8 Essential Elements of an Attractive Urban Place

Not all public places are created equal.

The predominantly auto oriented pattern of urban development in the past five decades especially in the suburbs have littered the urban landscapes with places that are bland, uninviting and places people do not care about.

If a single-use development specially built for, say, a burger joint along a major urban route falls out of use due to another newer burger joint just having opened further down the road or the tenant simply just moving out, well, then natural evolutionary path for that spot is either turning itself into a parking lot or waiting for the next tenant to bulldoze down the existing structure and erect another purpose-built one. After all, the structure is meant to be disposable.

Public places are important not only because successful ones are attractive locations for people to live in or visit – we pay money to fly over to Europe so we can experience the crowded market squares and narrow streets, or we go to the make-believe world of Disneyland where we can enjoy the replicas of old ‘romantic’ villages with street level storefronts. The public realm is important also because iconic spots define a city and provide places where people gather and public events take place. They are important also because they enhance commerce and property values – and tax revenue to the host – surrounding them.

A recent article from the Strong Towns blog illustrates how, after all these years, we continue to fail to build ‘linger-worthy’ places. It points out that attractive features such as pavilions; greenery and seating alone do not make a place more inviting, but the location of the place in relationship with where the people are and where they want to go constitutes a critical success factor.

An example as cited by the article is illustrated by a couple of shots below of a gazebo built in the middle of a giant parking lot next to a suburban office park.


gazebo 2An oasis in a sea of parking lots and distant human-occupied buildings? (Images: Strong Towns Blog)

Ask yourself this question: would you walk over there to have lunch, even if you happen to work in one of those nearby office building? Didn’t think so.

Which brings us to a video, also linked to in the same article, produced by William Whyte (reference) who is widely considered by many to be a pioneer of urban space design of the time. Conducted in the late 70s, his Social Life of Urban Spaces methodically captured human behaviors in small urban settings and defined the elements which make urban spaces successful. The study confirms what we as humans intuitively know and appreciate, if only sub-consciously, what constitutes an attractive public place, and why those old market squares designs by ancient urban planners manage to withstand the passage of time and remain perpetually attractive.

Although the film is a little dated, judging by the style of hair and clothing, the ‘re-discovery’ of the lost art of urban design is no less rejuvenating, and the messages contained herein are all the more relevant, if not even more so now than then, decades after it was produced.

The film is just under an hour but is worth watching in its entirely, and is a must for those involved in urban planning or those who simply care about revitalizing their own towns.

Here are the key takeaways.

What do people do there?

There is a true diversity of activities in, say, an urban plaza. But the number one activity that the people there are engaged in?

Watching other people.

People run into each other and impromptu conversations ensue. When they do, they generally do so in geographical centers or at street corners, unless the place is large, in which case they tend to step over to the edges to continue with their conversation.

Most busy places seem to have people by themselves – having a bite to eat, having a short timeout, or watching other people.

favorite standing spotsPopular spots (red squares) where people tend to stand and talk in a large square (image: Social Life of Small Urban Spaces)

Key features of a successful urban place

Seating spaces

Provide lot of spaces for people to sit. Ledges, simple steps, grass area and steps by water features are features that attract people to linger.  Front row seats along the main flows of pedestrian traffic where people can sit and watch others are the most heavily used especially during peak times.

Avoid walls, high ledges, ledges with uneven surfaces and seats in isolation.

ledgeLedges with access to water features are especially attractive (image: Social Life of Small Urban Spaces)


Relationship with its surrounding streets

An attractive urban place is fully integrated with its surrounding streets as the streets provides the flow of people traffic and the place is steps away from the passersby curious in what is happening inside.

The place should be more or less the same height as the street level, and no more than three feet or a meter elevated or sunken from the street. Do not cut out the people from the street with walls or fences.

Line it up with shops with lots of windows. Avoid solid, windowless walls at all costs.

Sun and Light

Although people prefer to sit in the sun (except in hot summers), lack thereof is not necessarily a deterrent. What seems to be important, rather, is the presence of light, artificial light or diffused light reflected off of neighboring buildings.

Water Features

The soothing sounds of water and access to ‘touchable’ water (where people and children can splash or dip their toes in) are attractive features. There are many successful public places along waterfronts.


Canopies provided by large trees, combined with seating spaces, provide a nice refuge for people to relax, talk or watch other people.


Push cart vendors, outdoor cafes, built-in snack bars and kiosks provide what people want and a gathering place while people eat and wait to be served. Provide ample waste baskets as people are more likely to take care of their own garbage when there are plenty of such facilities.

Size of A Public Square

The size of a public place should be right and appropriate for the scale of the buildings surrounding it. Err on being too small, as cities’ tendency is to over-scale it, making it look empty and uninviting. For lower density small urban centers, it is especially important to concentrate in order to create critical mass. Building a square smack in the middle of downtown has a much better chance of success than in the outlying suburbs.

oversized public space

Small, low density urban centers tend to over-scale public places. (image: Social Life of Small Urban Spaces)


In social science, triangulation refers to process by which some external catalysts break the ice and provide momentary connections between strangers to start a conversation. Examples include public statues, sculptures and art forms, street entertainers and musicians.

And the video:


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