Public spaces are crucial to our urban well-being, and are an increasingly important topic of academic research and practical policy-making. Georgiana Varna presented the star model of public space, a tool providing understanding of characteristics and qualities of publicness that make ‘public space’ public.
Public space plays an important role in sustaining the public realm, offering a combination of social and visual uses. New public spaces are emerging globally and old typologies are being retrofitted to meet contemporary desires (Mehta, 2014). Despite modern societies no longer depending upon public spaces, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in good quality public space (Mehta, 2014).
What do we get from public life?
Good public space provides a platform for engagement and discussion, for planned and spontaneous encounters and for learning of diverse beliefs and attitudes (Mehta, 2014). Gehl (2011) believes social contact even at low intensity levels can enrich people’s lives, through stimulating experiences, offering inspiration, developing relationships, and offering an alternative to being alone. Furthermore, Gehl (2011) believes the presence of people attract more people. Jacobs (1961) similarly agrees people attract people, when considering safety within the city. Jacobs suggests a number of voluntary controls by people help police the city, and a well-used city is a safer city. Public spaces are also believed to provide a level of tolerance and empathy for others through social contact (Mehta, 2014).
New Road in Brighton after it became pedestrianised (Source: Gehl & Svarre 2013)
Historically public spaces were used to serve basic needs, however many of these functions have now moved to private or virtual realms, modifying our requirements of public life, separating and segregating uses and users (Mehta 2014). Thus, urban environments, and public spaces have received negativity with many researchers looking upon medieval cities with narrative loss, whilst highlighting the shortcomings of today’s cities.
Many academics have shared frustrations with todays cities, Jacobs and Appleyard (1987) claiming it is time for a new manifesto and a move away from the modernist and garden city approach. Calthorpe & Fulton (2001) were similarly against the modernist approach and suggested the city should not be standardised and instead of human scale, diversity and conservation, encouraging daily interaction and an inclusive mixed community.
Koohlaas (1994) suggests the city has shed its identity and moved from difference and character to blankness and generic. Crawford (2008) equally expressed dissatisfaction with what she refers to as ‘multiple theme parks’ and ‘gentrified streets’.
Measuring public space
In light of public space benefits and the criticism some have faced, it is of interest why certain public spaces fail and others succeed, however few comprehensive instruments exist to measure this. Generating such tools is complex as reliability depends upon qualitative data collection (Varna, 2013; Mehta 2014).
Many researchers have studied why certain public spaces are more popular than others including Whyte (1988) who identified aside from location, sittable space was a key defining factor. Gehl (2011) suggests there is a positive correlation with the quality of the environment and the number of optional and social activities taking place. More recently, in how to study public life Gehl (2013) provides eight tools forming a toolbox, that allows public life to be captured, providing information to qualify work of creating cities for people.
Carr et al (1992) put forward a comprehensive and holistic description suggesting an ideal public space is responsive, democratic and meaningful. Mehta (2014) has since suggested a theoretical framework utilising the following categories; inclusiveness, meaningful activities, comfort, safety and pleasurability.
Varna identified a need for a holistic model that quantifies the ‘publicness’ of public space. Through reviewing a broad literature, key traits of publicness were identified and broken into five Meta themes; ownership, physical configuration, animation, control and civility, making up the star model. The table breaks down how each theme is scored providing descriptors as to what is classified as ‘more public’ and ‘less public’.
Table detailing descriptors of each meta- dimension (Source: Varna & Cerrone, 2013)
A pragmatic approach
The star model is a robust method of studying public space and challenges a rethink to whether contemporary public spaces are less public than they could or should be. However it must be kept in mind, despite the multi-disciplinary literature review, theme choices reflect the authors values (Zhang, 2016). A sixth theme was considered as one space can be seen public to one person and not another, however this was unable to be modelled and excluded, it should be remembered that each public space has a subjective dimension (Varna, 2013).
The Star Model of Public Space and the indicators for each meta-theme (Source: Varna & Cerrone, 2013)
The model can be used as a diagnostic evaluation and explorative comparison tool for public spaces, providing a pragmatic approach to a research field dominated by descriptive studies (Zhang, 2016). The model offers both simplicity and usability for not only those with professional knowledge but anyone with an interest in public space. Varna (2013) acknowledges the model limitations, stating it is not meant to fit the reality in preordained methodological framework but instead the indicators need to be adapted to respond to specific contexts. To date the model has been tested on public spaces in Glasgow, Scotland and Turku, Finland.
The results of the tool are both analytical and visual allowing understanding of how public the place is in one glance (Zhang, 2016). The simplicity enables information to be effectivity exchanged and support decision making, bridging the information gap between actors involved in public space and end-users (Zhang, 2016). It is important when creating new public spaces or improving spaces that they benefit a wide range of citizens, this tool would beneficially assist planning and design practitioners to address specific issues to improve the quality of public space.
Example of results of The Star Model of Publicness for Vähätori (Varna 2013)
Calthorpe, P. & W. Fulton, (2001) Designing the region, in The City Reader, pp.360-366.
Carr, S., M. Francis, L. G. Rivlin, and A. M. Stone. (1992) Public Space. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Crawford, M. (2008) Introduction, preface, the current state of everyday urbanism, and blurring the boundaries: public space and private life, in The Urban Design Reader, 2nd Edition, pp.344-357.
Gehl, J. (2011) Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, Island Press, Washington
Gehl, J. & Svarre, B. (2013) How to Study Public Life, Island Press, Washington
Jacobs, J. (1961) The uses of sidewalk: safety, in The City Reader, pp.105-109.
Jacobs, A. & D. Appleyard, (1987) Toward an urban design manifesto, in The City Reader, pp.518-529
Koolhaas, R. (1994) The generic city, and Whatever happened to urbanism?, in The Urban Design Reader, 2nd Edition, pp.358-372.
Mehta, V. (2014) Evaluating Public Space, Journal of Urban Design, 19:1, 53-88
Varna, G. (2013) How Public are Turku’s public places? City of Turku, Turku Urban Research Programme, Research Briefings 1B/2013
Varna, G. & Cerrone, D. (2013) Making the publicness of public spaces visible: from Space Syntax to the Star Model of Public Space, (Track 1) Visualizing Sustainability: making the invisible visible, EAEA-11 conference
Whyte, W. (1988) The design of spaces, in The City Reader, pp.510-517.
Zhang, Y. (2016) How to study public life & Measuring public space: the star model, Journal of Urban Design, 21:4, 530-532,