Links to the 'creativity' and 'choice' components of the seven Cs (Urban Design Protocol).
What is the public realm?
The public realm provides a setting for community life.
It includes all parts of the urban environment that people can experience or access - public space and buildings, and those parts of private development that impact on public space.
A high quality public realm can:
- increase the use of public space and support associated business
- encourage greater participation in community and cultural activities
- enhance personal safety.
Overview of research
The quality of the public realm relates to the physical and psychological comfort it offers people. It also reflects less obvious 'comforts' such as aesthetic pleasure (from public art, architecture and history), a sense of belonging and civic pride.
Poor quality public spaces tend to be used only for strictly necessary activities, while a far more diverse range of optional activities - from active recreation to quiet relaxation - takes place in high quality environments.
In cities that are recognised for their liveability - such as Melbourne, three times voted the world's most liveable city - there has invariably been an integrated, sustained and visionary approach to urban design focused on the public realm. Many positive outcomes flow from this holistic approach: enhanced economic performance in specific areas or the whole city; increased activity and occupation; and increased walking and cycling.
The only potential negative effect of improving the public realm is the social impact that occurs when people or businesses can no longer afford to remain in an area that has been redeveloped or 'gentrified'. However, studies suggest that - providing these possible social problems are also addressed - gentrification can be positive for a city and its residents.
In a 2001 study, CABE showed conclusively that good design of public spaces - in conjunction with high quality architectural design - can help boost civic pride.
Carmona et al, 2001
Danish urban designer Jan Gehl says that while people will do only what they need to in poor quality public spaces, an additional "wide range of optional activities" will occur in high quality spaces "because place and situation now invite people to stop, sit, eat, play and so on".
Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada found that a successful "shopping centre or office complexes may become more economically competitive if walking conditions improve".
The enhancement of Wellington's Blair and Allen Streets in the 1990s delivered tangible benefits. The initiative involved new street paving and landscaping; Wellington City Council also assisted with earthquake strengthening of heritage buildings, and facilitated investment planning with local building owners.
Value gains have since been evident in rents, capital values and physical indicators such as pedestrian counts and the presence of cafes. An economic assessment of property values suggests that values by the late 1990s were approximately double what they would otherwise have been.