The social value of public spaces

Ken Worpole and Katharine Knox

24 April 2007

This summary explores the contribution public spaces make to community life, and how people use them.

The research goes beyond the town centres and metropolitan spaces that prevail in urban design policies, to include public open spaces such as markets, parks and allotments, and privately owned spaces such as arts centres.

It found that public spaces play a vital role in developing community ties: 

  • street markets allow people from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds to interact; 
  • parks enable young people to make friends and mix with the wider community; 
  • cafés and arts centres are key social places for mothers and children.

However, some policies are having a detrimental effect on public space: 

  • strategies intended to ‘design out crime’, such as cutting down bushes, installing vandal-proof street furniture and closing public toilets affected their attractiveness and damaged their usefulness.

The research has important messages for those responsible for planning, developing and managing public space: 

  • regeneration strategies that fail to take into account local attachments to existing places may undermine existing networks within local communities; 
  • public spaces that look good but fail to provide adequate amenities or connections to existing social and economic networks will result in sterile places that people just do not use.

Please see also our community assets work area.

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