Places for people: User-centred design

Redesigning public spaces provides an ideal opportunity to not only improve the look of the space, but also to make it more user-friendly. How do we know what “user-friendly” means? Well, the best way to get the full picture is to ask the users themselves: the public.

The idea of the public being involved in designing public spaces is not a new one. However, the concept is slowly becoming more mainstream with the support of funding bodies, local planning departments, and national health and well-being organisations.

So, what does this type of user-centred design involve? And why is it important?

The Project for Public Spaces introduces the topic by putting the question in a different light: What if we built our communities around places?”

This idea is known as placemaking, and focusses on designing public spaces in collaboration with local communities. In other words, as part of the design process, the public have the chance to say what really matters to them in terms of the spaces they live and work in.

In the words of design anthropologist, Amy Santee:

If you want to design for people, you have to understand them.

A two-way conversation between planners/designers and the public has benefits for both sides. When people feel they have had a role in designing a public space, it creates a sense of ownership for local communities. This not only increases use of the space – which can be good news for local businesses – but also the feeling of community responsibility to protect and preserve that place. As urban anthropologist, Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, recently wrote:

This top down (planning) and bottom up (community) coordination is what makes placemaking sing.

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Placemaking is not just concerned with physical elements, but also the social, cultural and economic aspects of the community. To learn how a place is used (or not used) by the public and how well it functions, observation and public engagement skills are key. It’s important to know what questions to ask, and how to understand the answers, to get to the heart of the community needs. This helps planners to design a space that not only looks good, but is also functional and welcoming for all.

The Project for Public Spaces explains:

Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome this kind of grassroots involvement, they spare themselves a lot of headaches.

Public engagement means that the ground research has been made part of the process, potentially saving time, money, and energy. This helps planners to focus on designs that work by responding to public feedback, which speeds up the decision-making process.

1433983_61997011In the current economy, placemaking has very real potential for all public spaces. There are very good ethical and business reasons to embrace this holistic approach to design, built on a solid understanding of community needs. Where public spaces are concerned, understanding user needs is an essential factor for success.

Have you seen placemaking in action? What do you think makes a successful public space?


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