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PUBLIC SPACES – Tony O'Brien on how to design award winning parks

There are multiple forms of public space within cities: central town squares and parks, main streets and spaces between buildings, but also shopping malls, airports, and train stations. Yet, there are different levels of “public“, influencing how the space is used. While spaces like malls or train stations seem as public as a city-owned park, they differ in when they are accessible, who has access, and who sets and enforces the rules of how to behave.

Public spaces play an important role in the lives of people. They contribute to well-being on many different levels like physically, emotionally and even economically. Especially social aspects are important. As humans are social beings, thriving public places are those that increase the number of social interactions in a space, and by providing multiple reasons to come and return often.

Great public spaces are multi-functional: they contribute to the quality of life of many different individual interests at the same time. To achieve this, a good planning process is aimed at integrating all stakeholders, and creating ideas that activate people to make use of the space. The metaphor of the stage helps with the design: Who are actors, what are “performances”, which are the individual stages of the public space.

Using the example of two award-winning parks, Pyrama Park in Sydney and Briant Park in New York, the first created with the help of The People for Places and Spaces, Tony illustrates key factors for the creation of high quality public spaces:

  • Use a rigorous process of analysis and solutions and iterate it until you reach a great solution.

  • Involve in a democratic way all relevant stakeholders and those who have a keen interest in a vivid, thriving space like potential users, neighbors, local businesses, local governmental institutions and the like. 

  • Ask many questions, find out about who uses the site, who currently doesn’t, how does the space interact with businesses, are there any programmed activity, time factors of usage etc.

In the end, Tony shared six lesson for public space planning and design:

  1. Begin with a ‘blank sheet of paper’ instead of building on existing designs 
  2. Use a vision-led, yet bottom-up approach
  3. The more significant the space, the more democratic the process should be
  4. Establish a multi-stage process that interlinks actors with the planning/design teams
  5. Include everyone who wants to participate, yet consider individuals’ opinion, not groups
  6. For the design process establish a set of overarching principles that guide the process


Tony O’Brien has more than 30 years of experience in such diverse fields as management, strategic marketing, tourism, and urban planning. As Senior Consultant at Sydney-based consultancy “The People for Places and Spaces”, which was specialized in shaping the human experience in such diverse environments as cities, parks, airports, cultural, and tourism settings, he focussed on understanding how people experience places and how to better design and program in order to deliver on the needs of all users. His work included strategic urban visioning projects for the City of Melbourne, Sydney Airport, and town centers across Australia.

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