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This lecture introduced assessing the publicness of public places and an analysis of the nature of public space. Public spaces can be grasped simultaneously as a cultural reality and as a historical reality. Publicness as a cultural reality means that all public places, created at a certain point in time and in a particular socio-cultural setting, can be understood what the ideal public space is. It was found out that main meta-themes determine, through their interaction, the publicness of a public place today, in the western world: ownership, physical configuration, animation, control, and civility. However, a public place can be grasped not only as a cultural artefact, it is also as the product of a historical process of placemaking.


What is Public Space?

A public space may be a gathering spot or part of a neighbourhood, downtown, special district, waterfront or other areas within the public realm that helps promote social interaction and a sense of community. Possible examples may include such spaces as plazas, town squares, parks, marketplaces, public commons and malls, public greens, piers, special areas within convention centres or grounds, sites within public buildings, lobbies, concourses, or public spaces within private buildings (America Planning Association, 2017a). As with all categories of Great Places, it is important to identify what sets a space apart from other spaces so as to qualify it for a Great Spaces designation.


Case studies of Great Public Space

Case study 1: Mill Creek Linear Park: Bakersfield, California

One of Bakersfield, California’s best-kept secrets is the Mill Creek Linear Park. This meandering 1.5-mile urban trail connects the downtown area with a multimodal, waterfront path that invites locals and visitors to head outdoors to explore downtown.

This iconic covered bridge connects Central Park to the federal courthouse. Photo courtesy Gilbert Vega.


Formerly an irrigation canal characterized by its dirt riverbanks and chain link fence, Mill Creek has since evolved into the centre of revitalization for downtown Bakersfield. The dirt canal, and the city’s aging Central Park, were both located in an industrialized area of downtown that saw little growth or redevelopment for several decades. In the early 2000s, local planners, city officials, and community residents began to look at ways to reinvent this public space and transform this former eyesore into a focal point for the community.  Using the reclaimed land, planners created linear parkways along the canal beyond Central Park, turning an enclosed space into an inviting walkable amenity that connects downtown from north to south (America Planning Association, 2017a).


A mural on the Mexicali Restaurant wall overlooks the canal. The photo courtesy City of Bakersfield.


The Kern Delta Canal spillway has walkways on both sides. The photo courtesy City of Bakersfield.


Case study 2: Rosa Parks Circle: Grand Rapids, Michigan

While there are many memorials around the country that celebrate civil rights icon Rosa Parks, few are as prominent as Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. This lively and commemorative public space was conceived by Maya Lin, perhaps best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C (America Planning Association, 2017b). The 3.5-acre space has been synonymous with the heart of Grand Rapids for over 150 years — first as Grab Corners, later as Campeau Square. When the downtown area began to suffer commercially in the 1970s, city officials hoped to bring back shoppers to a pedestrian mall. That failed to attract the community and commercial activity officials had hoped for, and planners went back to the drawing board. In 1995, the city turned the northernmost section of the pedestrian mall into Rosa Parks Circle and reopened the remaining area to automobile traffic (America Planning Association, 2017b).

Grand Rapids Swing Society provides free swing dancing every Tuesday night in the summer. Photo courtesy Experience GR.

The plaza has been credited with helping to activate the surrounding neighbourhood by spurring redevelopment and drawing in restaurants, galleries, and shops, as well as an important institutional anchor — the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Rosa Parks Circle now provides a much-needed central public space for year-round community events such as cultural festivals, weekly dance classes, ice skating, and even public viewings of the Olympics. Located just east of the Grand River in the heart of downtown, Rosa Parks Circle offers spectacular views of the city and is once again one of its most vibrant and active areas (America Planning Association, 2017b).

Every Thursday in the summer, Relax at Rosa brings local musicians, food trucks, oversized yard games and another programming for the lunchtime crowd downtown. Activities like have made Rosa Parks Circle the most-visited park in Grand Rapids. Photo courtesy DGRI.


Grand Rapids Asian Festival, June 2017. Photo courtesy Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.


Description of Public Space

It is important to identify the geographic, demographic, and social characteristics of the public space. Tell us about its location (i.e. urban, suburban, rural, etc.), layout and connectivity; economic, social, and ethnic diversity; and functionality. We also want to know whether a plan or specific planning efforts contributed to or sustained the character of the public space, or if space formed more organically and not through a formal planning process.


Public Space Features and Elements

The public space capitalises on building design, scale, architecture, and proportionality to create interesting visual experiences, vistas, or other qualities. Accommodate multiple uses and multiple users. It is accessible via walking, biking, or public transit.  Use, protect, and enhance the environment and natural features. Public Space Activities and Sociability. The public space reflects the community’s local character and personality, foster social interaction and create a sense of community and neighborliness, provide a sense of comfort or safety to people gathering and using the space, encourage use and interaction among a diverse cross-section of the public.

Characteristics of a Great Public Space include: Promotes human contact and social activities; safe, welcoming, and accommodating for all users; has design and architectural features that are visually interesting promotes community involvement; reflects the local culture or history; relates well to bordering uses; it is well maintained, and has a unique or special character.





America Planning Association. (2017b) Rosa Parks Circle: Grand Rapids, Michigan. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2017)

America Planning Association. (2017a) Mill Creek Linear Park: Bakersfield, California. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2017)

City of Grand Rapids (2011) Community Relations Commission. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2017)

Experience. (no date) Mill Creek Linear Park: Bakersfield, California. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2017)



Useful links:

2017 Great Public Spaces

Previous Designees


School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

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