afternoon and evening hours, monumental scale edge gives shadow on the steps.
People use umbrella to gain shadow in the morning hours on the platform of the ghat. At places, bottom of the trees is converted into platform to sit.
Here at the Dasashvamedh Ghat we can see police station but still safety is the issue because of the overcrowding. The buildings on the steps create overlooking spaces, which help to reduce issues of safety.
City of Banaras is very congested in nature. But as one enters the Ghat, one can feel openness and freedom of space, which is the main attraction for the people to come at ghat.
Uses and activity:
The Ghats generate very strong religious bond because of devotees holding central activity power. All ghats are used for ritual activities. In the morning people gather here for bathing and Puja, in the afternoon people are busy doing rituals and evening hours see people attending Arati (offering with lighted lamps) and Puja.
They take bath in the river. In the afternoon time we can see the people doing different ritual activity behind the death of the people. Apart from the rituals we can see children playing on the platform of the Ghats.
Visitors are roaming around and taking photos. Even these activities are also daily on the Ghats. In the special occasions the Ghats used as Emphi Theater, where different live concerts are arranged. On festival days, special Arati is done. Ghats have multi layer activity throughout the day. On the edge of the Dasashvamedh Ghat we can find small temples which conduct religious discourses.
The small stalls around the Ghats sell many items which attract not only the local public but also the tourist alike. Small idols, flower, scented sticks etc. Even visitor can take a ride in the bat during the day and night time full moon boat ride is very famous to enjoy the river.
This is perhaps the best place where one can see culture and tradition of India. It is India in small scale.
Sociability of the place is clearly seen. Activities here bring the people together. Devotees and priest sit together and have rituals, which is the back bone activity on the ghat. We find people of all walks of life from beggars to businessman freely interacting with each other. Rich give aims to poor. Bhandaras are the special events on festival days. This is the best example of community participation on the ghat. Even one can observe animals like, cow, goat and man/woman sitting together very comfortably. Visitors and even foreign tourist are seen involved in local activities. Barber shop, tea stalls, palmist, horoscope reader, singer, musician and serpent are commonly seen here and people enjoy their presence and company. Ghats are the best example of socialization between people of different culture and tradition. Space around the Ghats is quite messy and dirty but it doesn’t dissuade public to going there.
All big events in the town are held here. The Ghats not only have religious importance but are the life line of the people of neighborhood.
Kumar says about people of Banaras in her article,’ their bowels would simply not move in closed spaces, nor would they consider themselves clean from bathing under tap’, which shows social attachment of people to the space. Take away ghat from Banaras and it would be lifeless. Ghats are the best examples of democratic places.
Neelakshi Joshi has rightly said,’ the ghat is thus the common bath, the largest open space, meditation center and the biggest pub in town for culture and social encounter and has been so far centuries untold. The ghats of Banaras stand as inspiration for bringing together all men-painters, ascetics, beggars, washer men and kings to the same platform. Nature’s bounty is not considered the prerogative of the man who can afford the property by the river. It is rather a thing of joy for all to be enjoyed together’.
Case study of Pershing Square:
Site is situated in Los Angeles. City has storing grid pattern and this park is fitted in block size of the grid. This park was designed 1866 and number of time it was redesigned. The study is based on the last design which is done in 1994 by Ricardo Legoretta and Laurie Olin. Before in 1866 it was a formal Spanish plaza and then it was reinvented in 1911, 1928, 1950 and 1994. The number of redesigning of plaza shows transformation of the city from time to time. It is suggestive of the lack of community connection. If local people are attached to a place, they would have stuck to basic form of the space. In 1951 government rebuilt the area and proposed underground parking with the reason to reduce car congestion of the area.
Accessibility and image to the park:
The Pershing square is an island having road grid on all four sides. The streets which are adjacent to the square are south Olive Street, West 5th and 6th lane and south hill street. Park is accessible from all roads. Streets act as a divider between edge of adjacent building and park. Buildings around the streets are like west 6th lane, South Olive and Hill Street. Have activates like domino’s pizza, restaurants, café, hotels, offices and international jewelry center. This street façade seems very active and porous in nature. The West 5th street façade is little dead and have parking lot as well. Traffic on this street in day time is quite high. People use this street as a pathway to go from one place to another. People do not linger here on this space for long time. At the edge of the square have entry for the underground parking. It has different color wall on the edge, which distract the vision of people. One can find public transport at the edge of the park. On all streets, bus stop to access the park. Pershing square metro station is located nearby at five minutes’ walk.
Comfort and image to the park:
At the first glance of the park’s modern architecture generate good impression on the mind. Usage of the bright color creates aesthetic excitement. Even good use of architectural elements can be seen inside the park. Park has good comfortable arrangement of seating. Pam tree in the park give better shadow and give proper comfortable area to stand. The steps around the water body give comfortable sitting to the user.
Usage and activity at the park:
The park has scientific architectural elements like solar system waterfall, several constellation maps on floor, telescopes. But this element does not generate activates. At lunch time, people serving in nearby places come here to take their lunch. Most of the time the park is sterile. The development authority conduct good events on the park to attract people like ice scatting, musical evenings etc. but after the activity park seem dead. Park is used only by homeless people.
The development authority designed it to make a social and democratic space. But it has not come up as such. It has miserable failed to serve is purpose.
Case study shows that ghats are conveniently located on bank of River Ganga. The river runs north to south and city has organically grown along the river. All the roads lead us to Ghat and accessibility is good form proximity point of view. However city is congested. Roads are narrow and mess. Ghats remain crowded all the time and movement is not comfortable. Cleanliness is another negative factor. However from the point of varied of activities, it is a successful place in as much as the place is bubbling with varied activities throughout the day. Socialization is utmost on this space. If the success of the ghat is to be evaluated y applying parameters suggested by the Project for Public Space, the rating would be poor. However, clumsy accessibility and poor comfort level do not deter the people from socializing on this space. The reverence, people of Banaras has shown is enormous to river Ganga. River Ganga is the life line of people o Banaras and Ghats are the organs without which life at Banaras cannot be thought of. Social attachment of the people of Banaras to river Ganga is is enormous and that has made the ghats a great success despite all odds in terms of good design elements. Ghats are present day riverfronts. However, care has been taken by those who developed ghats on river to ensure that the river is not canalized by embankments as we see at other places. The crescent shaped curve of the river is also well maintained showing their respect for the river. Ghats are perhaps the best example of evolved places.
Second case study of Pershing Square Park gives an opposite proposition. Accessibility to park is good. Comfort level and image of the place is also good. Aesthetic design of the park should normally arouse public response. The development authorities have inserted all good design elements to make the park success. However we find that public participation at the place is very poor. The park has failed to achieve its objective. Either people are not interested in the activities it offers or the people have no attachment with the space.
The combined study of the two places leads us to conclude that over and above the four parameters suggested by Project for Public Space, there is one more factor which is vital to make a public space convivial and it is -emotional attachment of people to its place. Presence of this factor alone can make a space successful even if no some other counts it may not be convivial. Emotions emanate from long unbroken social and cultural bond. People make places by their accumulations of adaptations and additions. Designer can certainly give his inputs on first three counts of accessibility, comfort and activities but he is helpless on the last parameter in as much as he can solicit public response. He can’t make people use this space. Public sentiments are the most vital issue which makes the place successful. Without public response, the space will be sterile and miserably fail to achieve its true objective. The authorities, therefore, should concentrate more on improving evolved public spaces by increasing the accessibility and comfort level and by providing diverse mix use activities. Evolved public spaces can be made more convivial with little work in this direction.
- People make places. Unless the space stimulates the overwhelmed response from one and all, the public space meat for them cannot become successful.
- The public spaces evolved by accumulation of adaptations and additions by users themselves are more convivial and people regularly use such places though they are not encouraging from the designer’s point of view.
- The success of particular public spaces is not in the hands of the designer. His best design model can fail if people do not respond favorably.
- Design exercise fails if it does not uphold the sentiments of the people using them.
- Evolved public space can be easily made more comfortable and lively by the efforts of the designer who keeps in mind the sentiments of the users.
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