By Giulia Vignaroli, Senior Urban Designer

Most of us are social animals who benefit from regular interactions with others, whether they are friends, family members or just people out and about in our community. Unfortunately, during the coronavirus pandemic it has become increasingly clear just how much social isolation can negatively impact our wellbeing.

Public spaces play a critical role in our physical and mental health by creating locations where these social interactions can take place – think of them as the stage in the theatre of life.

Since starting my career as an urban designer, I have worked in six different countries across several continents collaborating with people from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds. Wherever I have been, one of the first things I ask someone I am working with on a project is, “What is your happiest memory?”

The majority of happy memories people shared with me relate to a public space. It could be a family daytrip to the beach, the colours, smells and sounds of a marketplace or simply enjoying an ice cream in a town square with one’s grandparents.

Whilst working at AECOM as an urban designer in Sydney, I have had the opportunity to work on many public space projects. In my role, I think I’m doing my part to create great public spaces for people to enjoy, and in doing so contribute to the creation of many new happy memories.

However, great public spaces are not the sole responsibility of the urban designer. Great public spaces are delivered by a great team, with diversity of skills and experiences but with a clear focus on a shared goal. Succeeding despite the complexity of the place, the local culture, the planning, design and development phases requires a sensitive approach and innovative thinking.

I believe the three key elements for great public places are; context, movement and time.

  • Context: A great public space is designed with a place-based approach. It embraces its natural environment and local climate. It leverages any local resources or cultural identity, reflects local needs and proactively engages the local community.
  • Movement: A great public space is easily accessible for everyone, well connected to public transport, integrated into a network of green links, equitably distributed among neighbourhoods and designed for safety.
  • Time: A great public space is a flexible destination that embraces multiple activities and types of users, functioning all day long and all year round. It is adaptable enough to respond to changing social needs or habits.

Two projects that I think have successfully embraced these three elements are the Planned Precinct Green Plans, prepared for the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and Green Square Town Centre Public Domain and Essential Infrastructure project, designed for the City of Sydney.

The Planned Precinct plan was a successful collaboration of planners, urban designers, landscape architects, transport engineers, sustainability consultants and GIS analysts.  Together we analysed the existing green infrastructure of five different precincts across Greater Sydney, we strengthened it into a network of green and blue links, and we identified a flexible strategy to maximise urban tree canopy across each neighbourhood.

As a result, every home in the community will be within a 400m walk of at least one quality public space and they will be able to easily and safely cycle or walk across the precinct while enjoying thriving, shadowing and cooling green canopy.

The Green Square public domain project was a great example of a multidisciplinary team delivering a truly integrated precinct. The goals for this project were to maximise the street tree canopy, to prioritise pedestrian amenity and to integrate active transport. Innovative approaches, such as planting the street trees into a linked soil trench, as well as reducing the carriageway size in favour of larger footpaths and implementing the Copenhagen model for the design of the boulevard cycleway, allowed Green Square Town Centre to successfully realise great outcomes for the local community.

Most of the best ideas are hidden or located below ground, but the outcome is a safe, accessible and comfortable public place that offers a variety of services and amenities. The community now has Green Square as a new great local destination, which is connected to public and active transport and where they can gather with family and friends to enjoy multiple activities throughout the year.

Creating a sense of belonging

A public space does not have to be majestic to have the potential to become great. It can be as big as a national park or as small as a community garden. It does not require a multi-million-dollar budget. Many great public spaces are curated and run by volunteers and designed with simple resilient materials.

To be great, a public space needs a collaborative team effort, drawing on many different skills to integrate context, movement and time so the community feels a genuine sense of connection. To be great, a public space just needs to belong.

What do you think your local public space is missing to become great?

The Committee for Sydney and the NSW Government have just launched the Public Space Ideas Competition, the perfect opportunity to share your brilliant ideas and help improve a public space that’s dear to you.

Giulia Vignaroli is a Senior Urban Designer at AECOM and is based in Sydney.

Back to the PSIC landing page.

Banner Image – Arncliffe and Banksia Planned Precinct Green Plan: This public space concept design was prepared for A&B Planned Precinct Green Plan and it represents a safe and accessible open space that meets the community recreational and gathering needs. (Source: AECOM)