A public realm is a space and place that is free, accessible, open and available to all in the community, regardless of economic or social conditions. They are places people come to and gather in, or engage with as individuals. They can include all types of places from streets and laneways to parks and foreshores, and as demonstrated below, some public interior spaces of buildings too.
How we access and use the public realm has been a matter of interest for architects, designers and urban planners for centuries.
Helping people navigate and understand how a place works involves careful consideration and planning to improve accessibility, orientation and connectivity, along with those intangible moments of magic that lift a space to cultural icon status visited the world over.
Building connections in the community
One approach taken was that of American urban theorist Kevin Lynch, whose influential 1960 book, The Image of the City described how we perceive and recall features in urban spaces. Lynch categorised a city landscape using five constructs – landmarks, edges, paths, nodes and districts – concluding that a mental map of the city is instinctively drawn identifying these attributes as points of reference. The more environmental cues an environment includes, the richer the mental map, and the more the city is loved.
Lynch’s methodology still plays an important role in designing modern city wayfinding systems today, for example, Legible London, demonstrates how a city landscape can flaunt some of its best assets and aspects of its personality and uniqueness. A city with a high imageability will be a more attractive place to live in or visit.
Inclusion is multifaceted
In our work today, we often refer to Lynch’s methodology, drawing on the subtle nuances and our own unique experiences that add value to the status of buildings or places. For example, something seemingly as innocuous as steps leading into a building reveals levels of inclusion and access. Ascending two steps to a threshold can present negative connotations for some members of our community, referring to a court or administration for example, and the institutional trauma these buildings have instilled through our history. On the other hand, a public realm that has different spaces for different people creates a welcoming and inclusive experience.
For us, successful public realms are places where every member of our community can create their own rich mental map, reflecting the diversity that exists in people, their needs and how to integrate this into a design that encourages and supports participation. When, according to data from the World Bank, it’s estimated that 1 billion people – equivalent to 15% of the world’s population – live with some type of disability, it is our responsibility to ensure every public space is designed equally and equitably.
Design to support neurodiversity and mental health
We also know that neurodiverse people make up about 12% of Australians and that they are often underrepresented and misunderstood in the workplace and in our communities. Sensory challenges that exist at work are also amplified in public places, where the body must work hard to be comfortable. If elements are too bright, noisy, or hard, people will avoid them.
When we design public spaces, we think about these details. We believe they matter, and we appreciate that it is often the small things that make a big difference.
A park bench oriented one way or the other may either include or exclude someone from sitting down, but positioned in such a way that a person who is neurodiverse may still feel part of a community even though they may not be actively participating in the conversation. By embracing the opportunity to deeply understand the programming and function of the public realm, we can be aware of everyone’s comfort and stress levels. The same park bench is often bisected with armrests to prevent people from lying down or sleeping; a freely accessed public realm should recognise the rights to the city for all members of our society.
Applying universal design principles
To design in a truly inclusive way requires thought and creativity, which is why we apply universal design principles in our work today as a starting point. Universal design is the design of environments that make the experience of using it comfortable for anyone. When designing in the public realm, we design for choice, flexibility, and appeal, so that people can choose how to access spaces with different settings, spaces that are simple and intuitive to use and spaces that eliminate unnecessary complexities of use.
When pure aesthetics are favoured to the detriment of others or when there are too many barriers, such as the monetising of experiences and access, rights to the city are denied. Public space is open to intense scrutiny from all members of the community, and when it is compromised by decisions that entrench privilege, people suffer, and the city follows. Our society then misses out on the benefits a successful public realm can bring – economic and financial value as well as cultural enrichment and joy.
As universal design evolves and more of our spaces are designed to optimise comfort, we all have a universal right to access the public realm and the city landscapes on our doorstep. After all, city landscapes belong to everybody, and we have a professional responsibility to our community to create spaces that enable everybody to participate in the public discourse and democratic access is an intrinsic part of that.
Ultimately, we are proud to play our part, not only in helping all members of our community to thrive but also in creating iconic spaces and places for future generations.