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Successful places

The built environment of cities provide a ‘space’ for creating opportunities of social interaction. However, it is the presence of people that transforms a space into a ‘successful place’. The works of Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte brought about the discussions towards understanding the human experience of cities. Their work suggested that people enjoy places that they can engage with.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people” – William H. Whyte

Spanish Steps, Rome © Raúl Alejandro Rodríguez

Through their work, the concept of placemaking gained prominence in the 1960s. Placemaking is a tool as well as a process of shaping public realm, through a people-centric design and a bottom-up approach. The premise is to improve the shared value of public realm, making it accessible, inclusive and safe. Placemaking creates quality places, that are inclusive of physical, cultural and social identities of the local community.

Master plans are developed with a vision to improve city life. However, they fall short of the concept that cities are experienced at the human scale. Master plans create open spaces in the city, but the challenge of activating these spaces to create opportunities of engagement remains unaddressed. A method to create, evolve and sustain ‘active places’ needs to be integrated in the system. The concept of placemaking, therefore, is an important aspect in the planning and design of cities today.

There are four key questions to be addressed for making places successful:

1. Where?

The physical as well as visual accessibility of a place makes it noticeable to people. Places that are well-connected and noticeable are safe. However, it is important to understand the scale of a space in order to identify the type of accessibility that it requires. While city-level places benefit from their proximity to public transport, neighbourhood-level places benefit from their linkage to the main neighbourhood street, and cluster-level places benefit from their visual connectivity to the surrounding built form.

St Peter's Square, Rome © Andrew Shaw

2. Why?

People visit places for work, recreation, social purposes. However, a major driving force in determining the purpose of a place lies in its surrounding context. A close study of the existing uses in the surroundings inform the needs and demands of the area and its people. While recreational places may prioritise leisure seating, shopping streets prioritise a visually-engaging pedestrian experience. The need of the neighbourhood and the need of the city are varied and must be acknowledged when designing the place for a purpose.

Paley Park, New York © Tom Klein

3. Who?

Places that are exclusive to a particular user-group become redundant for the community. In order to design places that provide something for everybody, it is essential to adopt a people-centric approach that determines the demands of the entire community. While one user-group may require a leisure seating, the other may require a jogging track, or commercial kiosks. An inclusive place with a variety of activities allows people to create their own experiences. They become places to meet new people, old friends, family, they grow into the ‘go-to’ places of the city.

Trafalgar Square, London © Sura Ark

4. When?

The above three aspects; location, purpose and experience, come together to determine the spatial and temporal dynamic of a place. Places that offer a purpose of visit, and a variety of user-group engagement, are active and hence, safe places. While daily activity in a place can be determined by the symbiosis of its functions, it is essential to incorporate flexibility in order to accommodate ephemeral community activities as and when needed. Places that provide flexibility in the nature of its functions develop a sense of belonging for its people.

Maeklong Railway Market, Bangkok ©

These questions help determine the character and identity of a place. It can become a key tool in transforming physical spaces into ‘places’ that are centred around people’s demands. Addressing these questions brings into focus the importance of context and scale of a place. Contextual analysis determines the needs and demands of the community, establishes a relevant purpose for the place, and therefore defines its character. Additionally, scale of the place determines the nature of its interaction with built surroundings, as well as the possibilities of interaction amongst people. Community is at the core of placemaking and when people’s demands are catered for, places thrive.


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