20 Types of Urban Spaces

Our class engaged with assessing, approaching, and analyzing the changing nature of public space in U.S. cities.  Any study of public space must account for the multiple forms public spaces take in practice. We used Matthew Carmona‘s work on the classification of public space to address this concern. Carmona, a professor and architect at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London (UCL), UK, relates broader critique of contemporary public space in an effort to understand how the management and design of a public space affect how people experience it.

Economic globalization has meant that urban public space is a valuable asset for cities looking to attract companies or appeal to a mobile workforce. Cities increasingly compete with one another for outside investment. Quality design and careful management of public space can add to a city’s competitive advantage.  Seeking to maximize the value of public space for attracting investors, appealing to workers, and drawing tourists, managers of urban public space nowadays strive to cultivate a perception of safety. This often leads to policing public spaces in order to control the presence of “unwanted” demographics.  The removal of unwanted demographics, often through the use of “unpleasant design” techniques ultimately narrows the boundaries of who is included in the public.

In response, Carmona urges policymakers to be more responsive to the full range of urban space types. He offers an extensive list of how public spaces appear in the contemporary city.  He classifies different types of urban public space as either ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ambiguous, or private spaces and identifies how these combine in distinct ways. The labels Carmona uses reflect a particular normative view of that calls for spaces that support democratic engagement, foster cultural and social exchange, and generate comfort. ‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ labels thus refer to spaces that clearly function to support or frustrate such a view. These labels should not be read as characterizing a space as good or bad. Instead, these are meant to capture the multiple ways that public spaces appear in the world and how some of these are designed and managed in ways that prioritize travel and transportation — certainly an important public use — and how others foster social interaction. The full range of public space types are listed here/below and anchored in St. Paul with specific examples.

‘Positive’ Spaces

Type Distinguishing Characteristics Examples in St. Paul Description
Natural / semi-natural urban space Natural and semi-natural features within urban areas, typically under state ownership. Mississippi riverfront at end of Summit Ave. Mississippi River
Civic space The traditional forms of urban space, open and available to all and catering for a wide variety of functions. 2.jpg Rice Park
Public open space Managed open space, typically green and available and open to all, even if temporally controlled. 3.jpg Groveland Recreation Center

‘Negative’ Spaces

Type Distinguishing Characteristics Examples in St. Paul Description
Movement space Space dominated by movement needs, largely for motorized transportation. 4.jpg Macalester Street
Service space Space dominated by modern servicing requirements needs. 5.jpeg Phalen Park Parking Lot
Leftover space Space left over after development, often designed without function. 6.jpg Cambridge Triangle
Undefined space Undeveloped space, either abandoned or awaiting redevelopment. 7.jpeg An empty lot near University Avenue and Lexington Parkway

Ambiguous Spaces

Type Distinguishing Characteristics Examples in St. Paul Description
Interchange space Transport stops and interchanges, whether internal or external. 8.jpg Union Depot Station
Public ‘private’ space Seemingly public external space, in fact, privately owned and to greater or lesser degrees controlled. 9.jpg Landmark Center
Conspicuous space Public spaces designed to make strangers feel conspicuous and, potentially, unwelcome. 10.jpeg Juliet Avenue Dead End
Internalized ‘public’ space Formally public and external uses, internalized and, often, privatized. 11.jpg Skyway in Downtown St. Paul
Retail space Privately owned but publicly accessible exchange spaces. 12.jpg Speedway Station on Snelling Avenue
Third place spaces Semi-public meeting and social places, public and private. 13.jpg Urban Growler Brewing Co.
Private ‘public’ space Publicly owned, but functionally and user determined spaces. 14.jpg Ramsey Middle School
Visible private space Physically private, but visually public space. 15.jpg Macalester College
Interface spaces Physically demarked but publically accessible interfaces between public and private space. 16.jpg Great Waters Brewing Company on West Seventh Place Plaza.
User selecting spaces Spaces for selected groups, determined and sometimes controlled by age or activity. 17.jpg Groveland Recreation Center

Private Spaces

Type Distinguishing Characteristics Examples in St. Paul Description
Private open space Physically private open space. 18.jpg Property fronts on Summit Avenue
External private space Physically private spaces, grounds, and gardens. 19.jpg Summit Avenue Private Garden
Internal private space Private or business space. 20.jpg Home in St. Paul

These examples are adapted from Carmona, M. (2010). Contemporary public space, part two: Classification. Journal of Urban Design 15(2): 157-173.

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