Design Details

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Design Details

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It is important that all elements of an open space be visible from outside.[1] This in fact increases safety, but it also provides a sense of confidence for potential visitors, of "knowing where you are getting into." A practical concern when a passerby looks into a plaza is the presence of  "undesirables." It is important to make a distinction between truly dangerous elements such as street gangs, and those that are just slovenly, but clearly they all detract from a plaza. William Whyte points out that the greatest deterrent to these elements is an active and heavily used location: "The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else."[2]

Another factor that increases safety at an open space is visibility into it from inside the buildings surrounding it. The Congress for the New Urbanism recommends improving safety by "lining streets with frequent windows and entries, and by offering porches, stoops, and other “semi-public” spaces... Building windows and entries should face these spaces for informal surveillance and a heightened sense of neighborhood..."[3]


The most critical factor in the success of a public space is sitting space.[4]  After  significant studies, Whyte recommends a minimum of one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of area.[5]  The amount of sitting space is critical, but the usability details are also important. People, particularly in groups, like to choose their sitting arrangements. The ability to seat facing each other is obviously important for groups. The location of the seats is also a factor. Some people prefer sunny spots, other shades. Some prefer up front locations for people watching, others prefer more quiet locations. Ideally, choices should be available for as many of these options as practical for a given space.[6] The type of seating offered need not be formal,  Marcus et al offer an important consideration on the style of seating arrangements:

Large expanses of hard open space or row upon row of benches can seem intimidating and unwelcome when only a few people are present. In this respect, a plaza that offers plenty of places to sit that are not all benches, does not appear empty when people are not present. So-called secondary seating- mound of grass, steps with a view, seating walls, and retaining walls that allow seating- can appear as part of the sculptural effect of the design and need not look lonely when devoid of people.  A New York-based consulting firm that has evaluated many plazas recommends that secondary seating comprise a maximum of 50% of the total seating of a plaza.[7]

Traditional park benches are an important seating component. Backrests and armrests improve comfort, and some city ordinances require that at least 5% of the seating spaces have backrests for the benefit of those with disabilities.[8] Wooden benches are best in that they do not get too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Movable chairs are ideal because of their flexibility in groupings.[9]  Theft and damage are obvious concerns, but some locations have almost constant public presence and in some cases chairs may be put away after the active hours. 

A number of structures provide reasonable sitting spaces. Ledges, planter edges and steps are common choices. Whyte's studies indicate that people are able to sit on spaces of heights from 1 to 3 feet, with around 17 inches being optimal. Depth is also important; surfaces that can be used to sit from two sides should be at least 36 inches deep, and those providing seating from one side only can be 24 inches deep.[10] 

   Photo © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa 

Wide steps have the advantage of allowing flexible groupings. Corners from two sets of steps are popular for face-to-face sitting.[11] Marcus et al recommend that the edges of the space be "articulated" with ins and outs, rather than straight line spaces. Some of the planters may extend out forming corners, and L-shaped benches may also provide better group seating.[12]

Shelters, Kiosks, and Other Structures

Shelters or canopies are used to provide shading or rain cover for sections of an open space. In locations offering transportation connections, shelters can often be used for multiple purposes and they can be built in cooperation with the transportation entities. Kiosks are used to display information or for advertising. Lighting can be incorporated into shelters or kiosks.[13]

The architecture of all of these structures should be consistent with the over-all design of the place, and they can help in creating a mood or identity. Bike racks and trash containers are important functional components, and they should follow a consistent style. Their design and location can contribute significantly to the comfort and flavor of the public space.

   Photo © Dan Burden  Walkable Communities


Trees should be an essential component of every urban environment. In addition to providing shading and shelter from the elements, trees cool street temperatures and they absorb noise and car emissions and other pollutants.[14] They also contribute to the beauty and sense of relaxation of the location.

Attention needs to be paid to the root needs of the trees. Placing trees in grassy areas is the easiest way to handle this, but grates and deep planters can also be used. Trees that shed fruit or excessive leaves need to be placed so that the litter does no present safety problems. In placing trees it is also important to avoid blocking views from either the inside of surrounding buildings or from outside an open space, so as to maximize safety surveillance.

Concessions and Vendors

The easiest way to create activity at a public space is with concessions, especially restaurants: "If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food."[15] Of course, well-known chains provide instant recognition, but the usually steady lunch clientele of a place often develops a strong loyalty for unique or homegrown establishments. In addition to food, bookstores and flower shops are a good fit for public spaces. The stores may be indoors or outdoors, but it is advantageous to mix styles: "Window-shopping storefronts and sidewalk cafes, of course, are a prime means of activating the critically important ground floor. Providing a zone in which the stores may freely spill out into a square or plaza aids this symbiosis of the civic room and commercial establishments."[16]

Street vendors in carts or stands can also be beneficial. Most cities have ordinances and permit regulations about street vendors.[17]  The most common vendors are for food items and flowers. Arts and crafts stands can also be an attraction.  Food items are often subject to health regulations. As indicated under management issues, street vendors can provide an important presence.

   Photo © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa 


This website is not a professional guide, but an editing of existing referenced material for educational purposes. The website author assumes no responsibility for any problems resulting from using the material presented in this website.

 [1] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Washington, DC: The Conservation Foundation, 1980), 58.

[2] Ibid., 63.

[3] Congress for the New Urbanism: Principles for Inner City Neighborhood Design, pages 9,11.

[4] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 28.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis eds. People Places (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998), 40.

[8] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 33.

[9] Mark C. Childs, Squares (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004), 34-37.

[10] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 30-31.

[11] Ibid.,  32.

[12] Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis eds. People Places,, 36.

[13] Harvey M. Rubenstein, Pedestrian Malls Streetscapes and Urban Spaces  (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), 85-87

[14]  Dan Burden, Benefits of Urban Street Trees

[15] William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 50.

[16] Mark C. Childs, Squares, 133.

[17] Project for Public Spaces, Managing downtown public spaces (Chicago: American Planning Association, 1984), 32.