People often ask us, “What makes a public space great?”
When PPS was recently approached by USA Today to provide a list of the best city parks in the U.S. for their upcoming interactive webpage, we were excited for the opportunity share our thoughts on this question that has been at the core of our work for 40 years. After narrowing down our extensive library, our co-founder Kathy Madden submitted 20 parks for consideration. A handful of our selections were chosen for the shortlist (now available online for your vote)! Some of those chosen included some longtime favorites, such as Central Park in NYC, Jackson Square in New Orleans, Millennium Park in Chicago, and Boston Public Garden.
Although famous spaces like Central Park will always top lists like these, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some other examples of great public spaces around the world—including a few that may sometimes fly under the radar.
So, how do we decide if a public space is great? Good question, since it might seem pretty subjective—one person might feel deterred from the same place that another feels a deep attachment to. This is why we created our Place Diagram.
A successful public space generally needs to offer four qualities: it should be accessible, it should be comfortable and have a good image, people should be able to engage in an array of activities, and, it should be sociable. With these characteristics in mind, the possibilities are endless as to what type of public space can be successful, whether it’s a street, waterfront, playground, market, or park.
Looking even more closely at the qualities of the Place Diagram, we’ve identified a few other attributes that contribute to making a public space great. While being a place to meet, a place for exchange, or a place of local or national pride, great public spaces can also be characterized by the presence of people remaining when they have no pressing reason to stay. You might call this the “lingering factor.” Successful public spaces are also well-managed: this includes cleaning, offering food or services, or scheduling events, and such implementations can be managed the community, by individuals, by the city or district, or through local partnerships.
Great public spaces also serve as the heart of a community, often connecting two or more separate neighborhoods together, and encouraging a central point where people can interact and participate in the public realm. Another important but sometimes overlooked element of great public spaces is their ability to highlight an area’s cultural identity – whether through local practices, location, history, design, architecture, or art. This is crucial factor for creating a sense of place that can withstand the test of time.
With these ideas in mind, we have gathered a few examples from our Great Public Spaces database that highlight each of these qualities.
Nyhavn – Copenhagen, Denmark
Nyhavn canal has been around for a while – it was dug from 1671-1673 to allow ships access to Kongens Nytorv. Up until 1950, Nyhavn was well known for being a red light district with seedy bars, tattoo parlours, and strip clubs. Since then it has changed quite a bit, but this colorful history gives the location with a distinct cultural appeal to the still-popular location. Surrounded on both sides by a variety of brightly colored buildings, the canal is small and intimate. It is easily accessible, as everywhere in Copenhagen is within walking distance.
Since it is a canal, there are no cars getting in the way of the experience, and it is completely pedestrian and bike friendly. A strip exists on both sides of the canal filled with access to activities such as boat riding, restaurants, bars, and a range of places to sit and relax and take in this site that epitomizes Copenhagen. The tiniest ray of sunshine on the canal will draw people out to the cafes in an instant, encouraging sociability and activity. Nyhavn is quaint, aesthetically pleasing, well-managed, and oozes authenticity which makes you feel like you’re actually a part of Scandinavian culture – we think it is an excellent example of a successful waterfront place.
Jemaa El-Fna – Marrakesh, Morocco
Located beneath the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in the heart of the Medina, Jemaa el-Fna has served as Marrakech’s main market square since its foundation in the 11th century. Today the market bridges the old and new sections of Marrakech, and it continues to serve the community as a vibrant hub for trade, social life, and cultural expression. During portions of the 20th century the square was also used as a transport station, but since 2000 it has been closed entirely to automobile traffic. A lively source of entertainment for the local community as well as travelers, the marketplace functions as both a traditional market and an open-air stage for various musical, religious, and theatrical performances.
On one side of the square stands a traditional North African market, or souk, selling food, spices, carpets, brass and wood works, and tourist trinkets. All through the day, and well into the night, the marketplace offers an eclectic variety of services such as dental care, traditional medicine, fortune-telling, henna tattooing, and storytelling for children. The bazaar is well known for its hundreds of colorful umbrellas that shield shoppers, performers, and merchants from the harsh North African sun. As a market, theater, and public gathering place, Jemaa el-Fna is a repository of Moroccan cultural traditions both ancient and new, and we feel it is an excellent public space.
Mission Dolores Park – San Francisco, California, USA
San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park, is not only situated in between two historic and culturally diverse neighborhoods – the famous Castro and Mission Districts – but it is a beautiful eight square block park nestled on a hillside with broad sweeping views of the San Francisco downtown and Bay Area skyline. The park is conveniently located only a few blocks from bustling Market Street which links to neighborhoods all over the city. Accessible by light rail, Dolores Park is also walking distance from the BART, multiple MUNI and bus lines, and the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. There are benches bordering the park and scattered throughout, but most people prefer to sit on the sloped ground which faces the spectacular views of the city.
Besides the great views, the park features opportunities for activities such as basketball, tennis, walking paths, and a playground, and it is not uncommon to see people throwing a frisbee, or dogs chasing balls. It is happily shared by families and young people at all hours of the day, and a bonus is that it’s surrounded by some of the best cafes the city has to offer – it is the perfect place to bring a cup of coffee and a muffin with the morning paper. Mission Dolores Park is quintessentially California – it is placed in the pathway of sunshine, dotted with palm trees, it is often the center point for events and parties of an alternative nature, and we feel it is a great example of a local park.
Turkenmarkt (The Turkish Market) – Berlin, Germany
Neukolln’s Turkenmarkt, a streetmarket in Berlin, will make you believe you’ve been transported to Istanbul. Berlin has the third largest Turkish population of any city in the world, so it is no wonder that the Turkish Market is one of the city’s liveliest and exciting marketplaces. This is the largest Turkish market in the city and is easily accessible, spanning along the river Landwehrkanal half a mile from Neukolln to Kreuzberg. These neighborhoods remain the center of Turkish immigrant life in Berlin, and are becoming increasingly popular due their cultural appeal. Though the market caters more to a Turkish immigrant population, it is more common now to see Turkish women in headscarves shopping alongside trendsetting artists and musician-types, all using the market as a local food source.
In addition to perhaps being the best place for fresh fruit and vegetables in Berlin, you can also find olives, herbs and spices, clothing, Turkish pizzas, unbeatable kebaps, and other delicacies. Often people settle along the river to sit, enjoy some of their purchased goods, relax, or simply wander up and down the market browsing all of the products on offer. Turkenmarkt epitomizes the cultural mix of Berlin, and the setting of this market, as well as the delicacies on offer, cannot be beat. We feel it is an excellent example of a public space – in fact, an LQC type example that shows public spaces do not have to be large, or permanent, to have a positive impact on the local community.
Luxembourg Gardens – Paris, France
Luxembourg Gardens came about as a result of Henri IV’s assassination in 1610. His wife, Marie de Medicis, could not continue living in the Louvre with his memory. She had the Palais du Luxembourg and the surrounding gardens built to replicate her childhood home, Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The Luxembourg Gardens were completed in 1625, and the park itself has been open to the public since the 17th century. The construction of nearby streets and avenues during the Second Empire reduced its size, but not its general appearance. In the present day, this self-managed park, which closes at sunset, has a multitude of strolling paths, and is filled with hundreds of movable chairs that users take situate to their liking.
The Luxembourg Gardens may well be one of the most successful parks in the world, partly because it is so well integrated into the fabric of the city around it, which makes it easily accessible. There are also many things to do there, evidenced by the wide range of people who use it: children, older people, Sorbonne students, people cutting through on a lunch break, etc. People come to stroll, play chess, to sit and read, people watch, to sit at one of the cafes or to bring their children or grandchildren to one of the many attractions for kids. Organized activities at the park include tennis, outdoor concerts, pony rides, puppet theatres, and toy sailboat rentals, which make this public place full of endless activity, encouraging people to linger. It is one of our favorite public spaces, and it continues to be a leading example in terms of providing a mix of easy access, activities, aesthetics, and sociability.
Khan el Khalili – Cairo, Egypt
A charming labyrinth of narrow alleys, the Khan El Khalili Bazaar, or the Khan, is a major souk in Cairo, Egypt. It is located next to two of the city’s major landmarks, the Al-Hussein mosque and prestigious Al- Azhar University. Originally the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs and part of the Fatimid Great Eastern Palace, Khan El Khalili Bazaar was constructed in 970 AD, the same year as the founding of Cairo. While the bazaar’s layout has been drastically modified since then, it continues to function as the city’s major center of trade and a popular destination for tourists and locals in search of treasures.
The bazaar itself is an architectural draw, with monumental gates that resemble the commercial complexes of the Ottoman empire. Visitors to Khan El Khalili Bazaar will find themselves transported back in time to a traditional Arab souk, lost in the scent of spices and bustle of trade that takes place in the market daily. The many shops arranged around small courtyards stock a variety of goods from soap powder to fabrics, stones, and souvenir toy camels. While the market is not strictly organized by the types of goods, its major crowd-pullers such as gold, copper and spice are still clustered in certain sections. Khan El Khalili is an important shopping area for locals and continues to preserve the market tradition of old Cairo – we feel it is offers creative inspiration as to how urban spaces can be transformed into public treasures.
While these six great public spaces might be exemplary, they are just a few of thousands around the world that are worth highlighting. Such a range of unique and functional public spaces is what inspired us to create our Great Public Spaces resource—an inspiring collection of the world’s treasured places that are loved by locals and visitors alike, and a collection that’s growing every week.
Do you know a great public space that deserves some recognition? Nominate your favorite place to be featured on our Great Public Spaces resource! We’d love to hear from you.