The Star Model

“Star” Model for Evaluating Public Places

Public spaces have many dimensions and attributes, and their tremendous variety makes comparisons challenging.  For this class, we looked at several approaches by which we could rate the publicness of our selected sites, including toolkits available at the Project for Public Spaces.  We selected an approach known as the “star” model for its ease of use and attention to comparing places along five separate dimensions.

Georgiana Varna and Steve Tiesdell, at the University of Glasgow (UK), outlined their model in the Journal of Urban Design in 2010.  Their paper “Assessing the Publicness of Public Space: The Star Model of Publicness” offers a method for comparing various locations.  Building upon a great deal of earlier published research, the authors describe five variables that affect the level of usefulness of places for the benefit of the general populace.  They also note a trend in recent years toward the declining significance of the public realm, as reflected by spaces that may be promoted as “public” but in reality fall short.

Varna and Tiesdell identify five dimensions for evaluation:

  1. Ownership. This refers to the place’s legal status; spaces with public ownership, function, and use are the most public, while those operating under some type of public-private partnership are less so.
  2. Control. This refers to an explicit control presence; formal rules are needed, but they may vary as to their level of public or community interest.
  3. Civility. Civility refers to how a public place is managed and maintained, and involves the cultivation of a welcoming ambiance.  (Our class suggests that “accommodation” is an alternate name for this dimension.)
  4. Physical configuration. This relates to the design of a place, both internally and regarding its connections with the outside world.  How easy or difficult is it to reach and enter the space, and how visible and barrier-free is the site itself?
  5. Animation. Animation concerns how space is actively used and shared by different individuals and groups Animation considers the sorts of opportunities that are available for passive and active engagement. We also consider animation through the different types of activities that space enables.

The authors suggest a five-point rating scale for each dimension, with “5” at the highest level of benefit for the broad community and “1” the lowest level.  Then the five dimensions are arrayed in the shape of a five-pointed star, with each leg representing one dimension.  The length of each leg is proportional to the rating of each aspect so that the “most public” dimensions have the longest legs.  Since we can expect any public space to vary in its characteristics, the result of this rating system is a lopsided star for each site.

Our class adapted this system for presentation, rating our sites along the same dimensions suggested by the authors but presenting the results in a tabular form.

We consulted the following article in our approach to studying public space: Varna, G. and S. Tiesdell (2010). Assessing the publicness of public space. Journal of Urban Design 15(4): 575-598.