Public spaces are vital arteries of a bustling city. When designed well, these can encourage diverse and gracious uses of spots that are open to one and all. Free of barriers and walls, they help to make the city feel welcoming. Yet, civic considerations often take second place to commercial priorities and urban development demands. It is not wrong to maximise economic yield, of course, but this may sometimes be done in crass ways, to the detriment of society, the liveability of an area and the well-being of users. Refined property owners, however, recognise that creating the right ambience and making spaces attractive to users can bring significant rewards.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority's recent introduction of new guidelines to make public spaces in private buildings more user-friendly might help more people to see these spots in a different light. The development of land sites that stipulate the inclusion of such free-to-roam areas will have to meet new requirements, such as offering ample shade and public seating. Those constructing larger spaces are encouraged to add amenities such as free Wi-Fi connectivity, mobile device charging points, drinking fountains, exercise equipment or public art.
Not all developers will greet these guidelines with cheer. Some may fret that noise levels from non-paying loiterers could disturb the building's tenants and visitors. Others might worry about the possibility of accelerated wear and tear - and perhaps even serious damage - in spaces that have to be easily accessible from major thoroughfares and be open 24 hours a day. However, graceful spots can encourage people to behave gracefully, and high-profile public zones can create a buzz that is not easily replicated. The appeal of Times Square in New York, for example, generates significant economic value by eliciting more tourism spending and boosting real estate values.
Constructing well-planned public spaces - the art of place-making - raises the quality of not just commercial life but also social life. Bringing natural, green elements and rest stops into concrete jungles produces therapeutic benefits for weary shoppers, workers and tourists. Collaborating with creative groups to design public spaces or holding free activities in them are innovative ways of engaging younger people. Cleverly located open areas can also encourage more walking, which can benefit businesses in the area.
Equally importantly, good communal areas play a role in giving all equal access to quality spaces and in encouraging social, cultural and interest groups to mingle naturally. It is no exaggeration to link vibrant public spaces with stronger community bonds, enlarged common experiences and a greater sense of social equity. Over time, some of these places might become much loved spots, even though they are privately operated.