Definitions and Methods

Conceptualizing Public Spaces

Not all public spaces are the same, nor can they be expected to serve the same needs and perform the same functions.  Our class reviewed the works of several renowned authors of geographic, urban design and planning, and political science articles which attempted to provide some definition and clarity to the wide range of spaces.

First, what makes a space “public?”  Most people would suggest that a place is public if it is open to the general populace.  But are all persons welcome?  How limited is the use of the space?  Are there any restrictions on activities (beyond general standards of public behavior)?

How do you think about the “publicness” of a shopping mall?  An outdoor plaza?  A sports club?  A bus or train station?  A playground with a sign to limit activities that appear harmless?  These places are all “public” to some degree.  In looking at the range of places, we found the need to categorize the various sites we encounter in order to appreciate the complex ways in which a single space may promote and detract from public use, often at the same time.

The study of public space is an established interdisciplinary field. We take a geographical perspective on this field by placing individual locations within broader social, political, historical, and spatial contexts. Our perspective is informed by observing our select locations on different days of the week and at different times of the day. Further, we seek to understand the varied ways that spaces are formed through the interaction of public and private interests.  Our approach to this matter is detailed herein.

The OMAI Model, which refers to ownership, management, accessibility, and inclusiveness dimensions of public space served as the framework for appraising the publicness of public spaces during the 2021 field session.

The “Star” Model for evaluating public places outlines a different strategy for evaluating multiple dimensions of public spaces, which was applied in the 2018 field session.

The Typology of Urban Public Spaces details the ways in which the different dimensions of public space intersect to create distinct forms. Our detailed study of select public spaces in St. Paul and Minneaspolis attends to some of these distinctions.

Because many of the public spaces we examine are located in city parks, we provide a brief background of parks in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

We also use Jan Gehl‘s method for observing different types of activities people perform in public space, which imbue it with a distinct character and influence how others experience the space. Placing these activities in a setting, by tracing the “desire lines” people make, enables us to map the spatial dimensions of the activities people perform.

Beyond these resources, we also recommend the toolkit assembled by the Project for Public Spaces.