Public spaces play a vital role in the social and economic life of communities. New kinds of public spaces and meeting places are now being created in towns and cities, which can be an important social resource.
Public spaces (including high streets, street markets, shopping precincts, community centers, parks, playgrounds, and neighbourhood spaces in residential areas) play a vital role in the social life of communities. They act as a ‘self-organising public service’, a shared resource in which experiences and value are created (Mean and Tims, 2005). These social advantages may not be obvious to outsiders or public policy-makers.
■ Public spaces offer many benefits: the ‘feel-good’ buzz from being part of a busy street scene; the therapeutic benefits of quiet time spent on a park bench; places where people can display their culture and identities and learn awareness of diversity and difference; opportunities for children and young people to meet, play or simply ‘hang out’. All have important benefits and help to create local attachments, which are at the heart of a sense of community.
■ The success of a particular public space is not solely in the hands of the architect, urban designer or town planner; it relies also on people adopting, using and managing the space – people make places, more than places make people.
■ The use of public spaces varies according to the time of day and day of the week, and is affected by what is on offer in a particular place at a particular time. In one town centre studied there was a clear rhythm to the day, with older people shopping in the central market early on, children and young people out at the end of the school day, and young adults dominating the town centre at night.
■ Some groups may be self-segregating in their use of different public spaces at different times, with social norms affecting how and whether people engage with others. Public spaces are a particular and distinct resource for young people looking to socialise with others. However, groups of young people are sometimes perceived as having antisocial intentions, which in many cases is simply not true.
■ Retailing and commercial leisure activities dominate town centres, and though public space can act as a ‘social glue’ the research found that in some places ‘the society that is being held together is a stratified one, in which some groups are routinely privileged over others’ (Holland et al, 2006). So, for instance, young and older people are discouraged from frequenting shopping areas by lack of seating or (for groups of younger people) by being ‘moved on’.