11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places

Thanks to Richard Layman for pointing us to PPS, and to Bill Berkowitz for recommending the book.


The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities. It has identified 11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common. These elements are:

  1. The Community Is The Expert. The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talents and assets within the community. In any community there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people.
  2. Create a Place, Not a Design. If your goal is to create a place (which we think it should be), a design will not be enough. To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” physical elements must be introduced that would make people welcome and comfortable, such as seating and new landscaping. The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image.
  3. Look for Partners. Whether you want partners at the beginning to plan for the project or you want to brainstorm and develop scenarios with a dozen partners who might participate in the future, they are invaluable in providing support and getting a project off the ground. They can be local institutions, museums, schools and others.
  4. You Can See a Lot Just By Observing. We can all learn a great deal from others’ successes and failures. By looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces and finding out what they like and don’t like about them, it is possible to assess what makes them work or not work.
  5. Have a Vision. Essential to a vision for any public space is an idea of what kinds of activities might be happening in the space, a view that the space should be comfortable and have a good image, and that it should be an important place where people want to be. It should instill a sense of pride in the people who live and work in the surrounding area.
  6. Start with the Petunias: Experiment…Experiment…Experiment. The complexity of public spaces is such that you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces experiment with short term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years. Elements such as seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks and pedestrian havens, community gardens and murals are examples of improvements that can be accomplished in a short time.
  7. Triangulate. “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other” (Holly Whyte). In a public space, the choice and arrangement of different elements in relation to each other can put the triangulation process in motion (or not).
  8. They Always Say “It Can’t Be Done.” Creating good public spaces is inevitably about encountering obstacles. Starting with small scale community-nurturing improvements can demonstrate the importance of “places” and help to overcome obstacles.
  9. Form Supports Function. The input from the community and potential partners, the understanding of how other spaces function, the experimentation, and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers provides the concept for the space. Although design is important, these other elements tell you what “form” you need to accomplish the future vision for the space.
  10. Money is not the issue. Once you’ve put in the basic infrastructure of the public spaces, the elements that are added that will make it work (e.g., vendors, cafes, flowers and seating) will not be expensive. If the community and other partners are involved in programming and other activities, this can also reduce costs. People will have so much enthusiasm for the project that the cost is viewed much more broadly and consequently as not significant when compared with the benefits.
  11. You Are Never Finished. Being open to the need for change and having the management flexibility to enact that change is what builds great public spaces and great cities and towns.

excerpted from Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Places

The book puts it a little differently:

  1. The community is the expert. The people living and working in a place are the folks who know what needs to be done and how best to do it.
  2. You are creating a place, not a design. The blueprints for a neighborhood improvement effort are much less critical to its success than other factors, such as a management plan and the involvement of local citizens.
  3. You can’t do it alone. Finding the right partners will bring more resources, innovative ideas, and new sources of energy for your efforts.
  4. They’ll always say “It can’t be done.” When government officials, business people, and even some of your own neighbors say it won’t work, what they really mean is “We’ve never done it like this before.” It’s a sign you’re on the right track.
  5. You can see a lot by just observing. The smartest way to turn a neighborhood around is to first take a close look at what goes on there, watching out for what works and what doesn’t in that particular place.
  6. Develop a vision. For a community vision to make sense and to make a difference, it needs to come from the people who live there, not from consultants or other outside professionals.
  7. Form supports function. If you don’t take into account how people use a particular place in the beginning, you will have to deal with the consequences later.
  8. Make the connections. A great place in a neighborhood offers many things to do, all of which enhance each other and add up to more than the sum of the parts.
  9. Start with petunias. Little things can set the stage for big changes, especially by proving to local skeptics that change is indeed possible.
  10. Money is not the issue. If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.
  11. You are never finished. Eighty percent of the success of any good place is due to how well it is managed after the project is done.

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