Good small urban spaces

Brandon at mastersplanning posted this old New York City study by the Municipal Art Society of New York.  It has a whole bundle of clips illustrating what makes a good city public space.  I found it fascinating. 

Here’s the video: 

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The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Some of the key lessons I learned from it:

  • Big empty spaces, by themselves, are very unpopular.
  • People want to be seen by people.  Social interaction happens at the centre of other people’s attention: the street corner, the subway entrance, the square’s main feature.
  • Basic durable geometric shapes are great for sitting, playing, and talking.
  • Places to sit are most important: at least a 1:30 ratio of space needs to be given to objects you can sit on.
  • Make everything people-friendly:  different sitting combinations, water you can touch and grass to play on, sculptures and windows to inside activities, and so on.  
  • Give people lots of choices.  Even something as simple as being able to move a chair makes people feel better.
  • Keep a close relationship to the street.  Don’t separate public spaces from movement and action. 
  • Water features are great, especially moving water.  Greenery is nice too, even token amounts.
  • Build spaces in proportion to buildings.  Don’t over-scale either of them.

The interesting thing for me, watching this video, was seeing how well Mexico towns and cities do all this instinctively.  Many public works in Mexico are dismal, but public spaces are not.  Whenever you go to a downtown, there will be fountains, plenty of places to sit, lots of activities for the kids, food stalls, exhibitions and shows, shops all facing the street, good public transport, pedestrian malls, underground or behind-wall parking, friendly security, historic buildings - and many more things that make Mexico plazas a joy to hang out in.  Rather than field trips to Old Europe, urban design students would do better to go to Mexico.