Emerging challenges for public space design

Jane Irwin




Public domain design has moved to the forefront of contemporary landscape architectural practice. As a profession, we are also entering the sphere of urban design. Within these areas of practice, landscape architects are meeting the environmental challenges of global warming, water management and the pressures of population growth. Innovation in these fields is currently a prime focus in the media. To be taken seriously in this space, however, we need to engage in the social and political debates around the changing nature of public space.


The public domain is the physical space of democratic society. (1) It comprises the network of streets, lanes, roads and footways that connect people to people, and to buildings and places. These streets are fundamental to the functioning of urban places. Collectively, a network of streets and parks provides opportunity for fundamental human necessities such as social interaction and exchange, creativity and delight, and the sharing of ideas. As Jane Jacobs has noted – cities are essentially made up of strangers; the public domain allows for free interaction of strangers. Densification means that for some, the public domain replaces backyards as the primary focus for socialisation.

The major Australian and New Zealand cities were modelled around nineteenth century European city planning ideals of generous streets, with grand swathes of public green spaces at their core. Parks, traditionally green open spaces, emerged as a result of public concern about the state of industrial towns – parks were seen as natural and healthy, and resulted from the growing affluence of industrialised nations. In many of these cities there is now movement to enhance pedestrian environments of the streets central to commercial centres, through widened footways, more tree planting, public art and improved public transport. Important new city making projects such as Greens Square in South Sydney, West Basin and Campbell Section 5 in central Canberra, and Auckland Waterfront in New Zealand have adopted the traditional model of a grid of streets, accommodating new thinking about prioritisation of active transport modes, and linked to new parks and public open spaces as the framework for development of new communities.

At the same time, in other new urban precincts such as Barangaroo, at the northern tip of the City of Sydney, public streets are shrinking to make way for bigger building footprints, commercial concessions and leasable entertainment areas.


The generous and nuanced public open space framed by a connective street system that formed the foundation of the 2006 international competition winning urban plan for Barangaroo has been replaced by a much diminished public space. The foreshore walk, a maximum 30 metres wide, is described by the Barangaroo Development Authority as ‘publicly accessible’, rather 

than simply public.  The latest plans propose a major part of the urban parklands to be displaced by Casino Mogul James Packer’s Casino and luxury apartment complex, in the name of so-called public interest. Here the notion of public space is blurred, with the Authority freely admitting that commercial outdoor seating and entertainment areas form part of the calculated 50% open space provision for the whole precinct.


The 19th century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Dowling described parks as places for “public enjoyments, open to all classes of people, provided at public cost, maintained at public expense, and enjoyed daily and hourly by all classes of persons”.  Times change – there is increased pressure on the public purse, we are much more mobile, with a greater and more affluent middle class. Leisure time is increasingly skewed to the pursuit of entertainment – sport, festivals, structured play, open-air films, etc.  

A focus in current planning for our great urban parks is to accommodate mass entertainment, and to make them pay their way.

A key point of recent master plans for Centennial Parklands (an 189 Ha public reserve in the eastern suburbs of Sydney) and the Royal Botanic Gardens (now managed under the same Trust) is “moving towards commercial sustainability”. This includes measures such as commercial uses of existing buildings, more entertainment areas, and the introduction of new uses such as cafes. At the edge of the Botanic Gardens, a hotel has been proposed. Centennial Park is also now “delighted to offer” a range of picnic sites that can be pre-booked for payment.  

There has recently been public debate around the intention to fence off parts of the newly opened Barangaroo Headland Reserve for commercial activity, with fines for those who enter reserved areas without payment. 

Most successful, large-scale public places integrate some forms of commercial enterprise to both activate space and offset management costs; the challenge is to balance commercial sustainability with public interest. A civilized city has a dynamic relationship between public and private; markets, malls and eat streets have a public function contained in a private shell, and are the destination for many for socialising. But our public spaces must still cater to the every man everyday, including the vulnerable in society.  The public domain must be primarily free from commercial imperatives, and allow the free movement of all classes of people.  

A design problem arises where the public domain becomes an added extra, something only to draw the punters in to commercial attractions.  For the client, the emphasis may be on international appeal, rather than local character and amenity. Newsletters and media releases use glossy images and the glamour of novelty to ‘sell’ ideas, and gloss over public interest conflicts.


The idea of the city as a collective space must be fundamental to public space design; the interaction of public and private is essential to real urbanity. Each project must be framed within a social, political and physical context; reference to the urban whole is more important than individual identity. For the designer, each project should be approached with a well-researched understanding of what constitutes quality urban space. Material configurations and thematic conceptualisation are overlays that contribute to distinctive character and picturesque novelty; they are not the basis for city making.

As businesses, we have a responsibility to fulfil a brief; as professionals we also have a wider responsibility in spheres of environment and society that should temper how we approach a brief and guide each project. This responsibility also extends to the political sphere, where we must become an active contributor to the debate.


(1) Philip Thalis, 2015