Convivial Spaces


Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating Effective Public Places by Henry Shaftoe
Convivial Urban Spaces
by Henry Shaftoe

Effective urban public spaces (by which I mean squares, plazas and pocket-parks) are crucial to health, happiness, democracy and even the urban economy. They are a true mark of civilisation. Yet, far too often, we get them wrong and they become, underused, misused or abandoned:

Why are many older squares and urban public spaces more popular than newly designed ones? Is it possible to transform abandoned or leftover urban spaces into vibrant, safe and healing environments? Can you alter the design, management and animation of existing spaces to make them more "convivial" and popular with the public? How do you make public spaces inclusive and welcoming for all? These and many other questions are addressed in my book "Convivial Urban Spaces" and the bespoke advice I can give on how to improve the quality of particular urban sites.

My view is that good design, although important, is not necessarily the key factor in producing good urban spaces that work in a civilised and civilising manner. Indeed an over-preoccupation with visual aesthetics can result in places that look slick and shiny, yet do not truly cater for citizens' needs to linger, socialise, observe and exercise. As David Halpern points out in his contribution to the book "Building Happiness", good built environments encourage social interaction, while also enabling people to choose when, where and with whom that interaction will occur. As he says; "Get that right, then worry about aesthetics."

Convivial spaces need to be appropriate for their location and intended uses; there is no "one size fits all". Sometimes it is just the little things, such as suitably shaped and juxtaposed seating opportunities, some better greenery or protection from the elements, that can make all the difference. Use of public space changes over time (both short-term: days and seasons and long-term: years and decades) so it is important to periodically review and, if necessary, modify the design and management.

I am an urban designer, with an additional background and experience in urban security and community development, so I am particularly sensitive to the safety and inclusivity aspects of good urban space management and design. After all: "people make places" (as Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims point out in their eponymous publication for Demos) and as the great gurus of public space, William Whyte and Jan Gehl remind us: people go where people are. Conviviality is the state of being sociable, jovial or festive – all signs of good health and wellbeing and effective public spaces are the prime locations for the nurturing of such states of mind and body:

My book "Convivial Urban Spaces" covers all this in more detail and I am happy to assess and give advice about specific open spaces that could benefit from being more convivial.

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