Sociable cities

For shopping, entertainment, to see and to be seen, and to meet other people public places are favored spaces. Especially in older towns; newly built cities often lack ambiance, conviviality and intimacy. Architects, urban planners and politicians are concerned with how they can change this.

The attractiveness of streets and squares plays an important role in the designs of the Dutch architect Sjoerd Soeters. He emphasized this by calling his firm Pleasant Places, Happy People. The sketch above is part of the design of the Canal side in downtown Buffalo (US), which is intended to become a vibrant part of the city.

After a brief description of what is meant by public space, I explore the concept of attractivity as a characteristic of public places. Next, I will elaborate on the risks of an excess of visitors. This brings me to the ideal distribution of public spaces across the city and I will show how technology can contribute to the quality of public space.

Sociable cities is part thirteen of a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. That means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to achieve these goals.

The essays that have already been published can be found here.

What are public spaces

In general, public spaces are places where everybody can stay without permission or for a fee – streets, squares, parks, and (most) beaches – considering legal restrictions, for instance park closing times.

There have always been many functions associated with public spaces; squares were moots, marketplaces, places for festivities, and at this time parking. Streets were packed with houses, shops and workshops. In this article, I focus on the social function of public space: Meeting people, enjoying the ambiance and feeling good. Several authors, for instance Florida, Sennett and Pentland believe that the quality of the public spaces contributes to the overall prosperity and innovative potential of the city in general.


In this article, I refrain from speculation about the impact of the current corona-crisis on living in cities, although it deeply concerns me. It is clear that social distancing, shared mobility and sociability are at odds. I trust that Covid-19 will be overcome. I also hope that the experience will strengthen our efforts towards a more liveable, healthy and save society and the following makes a full contribution to this.

What makes public places attractive?

In the past, public space is not to be designed to be attractive and nobody expected it as long as public places were functional. Let’s go back to the Middle Ages. Whether a city grew organically or was designed – mostly for defensive purposes – space was limited due to the surrounding walls. As a result, all functional components – churches, monasteries, workshops, houses, marketplaces and even some farms – were packed together and the streets were narrow.

Quedlinburg (Germany): Medieval marketplace and townhall. Photo: Pixabay.

In the 19th century everything changed: The city walls were demolished and although not every town had its Haussmann, large parts of the medieval remains were teared down as well. In accordance with prevailing views, broad avenues and large squares, monumental buildings and formally designed parks filled the space. Later, the wide avenues proved to be blessing for the fast-growing number of cars. The 19th century urbanism reflected the prestige of kings and queens, presidents and the country as a whole.

The Avenue de l’Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898). Wikimedia Commons.

As such, attractiveness played a minor role in both the medieval and the 19th century cites. The inhabitants of a medieval town may have been proud if the tower of their church was taller than that of a neighboring town. The members of the elite in the 19th century certainly strolled the Haussmann-esque boulevards, also with feeling of pride. The lower classes were concerned with other things than enjoying the splendor of the rich.

In the 20th century, attractiveness became a functional requirement for the public space. In addition to extensive shopping opportunities, citizens looked for places where they could see and been seen, meet people, settle on a terrace, or in a bar, café or restaurant in an atmosphere of intimacy and conviviality.

At the same time, people began to travel and visited other towns. They crowded into small piazzas, squares, streets and bystreets of the remains of the old medieval cities like Bruges, Ghent, Florence and Sienna that had survived the 19th century modernism.  These foreign experiences supported the development of a certain ‘taste’ for what should be considered as attractive and what not. For most people, the wide, busy boulevards are the places to go for expensive shops, restaurants, and department stores. But for feelings of intimacy and conviviality, they knew they had to follow the signs ‘Old town’ to find pretty small streets and intimate squares with what looks like medieval architecture and cozy shops that sell ‘local’ stuff. According to many, the proportions of the medieval city fit better with ‘the human scale’ than the large-scale urban development of today.

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. Photographed by Krzysztof Wysocki in August 2005. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

The characteristics of attractive public space can be summarized as:

  • Compact streets with a diversity of buildings, which nevertheless represent a unity.
  • Squares whose surface is limited and perfectly balanced with the height of the surrounding buildings.
  • At least one of the squares must be large enough to occasionally serve as a stage for concerts and performances such as the famous Palio in Siena.
  • Landmarks, such as churches, town halls and the like with distinctive qualities.
  • Limited traffic, walkable distances and a quiet atmosphere
  • Sufficient terraces, cafés, and restaurants and inviting shops
  • Feeling of being included in the ordinary life of the ‘natives’ instead of being in a theme park.

Siena, the home of the Palio, might be the best example. Right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no but the town cannot be blamed for that. Before explaining why, I make a small detour through the world of urbanists, to better understand where public space actually is for.

An urbanist’s view

This is not the place for an introduction in urban design theory, the explanation of how people use and experience the urban environment and its consequences for the design and management of public space.

Model of the Plan Voisin for Paris by Le Corbusier displayed at the Nouveau Esprit Pavilion (1925) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

According to Le Corbusier, a city is a complex of huge buildings, up to 60 floors, in a rectangular pattern, connected by roads and green spaces. Le Corbusier significantly influenced urban planning in the first half of the 20th century by his prominent role in the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). A dominant idea was the functional city with its radically separated places for living, working, shopping and recreation. In 1941 Le Corbusier published his Athens Charter which influence is visible in nearly all Dutch cities, with Cornelis van Eesteren as a prominent representative. On the map below, the first plan for Slotermeer (Amsterdam), the preference for a wide and linear street pattern is clearly recognizable. These kinds of drawings were made for most European cities until the late twentieth century.

First plan for the garden city Slotermeer, the Sloterpark and the Sloterplas; 1939. Map: City of Amsterdam.

Urban design theory changed radically in the post-war period. Drivers were Gordon Cullen, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Also Rossi, Kevin Lynch and Christopher Alexander. In fact, they are the founders of dominant contemporary thinking on urban development. They detested the large-scale rectangular urban forms, propagated by the CIAM-members and they were passionate advocates of mixing urban functions.

Gordon Cullen (The Concise Townscape) propagated the idea of a serial vision: An urban landscape that consists of a series of coupled spaces, that provoke an always changing view.  

Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of American Cities) propagated the importance of inhabited streets and squares in urban centers to boost its vividness and also to enforce social control.

Aldo Rossi (Architecture of the City) accentuated combining elements that represent inhabitants’ collective memory (historic landmarks) and modern forms.

Jan Gehl (Living between buildings) accentuated that a purely aesthetic perspective falls short to answer the question of what makes public space great. Instead, city planners have to go out, watch the people, engage in field studies and see what works and what not. His dedication to the walkable city has already resulted in making car-free two former arteries, Ströget in Copenhagen and recently Market Avenue in San Francisco.

Stroget Copenhagen. Photo Karen Mardahl Licenced by Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Common space

One of Jan Gehl’s lessons is using public life studies to map people’s behavior, before starting designing a public space. With pen-and-paper, this is a labor-intensive process; Sidewalk Labs has partnered with the Gehl Institute to prototype an open source application called CommonSpace. A digital data collection tool that improves common methods of data collection through a consistent workflow, standardized entry fields, and by eliminating the lag between data capture and data availability as data no longer needs to be transcribed. For those who are interested a demo version can be found here.

In fact, they laid the foundations for the New urbanism of Peter Calthorpe, Elisabeth Moule and Andrés Duany. In this short TED-presentation, Calthorpe explains the main ideas of the movement, also in relation to climate change and massive urbanization.

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In essence, New Urbanism is an adversary of urban sprawl, spacious design, large squares and an automobile dominated city. Its followers introduced a human-centered design, characterized by ten principles: walkability, connectivity, mixed-use and diversity, mixed housing, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighborhood structure, increased density, smart transportation, sustainability, and quality of life. These principles were formalized in the Congress for the New Urbanism (1993). One of its merits, is linking urbanism, community development and sustainability. The LEED-ND system for rating environmentally friendly design is rooted in the New Urbanism movement.

New Urbanism advocated the importance of reserving space to be used by ‘ordinary’ citizens to make places of their own (DIY urbanism).

New Urbanism makes perfectly clear, why most contemporary citizens prefer the characteristics of the medieval town over the concepts of Haussmann and how most cities have expanded in the second half of the 20th century under influence of the CIAM-concepts.

Public space is under pressure

What’s wrong with Siena?  Attractive city centers such as Siena, Amsterdam and Barcelona are overrun by visitors and tourists. Partly since Airbnb has significantly increased their overnight capacity and – by the way – removed many residential houses from their regular destination. As a result, these cities see their property prices rise, their inhabitants leaving, and the number of wealthy apartments, boutique hotels, and prestigious headquarters grow. All-time users of the central city like universities also feel pressure to sell their downtown property and move to the outskirts of the town. Ultimately, the old city centers threaten to be transformed into a theme park that offer visitors twenty-four hours entertainment, while alienating inhabitants from their own public space.

Tourists on the Ramblas that receives 100 million visitors a year. Photo: nito (Shutterstock).

At the same time, the supply of public space in older and newer residential areas outside the city center is limited. In modern extensions of the city, hypermarkets offer ample opportunities for daily shopping but they are not ‘dreamed places’ for socializing.  As a consequence, many cities are starting to feel a lack of public space, which limits the opportunity for socializing and networking. In other words, the concept of public space must be reinvented.

The need for ubiquitous central places

For cities with more than 500.000 inhabitants, I propose a three level-model of public spaces. In reality, there will always be mixed forms and variations.

Place making and commoning

Below, the emphasis is on the formalized forms of public space. Probably, the most important types of public spaces have already been discussed in a previous article, where I described how residents take the initiative to convert unused lots in their immediate living environment in playgrounds, vegetable gardens or for many other purposes.  These initiatives, place-making or commoning are excellent examples of fulfilling the need for public spaces, which requires dedication and not necessarily much money. The Global Placemaking Movement’s Project for Public Spaces (PPS) connects people with ideas, resources, expertise, and partners who want to create and sustain thriving public places that build strong communities. The organization has published a book ‘How to turn a place around’, that reveals 11 principles for vibrant community spaces and many examples.

But now the other public spaces.

Oostpoort Amsterdam

According the contemporary and influential Dutch architect Sjoerd Soeters people recognize eachother and crowds never become frightening thanks to compactness of streets and squares. Water, canals, and bridges also add to the intimacy of streets. The attractivity of squares, depends mainly on the relationship between the height of the surrounding buildings and the surface of the square. That is why he prefers squares of 40 – 25 meters. He has (re)developed parts of existing tows and narrowed them down locally to enable glimpses of the next section of the street. Squares often are widened parts of a street (see below).

Square in Oostpoort (Amsterdam) Architect Sjoerd Soeters. Source: Website of Mollink & Soeters PPHP (Pleasant Places, Happy People).

Neighborhood centers

The neighborhood center is the place where citizens go for their daily needs, from the morning to the evening.  The Oostpoort in Amsterdam, designed by Sjoerd Soeters is an example of a larger one with a station and a couple of tramlines.

This type of the center has a supermarket, a bakery, butcher and a greengrocer, a drugstore, a handful of cafes and restaurants, a gym, an elementary school, community spaces, offices, workshops, and a broad variety of houses. People who are at home drink their morning coffee here, employees meet colleagues, self-employed people work at a café table during the quiet hours. Housewifes and housemen do their daily shopping or gym, chat and drink a cup of tea. People meet for lunch, dine and socialize on the terraces or in the cafés, until closing time, which will be pretty early.

Ancillary city centers

Even cities without an inordinate number of tourist and visitors, see a steady growth in the number of events – which is at odds with other urban functions.  For this reason, it is recommended that cities have a number of ancillary city centers, which generate a steady stream of visitors, due to the presence of one or more crowd pullers. Examples include the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the newly designed public space around it. Global cities like London and New York, have had such centers for years, They are sometimes difficult to find, their activities often being spread over a large area.

The use of water: Brusselplein, Leidsche Rijn Utrecht

Brusselplein Leidsche Veer, Utrecht. Photo: Mooie pleinen Magazine.

Designing public spaces in new cities is a challenge. Leidsche Rijn will be a new suburb with 100.000 inhabitants of the Dutch city of Utrecht and the Brussel Square is the new center square. The width of the square is mitigated by a row of water follies. The square is full of trees. On the edge of the square are terraces, bars, restaurants and shops. ‘Not bad’, but I don’t think the place is exiting and it is too big to offer intimacy. The surrounding buildings are hardly distinctive.

In many designs of modern and often oversized squares, water follies play a prominent role, which creates a lot of hilarity in warm weather because children get soaked. But in case of chilly weather and the terraces are empty, the small fountains are sadly undersized objects. I wonder why designers do not use water in a more varied and creative way, for instance by providing a large rectangular water basin, bordered by lush plants, filled with moving objects and stairs to sit, talk and watch. The photo below, illustrates how Zaanstad (NL) regains intimacy in wide streets.

Canal in Zaanstad. Architect Sjoerd Soeters. Source: Website of Mollink & Soeters PPHP (Pleasant Places, Happy People).

Amsterdam urgently needs one or more ancillary centers. In my opinion, the area between the Leidseplein and the Rijksmuseum has potential, but lacks unity because of the chaotic crossings of roads and tramlines.  The area around Zuid Station also offers opportunities, partly because Schiphol is the next station. A lot of work has to be done to create a more intimate public space. First of all a crowd puller must be found.

Newly developed ancillary centers are best connected to concentrations of museums, university buildings, theaters, shops, hotels, restaurants and cafés, apartments, and offices. These new centers cannot rely on century-old attractions alone and need intelligent developmental actions by architects and artists. A ‘plaza’, a central place with weatherproof terraces and attractive shopping opportunities, is helpful, but completely different angles are also effective. For instance, the Superkilen Park in Copenhagen.


Superkilen is a one-kilometer long area In Copenhagen with extensive recreational and social contact opportunities, especially for the many low-income immigrant groups living in the surrounding buildings. It has attracted small restaurants, galleries, shops and, as a consequence, visitors too, who connect effortlessly with the sixty nationalities already living in the area.

There are three colored spaces: The Red Square, representing modern city life with cafés, music and sports attributes, the Black Market, a classic square with a fountain and benches and the Green Park for picnics, sports or walking. In all three parts there is always a pleasant gathering of local people. Tourists can also enjoy themselves here.

Public park Nørrebroruten Superkilen – the black section. Architect. BIG (Bjarke Ingels) Photo: Fred Romero, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 9.

Peripheral centers: Decentral center for visitors with cars

In the next decades, a significant number of visitors will still come by car and the best thing a city can do is ensure that visitors leave these cars at safe transfer points from where they continue their voyage by public transport. For visitors who plan to stay longer, this solution is not optimal, as it can be difficult to transport luggage to the hotel by public transport. A solution is to find one or more hotels next to the parking and even better if these transfer areas become an attractive public space, with shops, cafés and restaurants. These centers can also accommodate large events, such as a soccer stadium, a music hall, cinemas and open-air festivities. The Amsterdam Arena district is developing in this direction. It has excellent rail and metro connections.

Arena Boulevard Amsterdam Photo: David Peperkamp (Shutterstock).

And not forgetting the old town…

The public spaces in the old ‘medieval’ centers must meet the same requirements as the city at las a whole in order not to turn into a theme park for tourists. Apart from its carefully maintained and functional integrated inheritance, it should offer a mix of functions, including housing, offices, light industry, craft and green space. The number of hotels has to be limited, and renting by Airbnb prohibited.  Shops cater for inhabitants and tourists as well, rents must be frozen and the speculative selling of houses restricted. Floors over shops will be transformed into apartments.

In addition, crowd-pleasing destinations, for instance an area primarily intended for young people, should be located throughout the whole center or be located in an ancillary center.

Excellent connections

The proposed spread of activities across different types of public spaces requires excellent connectivity between these spaces and the main residential areas. Only then, people will seriously consider where to go. In addition, hotels and Airbnb’s need to be located over the city as a whole, especially in the ancillary centers.

De Heuvel, Tilburg

This square – actually a triangle – was for decades the undisputed meeting place for Tilburg, an unattractive city in the Netherlands. The popularity of the place disappeared after the iconic linden tree collapsed. A thorough renovation process started ten years ago. In this process, citizens initially provided ideas, then three design firms modelled these ideas and presented them in 3D-models and citizens were ask to choose the best. This turned out to be the design of Buro Sant & Co. The place is surrounded by trees and there are the usual water follies, who respond to wind and noise. De renovation placed De Heuvel in the center of the town again.

De Heuvel in Tilburg. Photo: Buro Sant & Co.

The design of public spaces: The role of technology

The question is whether there are additional possibilities that can improve the quality of the public space, apart from what has been mentioned so far. One of Jan Gehl criteria for vibrant places is a multi-sensory experience. Cities must be built around the body and senses of human beings to allow them to enjoy cities to the fullest. His favorite example is Venice, where every street corner offers new visual, auditive and olfactory experience.

The experiences can be strengthened with technology, such as the adaptive nature of the fountains at De Heuvel in Tilburg. The Dutch city of Enschede has been experimenting with video screens that show self-developed content based on the program KaleidOK, which generates kaleidoscopic images that attract peoples’ attention.

Wall projections in public spaces. Source: Veenstra, M.: Verbonden en verbindend. De openbare ruimte in de smart city. Lectoral speech, Enschede 2016. Photos: Kimberley Warren.

In order to increase the attractivity of public spaces, no solution is suitable in advance. Developing attractive spaces is a continuous process of experimentation and observing how visitors react. In Eindhoven, nightlife is concentrated in Stratumseind, a bustling quarter that it is occasionally the scene of violence. In addition to installing CCTV cameras and sensors that record sound, PhD student Indre Kalinauskaite spent countless nights at Stratumseind observing its atmosphere. She hoped that custom lighting would improve the atmosphere and reduce violence. The city started an experiment, but impact was limited, even when the smell of oranges was added. Other experiments were more successful. The led-based lighting in the city does not only dim when the streets are empty, but every corner of a square can be given a different color. Blueish light in particular appears to calm people’s mood.

Attractiveness and the humane city

Designing attractive cities, centers, places or streets is a challenge for any designer. Probably because designers tend to focus on aesthetic criteria: a well-designed building will be associated with their name for years to come. In essence, aesthetic criteria, along with functional requirements, are necessary but not sufficient. That is why New Urbanism has emphasized that citizens must be part of the design process. Architects must understand people’s behavior well, as Jan Gehl underlined, and listen to citizens when those citizens are confronted with designs, scale models, or advanced VR presentations.

Another author to be mentioned as part of the quest to develop the humane city is Richard Sennett. As a sociologist, he has not made ready-to-use designer solutions, but in his book Building and dwelling (2018) he deals with the tensions between the city as a physical space, partly as a result of the work of designers (‘ville’) and the city created by its diverse inhabitants (cité). These two dimensions are at odds and the designer’s task is to give people a more central role in the design process. In this essay, I referred at designers who tried to bridge the gap in their own way.

It is not desirable to sacrifice the intimacy of public space in the center of a city because there is an occasional need for a venue for large events.  Such a location also thrives in a more peripheral part of the city, provided it is easily accessible by public transport. This approach results in the creation of a variety of public places across the city. This also helps to spread the number of visitors and tourists.

Below I summarize the essence of a humane approach to public space.

Principles for a humane approach to public spaces

  1. Public spaces in contemporary cities perform different functions. These functions are not connected to only one location. Therefore, to meet the need for public space, a variety of public spaces must be developed, each with its own functional characteristics.
  2. The quality of the design of public space depends on designer’s ability to anticipate the expectations and behavior of the users of that space. Therefore, observation of users is an essential part of the design process. The same goes for experimentation.
  3. Socializing is one of the most important functionalities of public spaces. Small-scale, intimate streets and squares meet this need better for most people for most people than large spaces. In modern town planning, large building volumes, large squares, and rectangular patterns still dominate and are to some extend dehumanizing.
  4. To develop high-quality public spaces, urban planners, architects, artists and citizens must work together, which means primarily that those who are professionally engaged listen to those who are personally engaged as users.
  5. Most modern city centers lack unity because they result from the design of single buildings. This process impedes the development of public places, as the surrounding buildings should be taken as given. The appointment of a master architect or planner for every part of the city helps to solve this problem.
  6. Public spaces often fall short, due to the stacking of too many functionalities, for instance giving space to  socializing and offering opportunities for large scaled events. Instead, spreading these functionalities across different locations results in a more equal distribution of residents and tourists.
  7. Public spaces thrive due to a degree of diversity of sensory experiences. Light performances, coloring lighting and lighted buildings contribute to this goal, provided they are well attuned to the primacy of the socializing function.

Written by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Header image: a sketch from Sjoerd Soeters of North Aud Block, Buffalo (US). Source: Website of Mollink & Soeters PPHP (Pleasant Places, Happy People).


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