Public Realm - What's the Point of it?

Christopher Martin

Apart from stealing the title of Martin Creed's exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago, I wanted to collect my thoughts on the power that cities and the public realm have over our health, happiness and prosperity.

Whilst doing this I am also aiming to propose a mechanism for shaping cities and public realm for people first and foremost, as well as for delivering the types of cities and public realm that allow citizens to most readily reap the wide-reaching benefits of urban living.

As far as I am concerned, mankind has achieved few things as game-changing as the development of the city. Cities are unchallenged as our hubs for new ideas, they are our engines for trade and business, they have been and will continue to be at the heart of our learning, artistic endeavours and discoveries. They are at the cutting edge of whatever we choose to put our collective mind to.

The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution, and contemporary London’s great prosperity comes from its ability to produce new ideas. In essence, cities speed up our innovation because they allow us to easily connect to each other and progress thought - bringing the best out of us. Supporting this idea, Edward Glaeser has pointed out that on average, as the share of a country’s population that is urban rises by 10 percent, the country’s per capita output increases by 30 percent. Per capita incomes are almost four times higher in those countries where a majority of people live in cities compared to those countries where a majority of people live in rural areas. In fact in the USA, people who live in metropolitan areas with more than a million residents are on average more than 50% more productive than Americans who live in smaller metropolitan areas.

As well as being good for productivity and innovation, cities are good for the environment. The heat map to the left shows us the amount of carbon generated per household in New York County - red areas generating the most and green generating the least. It shows us that households in rural areas generate more carbon than households living in urban areas. 

Moreover, if we take a look at the whole of the USA and plot the total CO2 emissions of the country (below left) the data highlights that the majority of CO2 emissions are generated in and around urban areas. If we then plot this data per person (below right), we see the less urbanised areas in between cities are far more polluting. We generate more CO2 per person living in less urbanised areas than we do in urbanised areas.

Purdue University image/Kevin Gurney


So if cities are good for us in all sorts of ways, we surely need to focus on creating the most attractive cities possible. Of course visually attractive, but importantly cities need to be designed in such a way that make them holistically attractive to live in for a growing number of people. What makes cities attractive to live in, are what are the most attractive cities to live in and why, is a question which is increasingly debated in the press. There’s the ‘Mercer Quality of Living’ rankings, the ‘Economist Intelligence Unit Global Livabilty rankings’, the ‘Conde Nast Friendliest Cities’ rankings, and the one I personally like the most, the ‘Monocle Top 25 Liveable Cities’. All these rankings are looking for factors that make cities enjoyable for people to live in, and I think this is a wonderful thing. It is an interesting step forward in our discussions about cities because it has moved the conversation away from statistics like crime rates and infrastructure spending (which is of course still interesting), on to more tangible factors that mean something to citizens. This discussion has marked an interesting shift in the way we think about cities in my opinion, it has focussed the discussion first and foremost on people, and people are the most valuable asset a city has. Like the discussion, I think designers of cities have to follow suit, and first and foremost think about people in every decision that is made, as only by doing this will we create the cities that make people want to live there.

This is something that I try to do when designing the public realm, and probably why I chose to focus my career on the public realm. The public realm is the link between ‘the city’, and ‘the people’ - the place where the benefits of city living can most readily be realised by people. The public realm is the life blood of cities, it is how people truly experience a city. It is where a city’s culture is expressed most freely and openly, and it is where the city is at its most democratic, honest, and energetic. When we think about cities we’ve visited, it is often the streets and the spaces - and the experiences that we have had on them that jump to the forefront of our memories. NYC’s Broadway or Fifth Avenue; London’s Trafalgar Square, or Piccadilly; Tokyo’s Shibuya; or Paris’ Champs Elysee.

Because of this, I think that re-imagining the public realm is how we can most directly influence people’s happiness, health and enjoyment in cities - and make them more attractive places in which to live. Looking for public realm to reimagine in cites, we need not look much further than our streets. Our streets are probably the largest expanse of public realm we have in cities, but they are often hidden in plain sight. By this we mean that through all the cultural, technical, and political innovation we have experienced in cities, city streets have been preserved in aspic for generations. Examples of this are everywhere. Regent Street in 1885 (left), in 1950 (centre), and today (right) - the style of cars and people’s clothes have changed but the layout and make up of the street has been set throughout time.

This, to me, represents a fantastic opportunity to improve people’s experience and enjoyment of cities, however makes me wonder why we have allowed these conditions to go unchanged and unchallenged for so long.

I believe the answer to this is because our development model has been back to front. Buildings are thought about first in our cities - likely because they have an easily calculable and tangible value. Then we think about how to service these buildings, how to efficiently move goods and people through the city; and then the space that is left is what has traditionally been given to people, to city life.

This model hasn’t created the types of places we want to live in. It doesn’t attract life to our cities, its public realm and streets - so it stagnates parts of our cities. To counteract this we need to turn the development model on its head. Like our developing discussions about cities, we need to start by thinking about people - understanding what it is that people want from a city, and the space that this life requires, and then design around that. People do not move to cities because they’re efficient places to pass through - we move where quality of life, convenience, and price draw us.


To truly design first and foremost for people, I believe we need to know exactly what it is that we are designing for.

Firstly, a key design consideration for human beings is speed - and we are soft and slow. We (and i’d agree not all of us) as a species now have a maximum velocity of 45km/h, but move more comfortably at our walking pace of 5km/h. When we exceed our natural speed we feel excited - this is because we are taken out of our ‘comfort zone’, and our bodies produce adrenaline in readiness for action, increasing our heart rate.

As one example, that’s why we (well I do as you can see on the left) find trampolines fun. They propel us faster than we can naturally move, taking us above our normal velocity, in a hopefully controlled way.

This increased velocity is terribly exciting for us because of the effects of adrenaline, and the drug of adrenaline can indeed be addictive. It’s very exciting but it is also really dangerous because put simply, our bodies aren’t designed to protect us from impact when we are moving above our natural velocity.

This is the premise behind a lot of work that cities have been undertaking in recent years. 20mph zones in urban areas are an example of this, and ‘Vision Zero’ - in cities like NYC and Sweden understands this. It’s all about dropping speeds in places where people are - because we cannot survive impacts at speed. The facts behind this speak very loudly, and are a clear justification:

Vision Zero Network

- If a person is hit by a car travelling at 40mph - there’s a 80% chance they’ll die.

- If a person is hit by a car travelling at 20mph - there’s a 90% chance they’ll survive.

A second key design consideration is vision. People are very visual, and take about 75% of all stimuli through the eyes. In addition to this we have a field of vision with a horizon at about 2-3m. Walk around any successful shopping street, anywhere in the world more or less and you understand this. The merchandise in shop windows is always around two metres from the ground - because this is where we look, and where things can catch our eye. This is of course helpful for the shopkeepers, but also for us as we enjoy walking around these streets.

(Image Right - Complete Blocks)

We enjoy them because they give us what we need - which is approximately 1000 stimuli per hour (roughly 1 every 4 seconds) in order for our minds to stay alert. The places that we enjoy spending time in give us this, we find them interesting to walk around because there are lots of things to take in, lots to catch our eye, lots to look at. 

Streets that ignore this about people are far less attractive - they don’t attract people to spend time because they don’t stimulate us, so we hurry through, or more likely just don’t choose to walk there because it’s dull. 


The Problem

These dull streets are consistently created in cities which are designed through the top-down development model, being shaped around velocity, ‘efficient’ movement, and the car. These cities are full of ‘60mph’ architecture, with the public realm designed for people moving at these higher speeds. This generates thoroughly boring streets to walk along, and without too much surprise people don’t choose to walk a lot in these cities - the streets are devoid of life. This stagnation of the public realm is compounded by a simple observation, first made by Whyte in the 1960’s, that “people more than anything else attract other people”. People love watching other people, and we need human interaction to be happy and healthy. Public realm that encourages people out in to it, and affords opportunity to comfortably people watch, or interact with others has a key raw ingredient of a successful place.

A typical day in ‘60mph’ cities can be, waking up; driving to work; sitting at desk all day; driving to the gym; taking an escalator from the gym car park to the gym (this happens); driving home; eating a burger; watching TV; and then going to bed. This isn’t good for us. These cities that encourage us to be inactive are simply killing us. Numerous cities around the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of obesity, diabetes, stress, anxiety, and other mental health disorders in their citizens - directly because of how the urban form has been designed. This is something that city officials are of course increasingly concerned about. Not only because they want their citizens to be healthy - but because fighting these illnesses is costing governments an absolute fortune.

These are the kind of places i’m thinking about, cities designed through this top-down development model have created countless streets like this. Why would you want to walk here? Why would you want to cycle here? Why would you want to spend time, and relax here? You wouldn’t!

And we know for a fact that these poor and un-stimulating environments are physically bad for us as well. A great piece of research has been conducted by Zhenyun et al, entitled “An enriched environment improves cognitive performance in mice, from the senescence-accelerated prone mouse 8 strain”. 

It looked at synaptic growth in the brains of mice, with one group of mice being placed in a poor environment and the other group in a richly stimulating environment. The mice that were put in a poor environment had synaptic growth at a level, however the mice that were put in a rich environment had exponentially higher synaptic growth.

They had more brain power!

So this does demand the question - why do we deliver streets like the one above, when we know that this street on the left is what’s good for our minds?

On first inspection they couldn’t be more different, but these two city centre streets accommodate the same requirements; cars, delivery vehicles, refuse vehicles, people walking, and people cycling - but only one of them is good for us. Only one of them has thought about people as an asset, not as a process. I appreciate that these two examples don’t encapsulate all the complexities of public realm design, but the way we approach the design of our streets should reflect the needs of people and encourage people onto the street.

In my mind the choice is clear. Do we want cities that make people healthier, happier, and more economically successful? If so, we clearly have to do something differently from how we have in the past. We need to change the way in which we develop our cities, and instil a clear vision of designing everything about cities around people first and foremost.

The traditional top-down development model has not given us this clear vision, and without this we have tended to only look a year or two into the future in order to plan for streets, trying to solve today’s problems in the context of yesterday’s thinking. As a result we often continue to pick away at our streets, flaring junctions and widening lanes bit by bit, allowing a few more vehicles through a junction at a time to deal with ‘congestion’.

This type of ‘planning’ doesn’t work, it has no direction and no end game - without a clear vision, we don’t know where we are going. Adding insult to this particular injury, it’s proven that if we tackle the issue of congestion like this, it solves nothing - ALL we get is more congestion. Writing in 1955 at the start of our motorway age, historian and urbanist Lewis Mumford observed that “trying to address congestion by building more traffic lanes, is like trying to prevent obesity by loosening one’s belt”. 

This very astute philosophy from Mumford has since mounted evidenced support. Research has shown that spending money on road projects is no more effective at stemming congestion than building absolutely nothing. A 2009 study by two economic researchers (Giles Duration and Matthew Turner) at Toronto University compared driving data from cities that invested in roads between 1980 to 2000, with cities that didn’t. Their data presented a ‘fundamental law of road congestion’, where the extension or expansion of roads is met with a proportional increase in traffic. Not just a close correlation, “but for every one mile of road built, vehicle miles increased by one mile”.

Going forward, we need to set this clear vision for our cities to deliver places that attract people first and foremost. Think about the city we want in 20 years, the type of city we want our children to live in, and then make every decision against this vision.

What quality of life do we want? What do we want our air quality to be like? Do we want thriving high streets and businesses? How many children do we want to be obese How many children do we want with diabetes? How many people do we want to have respiratory problems? How comfortably do you want to travel to work?

The design of our public realm affects all these factors. If the vision requires fewer people to drive because streets are congested and city centre air quality is poor; wants to reduce childhood obesity; and increase space for city life and enjoyment; then we simply have to get more people on public transport, more people walking, and more people cycling. To achieve this you don’t tell people how good it is for them, or that if they drive they will be faced with congestion - to do it we just make getting a bus, taking the tube/subway/metro, walking or cycling the more attractive option! 

Human beings, especially when we’re travelling to work, will choose the path of least resistance. If we create streets and a public realm that make walking, cycling, and hopping on a bus, easy, convenient, and enjoyable. We’ll do it, every time.



We need to change our development model then, change the way we do things, which could well be hard work - but there are clear benefits for everyone.

Good public realm design makes us healthy

As built environment professionals we have in the past tended to concentrate on the economic and environmental consequences of increasing global urbanisation. Now we realise that the way in which we design the public realm has a direct causal effect on our health.

One of the most important ways in which the design of our public realm can keep us healthy, is its role in influencing our transport choices - making transport options which require us to be active, more attractive. This is because inactivity is an increasing cause of death and serious illness in our society - keeping active every day prevents a wide range of illnesses; including heart disease, stroke, depression, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. These are some of the biggest health challenges that society currently faces, so the way in which we design our public realm and influence transport choices is fundamental to improving health.

There is however more to it - the health benefits that can be delivered through public realm design go far beyond those associated with physical activity. Increased active travel offers many other advantages, such as cleaner air throughout the city, less urban noise, more connected neighbourhoods, less stress and fear, and fewer road traffic injuries. These issues are all intimately connected to our health and for cities to deliver the widest reaching benefits, we need to design a public realm that invites people to walk, cycle, and use public transport whenever possible - as well as allowing people to relax and enjoy their city.

Good public realm design makes us happy

The human body has two major hormonal stress systems, the very quick responding ‘Autonomic Nervous System’ (ANS) which controls the release of noradrenaline and adrenaline, and the somewhat slower ‘HPA system’ which is responsible for the release of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.

Noradrenaline and adrenaline from the ANS system increase our heart rate, dilates our respiratory airways, and coagulates our blood. Cortisol from the HPA system causes a diabetes-like metabolic situation which promotes obesity, suppresses the immune system, and has a toxic effect on neurons in our brain regions associated with memory.

The important thing for us to think about is what about cities is making us stressed, and making our stress systems release these chemicals into our bodies? Social stress may be the most important factor for the increased risk of mental disorders in urban areas, along with our travel choices, and these again are directly influenced by how our public realm is designed. The way we design the public realm can have a transformative effect on the prevalence of mental illness, and the health of our minds, and influencing the way people choose to travel around their city is one of the best tools we have to make sure our mental health is protected. This was shown in a piece of research that found that older women who walked at least 1.5 hours per week had significantly better knowledge, attention, memory, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and comprehension - as well as less cognitive decline - than women who walked less than 40 minutes per week.

Moreover, this has been supported by a rather serendipitous piece of research from Denmark. This study intended to explore the effects that eating different foods for breakfast and lunch had on school children in the classroom. It ended up showing that the way they travelled to school was far more crucial than what they ate. Those who cycled or walked performed much better on tests, than those who were driven to school or even arrived on public transport.

As well as our travel choices ‘social stress’ is a cause of mental health problems in cities. Social stress can be attributed to living in crowded areas, and feeling cut off from others. Again the way we design our public realm affects this, as shown by Donald Appleyard in the 1960’s. The study examined the way people moved along and across different types of streets, and recorded where people had friends and social connections. The study demonstrated that streets designed around people promoted increased social connections, friendships and relationships. People felt more comfortable outside, and spent more time on the streets. These social interactions and connections are what makes us human, and dramatically reduce the prevalence of anxiety, social stress and depression.

Good public realm design is good for the economy

Put simply, if we create places where people want to be, then the economy of an area will be improved because it is a lot easier to spend money in a place you go often, than a place you avoid.

A great illustration of this was given to me by Ludo Campbell-Reid, who has researched Fort Street in Auckland. The city took a standard city street, one which had been hidden in plain sight for decades, not evolving with the changing nature of Auckland city life - they re-imagined it, making it people focused. They wanted to encourage people to spend time in the area, so they made it into a nice place to spend time - introducing trees for shade, seats to sit on, and cycle parking so people could stop and go into the shops and cafés. They wanted to encourage people to walk and cycle along the street, so they made it easier to walk and cycle. And they wanted to support local businesses along the street, so they designed a flexible street that supported business needs, whilst encouraging people to enjoy the street. The numbers speak for themselves. These seemingly simple and straightforward interventions produced a “440% increase in spending on the street”, and a “140% increase in pedestrian footfall on the street”.

Last Word

For me, the evidence is a clear mandate for those responsible for policy making, and the design of our cities, to create places first and foremost for people. Places that keep us healthy, happy and prosperous.

Moving forward, the design of our public realm, and cities as a whole, needs to better reflect the potential they have to alleviate serious illnesses, but also the influence they have on everyone’s everyday health, happiness and prosperity.


Urban Design Group Article - Public Realm - What's the Point of it? by Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is an influential urban designer and planner working all over the globe to help communities improve their public spaces, as well as supporting Governments to develop strategy, change policies, and make great places possible.

He is Co-Founder and Director of Urban Strategy at Urban Movement, and a fully qualified Urban Designer and Planner, with over 14 years’ experience leading complex urban projects; applying his expertise to public realm, streets and transport. He consistently adds value through ensuring the seamless integration of urban and landscape design with engineering and transport.

Chris is on the UDG's Exec Committee and Editorial Board for the URBAN DESIGN Journal. He is also a member of the United Nation’s ‘Planners + Climate Action Group’; a Trustee of Living Streets, the charity that champions walking in cities; a member of the Placemaking Leadership Council at Project for Public Spaces; a member of London design review panels; and he has been a lecturer and tutor at The Bartlett School of Planning and Architecture for a number of years.