Public space: notes on the why, what and how

The book
Public Space shows the diversity, functions, challenges and opposing interests within the physical manifestation of the public realm. It’s a bundle of thoughts and short notes about all its facets as a space, place, site, network and arena. The book provides a nice overview and update of the current state of public spaces. More in-depth analyzes and practical solutions would have been welcome.

Without exaggerating, we can say that public spaces are both the beating heart of a city and the blood vessels through which public life flows. It is in these spaces where we meet other people, where we move around, and where we relax, sport, play, and exercise. In other words, we use public space so often and in so many different ways that we should never underestimate its value and pay full attention to it. This is one of the reasons why we should embrace the latest book of Vikas Mehta: Public Space: notes on why it matters, what we should know, and how to realize its potential.  

Why care?
In this book Metha, a Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning (University of Cincinnati),  takes us to the versatility of public spaces and presents the wide-ranging issues, arguments, ideas, paradoxes, possibilities, and propositions that comes with it. The first two chapters are about the understanding and importance of public space. It shows its role as:

  • social space: use, see, be seen, meet, interact, socialize
  • material space: sidewalks, streets, squares, plazas, playgrounds
  • political space:  gather, discuss, demand, protest, debate

A place for visibility, spontaneous or planned encounters, for a break in daily rhythm, for enjoyment, for play, and for movement. It explains the differences between public sphere, public domain, public good, public realm, and public space. And in this first part we also find some useful lists of, for example the different frames of reference (legal, economic, management, physical/spatial, social, political) and the different modalities (civic, social, restorative, symbolic, exchange, kinetic) of public spaces. And it shows from a user perspective that public space means different things to different people (young-old, rich-poor, male-female, residents-visitors). 

Due to the versatile use, the continuous change and the many functions, public spaces have to do with contradictory features, qualities, claims and interests. These paradoxes - although challenges might have been a more appropriate word - are discussed in part 3 of the book. Such as the role of private capital in our public realm, the vicious circle of commoditization that has resulted in institutionalized and marketable public spaces, the non-inclusiveness of public space due to the urge to design and program public spaces that only fit the middle-class values and norms, and how rules and regulations prohibit or discourage certain activities and attract a desired genre of public. All developments that lead to more and more homogenized, fragmented, isolated, and flattened public spaces (also mentioned in the book Urban Playground by Tim Gill). Public space should however be open, accessible, attractive, and interesting to all. The question, however, is how public are our public spaces? Especially when we see minorities, the destitute and the marginal as undesirables. Then we will see the city as a bathroom, which must always be clean and safe, as a Dutch sociologist once rightly criticized. Mehta rightly states: “One of the biggest challenges for urban designers, architects, planners, and managers of the public space [is that they] must acknowledge that varied groups have different needs and preferences” (p.111).

Another challenge that is mentioned - and to which a little more words could have been devoted - is the fact that we use our public spaces very inefficiently. Much of it is consumed and used by motorized vehicles. Not only in motion, but also in a stationary position. One the most important tasks - in my opinion - is to give cycling and walking in city planning at least as much time, money and attention as motorized traffic. It’s about creating a well-connected web of routes for slow traffic to key places such as schools, shops, parks, playgrounds and other public spaces (see also the article Bicycle urbanism: know the ropes).  

In the fourth part the author shows how public space offers spaces for individual or collective action,  sharing, exchanging, expression, and creating meaningful experiences and memories. For both individuals, cohesive groups, and for society at large. In addition, they are sites for true democracy (think of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter movements) and places for commerce (selling, buying, browsing, eating, drinking). Although the latter also has a downside: “food and drink establishments […] convert public space into ticketed and conditional public space – a space where all public is permitted on the condition that they make a purchase” (p.161).

This part repeats - with different words - the functions and possibilities of the public space as they were also discussed in the first chapters. After the paradoxes and challenges in part three you would you like to read more about possible solution-paths or an overview with some lists that can serve as a starting point for those who want to improve their public spaces. Lists that don't act as blueprints or as an one-size-fits-all solution, but simply help to create a bit of order. Like the five tips that are given to achieve multi-use public space (p.199). I would have liked more of that. But unfortunately it doesn’t often become that practical or specific. Too little attention has been paid to the how-question from the subtitle of the book. For those interested, it is better to grab books like Cities for People (Jan Gehl, 2010), Soft City (David Sim, 2019) or the design guides from NACTO, such as Designing streets for kids.

In the final part Mehta argues that the future of public space must be guided by two overarching values or wisdoms: open-endedness and systems thinking.

The first one emphasizes that public spaces should be open to experimentation and future change. It should be flexible so that people have choices how to use it. “Ambiguity, looseness, adaptability, and open-endedness are not imperfections, but crucial qualities of public space” (p.178). A plea which has similarities to what Richard Sennett (2018) calls the ‘Open city’ in his book Building and Dwelling. With open Sennett means incomplete, errant, conflictual, innovation, uncertain, complexity, and non-linear. A city where citizens actively hash out their differences and planners experiment with urban forms that make it easier for residents to cope. Opposed to the closed city which is over-determined, regimented, balanced, segregated, controlled, clarity and linear. 

The second argument focuses on the envisioning of public space as an interrelated and interdependent system. By using the systems thinking approach it shows that it is about more than just the sum of its parts. One should connect the different macro-, meso- and micro-scaled spaces in a city-wide system, instead of the often bounded terrain of districts and areas. This plea for applying this system theory to cities has been mentioned before by for example Patrick Condon in his book 5 rules for tomorrow’s cities. Rule number one is: see the city as a system. Condon argues that you can’t analyze the city with a mechanistic view in which urban design is just an technical task. The city is not a simple collection of physicals objects without any connection between separate elements. Instead urban designers and planners must cultivate a deeper sensitivity to the sublime reality of the city that consist of interdependent and interlinked social and physical systems. It corresponds to what Jane Jacobs (1961, p.432) wrote about the usefulness of seeing the city as an organized complexity, consisting of a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole. Jacobs illustrates this with a city neighborhood park. How much the park is used depends on its design (the physical place), but also on who is around (social factor) and the uses of the city outside the park itself (the surroundings). These factors have their own influence on the use of the park, but they also influence each other. And although these interrelations are complex, they are not accidental or irrational. They can be analyzed and explained, but only via a detailed view because it always depends upon the circumstances and contexts in which they exist. So there are none all-purpose analyses or all-purpose cures.  

A notebook
Where in the last two mentioned books you get more explanation about the theory and how you can apply it to cities, in Methta’s ‘Public space’ it remains with only a few statements. And that brings us to the main point of criticism: as a reader you get these very small bites about a feature, challenge or possibility for public space. Usually posited on one or two pages. As a result, you never really go deeper into a subject. In addition, the short statements are sometimes difficult to rhyme with each other. It is indeed what the author himself calls “a wide-ranging and eclectic book” (p.5) and “a smorgasbord with numerous ideas” (p.7). It is truly a notebook with small, loosely hanging bits of text. The advantage of this is that it is easy to read, that you can open it at any page, and that many different facets are discussed. Many well-known scholars or their thoughts pass by, such as Lewis Mumford, Giambattista Nolli, Jan Gehl, Willliam H. Whyte, and Jane Jacobs. And also familiar theories like bonding vs. bridging, loose vs. tight space, gesellschaft vs. gemeinschaft, triangulation, the commons, public space as a third place, sense of place, weak ties, and the edge effect.

The disadvantage logically also arises from this notebook set-up: in-depth analyses and full and coherent storylines are scarce. While the author has many publications to his name where that need is met.

Is it all new and innovative? No, it isn’t, as the author himself admits: “Much of the material in this book may not be new but my interpretation and the delivery, like a curated exhibition, is” (p.6). And that is perhaps the most important added value of this book. It is an overview of the many aspects of public spaces. Ideal for those who want to dive into this subject for the first time, such as students. At the same time, it can also be interesting for professionals who have to work together on public spaces. If all the different members of a project group read this book, then you would have a nice joint starting point to discuss the design, management and programming of public spaces.

*** Photos by (c) Gerben Helleman ***


Jan Gehl (2010) Cities for People. Island Press.

Gerben Helleman (2018) Playable Cities: a model and a toolkit. Blog Urban Springtime.

Gerben Helleman (2017) How to make inviting and attractive public spaces? A top 10. Blog Urban Springtime.

Jane Jacobs (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House Usa Inc.

Vikas Mehta (2023) Public Space: notes on why it matters, what we should know, and how to realize its potential. Routledge.

National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) (2020) Designing Streets for Kids. Washington D.C.: Island Press. 

Richard Sennett (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

David Sim (2019) Soft City: building density for everyday life. Island Press.