By Zac Cvitkovic, Associate Director, Urban Design

Great public spaces are often the difference between good cities and great cities.

The best examples are synonymous with their host cities and disguise their often complex and perilous journeys to realisation. While many older, world-renowned examples were created at the behest of a monarch or generous city benefactor, none occurred without conscious planning and design.

In the 1900s Ebenezer Howard, an English urban planner, began to design a new type of planned residential community surrounded by greenspace that was accessible to all. It became known as the ‘garden city’ movement, which was a direct response to the overcrowding, disease and ill-health which was rampant in British cities at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Howard’s concept of self-contained communities surrounded by ‘greenbelts’ with access to jobs, inspired urban planners around the world, including Chicago-based architect, Walter Burley Griffin. It was Burley Griffin’s innovative design for Canberra, which included waterways, wide open boulevards and public space, that was the winning submission to an international design competition held in 1911 by the Australian government.

Great public spaces define their cities. Whether London’s Hyde Park, New York’s Highline or Barcelona’s La Rambla, their scale, equity of access and design provide for social and recreational activities that can’t be found elsewhere. They are the places a city congregates to celebrate successes or mourn losses.

As our cities continue to grow and become more dense, public spaces become even more vital as sanctuaries for people to relax, recharge and connect. And of course, beyond the direct impact on people’s experience of a city, great public spaces help meet a city’s environmental needs –  for example, urban canopy providing shade and cooling in summer and shelter in winter.

As our cities become larger and more diverse, they are required to respond to a broad spectrum of social, economic and environmental needs, all of which need to be considered in the planning for public open space.

However, several fundamental design principles remain the same:

  • Respond to the context
  • Provide for people’s varying needs
  • Plan for variety
  • Develop connected networks
  • Ensure a supportive microclimate
  • Establish management certainty

Following these principles alone doesn’t guarantee success, but they provide the foundation upon which remarkable public spaces can be developed.

Although the complexity of requirements is growing, urban planners and designers have access to more data than ever before. The insights that can be extracted from urban heat island effect mapping or flood modelling, help improve how we design and plan adaptable spaces that meet our citizens’ varying needs. One positive of the recent coronavirus pandemic has been its ability to smash society’s long held views on remote work, commuting and the value of public spaces.

How we use public spaces in the future will no doubt be very different to today, depending on climate change and the nature and location of work. Private developers, local councils and state government need to embrace smart city digital technology and the data it provides if we want to create public spaces that inspire, not inhibit the potential of our cities.

Public space planning is no longer limited to ‘planning for parks’. It must consider the whole urban fabric, integrating streets, squares, parks and reserves into connected networks that provide citizens with easy access to green space.

One great example of this holistic approach is the recently released Arden urban renewal precinct plan, on Melbourne’s CBDs north western edge. The Arden plan is using a brand new metro station as the catalyst to converting what was once a semi-industrial suburb into a thriving new neighbourhood with 34,000 jobs and 15,000 homes. It is an exciting and transformative project that is creating quite a buzz amongst urban planners here in Melbourne.

Zac Cvitkovic is an Urban Designer at AECOM and is based in Melbourne.

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Banner Image – The urban renewal of the Arden Precinct in Melbourne will seek to integrate public spaces into the urban fabric by making more of the public realm usable and accessible for leisure, recreation and social activities.