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The concept of public space dates back to the 1950s as Whyte proposed to protect open space in American cities. Recently, we continue to refer to this idea in the field of urban planning. However,what exactly is public space? Why is it so important? Can a high-quality public space be designed?

The following sections cover my reflection from the lecture by Dr Georgiana Varna.

I will try to explain the significance of the public space in the urban area and the current understanding and design ideas.

The definition of public space

Georgiana Varna defines public space as

‘the concept referring to all public areas, that are publicly owned by democratically elected bodies, well connected in the surrounding urban grid and designed according to principles that foster activity and social interaction, used by a large and diverse public in a variety of ways, controlled in a non-oppressive manner and characterized by an inviting and tidy atmosphere. ‘

If we extract the essential keywords from it, the concept of Public space is accompanied by the corresponding characteristics of democracy, freedom and citizenship. A high-quality public space can efficiently promote social interaction.

However,how to judge the quality of a public space level? Georgiana Varna in l introduces her 5-star model, which could be used to quantify the quality of a public realm from five dimensions:


The ownership of the specific space (who take charge of the space?A company or council?) is the responsible party who make the decision, draft the vision of development and assurance of later maintenance.

Figure 1 Degrees of publicness according to Ownership


The animation refers to the atmosphere of this place and people’s activities. (What do people do in that area? What the sense of the space? Does it make people feel comfortable or nervous? Could people enjoy the just watching in the Corner frontage café?)

Figure 2 activities in public space

Physical Configuration

Physical configuration can be divided into macro and micro. At the macro-urban scale, centrality, accessibility, connectivity and integration need to be considered. The micro-level design involves facilities within public spaces. (Does realm have the active frontage? Is it pedestrian friendly? Does it have enough and high-quality seats?)

Figure 3 Active frontage in Paris


The control refers to the responsibility of the local regulations, monitoring and supervision. (Is there any over-control in public places? (Do not drink alcohol, do not take kids, do not dress poorly… Too many rules and restrictions undoubtedly limited the groups in this space, which changed the original meaning of democracy and public (Duany et al. 2000).)

Figure 4 robotic sculpture and CCTV system (



Civic awareness here refers specifically to whether citizens who live in a city will consciously care for public sanitation and facilities. Common identity acts as an invisible binding force to regulate people’s behavior. As a result, the strength of civic awareness can be judged by the goodness of the environment and whether the facilities are intact or not.  

Figure 5 five-star model

Combining the above five aspects can make a quantified judgment on a public space quality and reform it for its deficiency. Whereas, it is worth noting that  Neal and Orum (2010) defined places area as all areas open and accessible to all members of society. However, recently, the shopping mall has become a new public space. There are a wide variety of activities (functions) in those shopping malls, for example, shopping, dining, entertainment and leisure facilities. While some shopping malls even have fake lawns in public areas for people to relax. To sum, as you can see, this is a new public space built in the form of human-made simulations in the building. The entire shopping mall has become an incomplete gated community. This led to this public area has a strong unity and limitations. Thus, to a large extent limited the social role of public space.




Duany, Andres., Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck, J. 2000. Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream. New York: North Point Press.

Neal, Z. and Orum, A. (2010). Common ground? New York: Routledge, pp.1-2.

Varna, G – five-star public space – lecture presentation, (2017)


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

Tel: 0191 208 6509


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