A nod and a smile to a familiar face, a place to meet friends and take family, somewhere to people watch, a venue for creativity. Public space is the stage to enjoy, celebrate, and mark the stages of life, a place that by its very existence creates community.
Because there’s a vast quality of life difference between places with great public spaces and places without, I’ve written extensively on The Plaza Perspective about why public space is important and how to create high-quality public spaces. There are countless examples of superb public spaces around the world and because we can’t all knock off work to visit such places a new resource has now been added to this website: The Public Space Image Collection. The Collection features large and small squares, pedestrian-only streets, narrow pedestrian-friendly streets, benches, block parties, and more.
I hope the Collection will be inspiring and useful to those pushing for a more humane world, be they citizens with big dreams, urban designers and architects, or leaders. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any photos you’d like to add.
The Collection is a large resource so let’s pick out some highlights…
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
Italy is one of the world’s greatest public space treasure troves, contributing to a strong communal culture and “campanilismo” (literally: “loyalty to the bell-tower”). Siena’s Piazza del Campo is one of Italy’s, and the world’s, most famous squares. Being there is thrilling, one feels at the center of the world. The sense of place is powerful. The surrounding restaurants keep the square vibrant. The gentle slope creates an amphitheater effect which strengthens the people-watching effect. Bollards on the periphery provide a place to lean and watch from a distance. The church on one side further folds the square into civic life of the people.
A visit to the Piazza del Campo is essential for any public space lover.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
This pedestrian street is one of Mostar’s most charming places. In contrast to most streets where goods are encased inside, here wares spill outside, sitting on shelves and steps and hanging on walls and awnings. The street’s main strength is its narrow width, creating a well-defined and intimate environment, far superior to the entire street network of most cities. The result is a thrill for visitors and a world class commercial environment.
Stockton Street, San Francisco, California
Progressive in many ways, way behind when it comes to public space, San Francisco seized a perfect opportunity with downtown’s Stockton Street. During the holiday season when a public infrastructure project had closed the street, the city created the temporary Winter Walk and showed the transformative potential of pedestrianization. Merchants made fast bucks and the people loved it.
Quickly, the business community was pushing for a permanent version. Unfortunately, the good story ends there. The city responded first with a watered-down transit mall (a bus lane down the center, widened sidewalks for the rest of the space) and then by sheepishly backing off when confronted with unfounded fears from nearby Chinatown merchants. A great opportunity squandered, but nonetheless a sign of what’s possible.
Rue Sainte Catherine, Bordeaux, France
Europe’s longest pedestrian street was previously just another traffic artery. Now it’s a spectacular river of humanity. Rue Sainte Catherine is just the backbone of Bordeaux’s pedestrian area, thriving all year round, which also features small squares and beautiful narrow alleys full of outdoor restaurant seating.
These men on bicycles illustrate the possibilities when a city slows down and design streets (not just sidewalks) for everybody, no matter how they move. People walking, bicycling, and even driving are able to co-exist; a place’s social richness increases.
Block parties, San Francisco, California
Block parties are one of the most powerful ways to jumpstart community and reveal the life-changing effects of prioritizing streets for people. This is why I founded the Streets For All project to support and encourage people to organize block parties. The approximately 80 people in this photo demonstrate the awesome power of communal action.
Naschmarkt, Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s Naschmarkt illustrates how an extremely wide space can be infilled with a network of intimate streets for people. For other examples of infill in the Public Space Image Collection, see Corfu, Paris, and New York City’s Bryant Park.
Is this Korçë back street a public space? Yes. Public space is a place for everybody, not just for those who drive. As this street demonstrates, narrow streets are inherently public because they are safe for everybody. Cars must move slowly, people can walk anywhere, sidewalks are unnecessary.
In today’s era of oversized architecture and urban design projects this small square stands tall. While large squares have their place, small squares are suitable for many more locations and require fewer people to become lively.
Vernazza, Cinque Terra, Italy
Great places are sittable places. Vernazza has embedded benches into its buildings, a feature seen in many Italian towns. The more places there are to sit the greater the people presence, which attracts still more people.
Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, Colorado
A place mentioned many times on The Plaza Perspective, the Pearl Street Mall is one of the finest public spaces in the US. Many appealing bordering shops, great use of tree canopies as a ceiling, and lots of benches the Mall’s design strengths are aided by a year-round programming schedule and a solid data collection program to constantly refine the Mall’s uses and measure success. The Pearl Street Mall certainly has park-like qualities with its trees and flowerbeds but, unlike most parks which are situated away from where everybody goes (which is why few parks are featured on The Plaza Perspective; most are relatively poor social spaces), the Mall is right in the heart of the action.
Head over to the Public Space Image Collection for much more. And if you find yourself somewhere with great public space, take some photos and email them to me at email@example.com.
Public space doesn’t have to just be for the Venetians or the New Yorkers. Every single town and city on Earth can have a central gathering place which will give people’s lives greater meaning. It’s what we all deserve.