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Good Public Space Analysis Revisited: Does the Perfect Public Space Even Exist?

When I joined Humankind a year ago my first assignment was the development of Good Public Space Analysis (GPSA), something that excited me deeply as I would be able to contribute to the company’s goal of creating human-centered cities. From the very begging we established that our definition of good public space is a space that primarily facilitates health and well-being. But what does that even mean?

I took on the quest and started digging into the literature. Given how complex human beings are, it was difficult to position what we had in mind in the context of what had already been done. In the early stages of the development of the tool –its infancy, we could say–, we identified key activities related to health and well-being that people do in public and tried to place them against understanding how well a space actually affords their performance. We were still trying to understand what the meaning of certain activities is and how public space design actually connects to them.

The difficulty of trying to say that something is good is, of course, that there is a lot of subjectivity involved. The framework we designed is grounded in literature and observations but our goal with introducing the Good Public Space Analysis was something else than delivering academic results and hard data. In fact, with our method we aimed to introduce a new way of looking and thinking, and through that, to provoke conversations and ideas that otherwise would probably not be taking place in public space (re)design processes. We tried to find a way of helping designers really turn the promise of “designing for humans” into reality by simply delivering a new method of helping to understand the relationships people have with public spaces.

This however, is not the end of the story. A couple of months into the development of GPSA we were already able to run some pilots and hear first feedback. And truth be told it was very positive but it often left us with a little “what if” feeling to it. And that is exactly what the best part of trying something new, putting it out there, and observing how it unfolds is.

We came to realize how our audience was really excited about seeing the results of the analysis but was left with somewhat of a “hold on, I now understand what things this public space is lacking, but how do we address that? What could be better instead of what’s already there?” feeling. We kept hearing that GPSA seemed like the perfect citizen participation tool, people wanted to be inspired, they wanted to be able to see what a change would mean. We took those learning lessons, collected all the opportunities that we spotted along the way and with our willingness to constantly improve we started tweaking all that we had done so far.

So what is the result you might wonder? Designing public space is an extremely difficult task. There are so many layers involved that without good collaboration you can be almost certain to receive poor results. We now understand the concept of subjectivity a little better and by using GPSA we want it to be the prompt for strategy exercises. For example, have you ever thought about what your favorite place in your city means to others? As an elder person would you be able to appreciate a construction of a new playground in your neighborhood as much as a parent of an energetic child does?

Sometimes being able to step into somebody else’s shoes and imagining how they experience exactly the same environment can help us develop a sense of empathy for others and understanding of why certain decisions in cities are made.

With our newest developments underway we aim to exhibit those feelings and allocate space for completely new approaches to urban planning. Having realized that opening the conversation already helps we want to take a step further and make interactivity a part of the revised work. We see this as a window of opportunity to invite people to engage in conversations, exchange ideas and realize how important collaboration is. The objective is to have users adopt another person's vantage point and specifically focusing on inspiring redevelopment ideas we want to host learning processes that will help professionals keep to their promises of building human-centered cities.

I think it is now the time when we can boldly say that a good public space is not only a space that facilitates health and well-being of their users, but also one that simultaneously provides common ground for individual exploration of this very subjective idea of good. And hopefully with our exercise we can help various stakeholders reimagine urban futures seen through the eyes of an infinite number of personas and highlight this sense of empathy. Hopefully then we can ignite the notion towards creating human-centered cities full of spaces that are no fit for all, yet still, justly fit all.

Stay tuned to hear more!

Marta Nosowicz – Urban Planning Specialist



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