What Makes Great Outdoor Public Spaces? | Lessons from 50 of the World's Greatest Spaces

Research | 2006
Funded by George H. Mayr Foundation

Architects design buildings, right? But who designs the space between the buildings?

Unfortunately, all too often the space around buildings is forgotten and goes largely un-designed. Other times, it’s designed in a way that looks good on paper but turns out to be dull and lifeless in reality. This is because many project budgets cannot afford landscape architects and urban designers, and with so much else to learn architects are rarely trained for such a task.

Outdoor space and nature play a central role in all of Adia’s work. Led by the conviction that outdoor space is the most sustainable type of space—and that public space is the lifeblood of a city—Lukas traveled throughout Europe seeking to better understand what makes the greatest outdoor public spaces “great”?

He compiled summaries of his findings into four volumes with sketches, notes, and panoramic photographs. To help spread ideas and principles of good design in the hope that many designers will benefit from them, Lukas has made low-resolution digital copies available for download free of charge (below).

Volume 1: Italy (34pp) Download PDF (5.4mb)
Volume 2: Paris (26pp) Download PDF (4.3mb)
Volume 3: London (28pp) Download PDF (4.7mb)
Volume 4: Berlin (26pp) Download PDF (8.5mb)

Research Objectives

The objective of Lukas’s endeavor was to better understand the forces and elements involved in the creation of successful outdoor public spaces, in order to be better equipped as a creator of spaces and experiences, not just buildings. Lukas chose the locations and spaces to visit based upon personal research, recommendations from scholars, familiar precedents, and Project for Public Spaces (www.pps.org), which lists and analyzes great public spaces throughout the world. He chose Western Europe because it had the highest density of renowned spaces and a breadth of spatial typologies.

His goal was to experience a wide variety of types of public spaces, including marketplaces, plazas, promenades, downtowns, streets, courtyards, parks, playgrounds, and public transit stations. While some of the spaces he chose to visit are well-known, others were more obscure, and some he just happened upon by chance.

Methodology & Map-Making

Lukas’s primary method of analysis was to experience, document, and photograph the spaces in an attempt to identify the characteristics and patterns of successful public spaces. He felt that plan and section were most adequate in documenting and better understanding the spaces and the streets/buildings surrounding them. As he was concerned with spaces and context—not single buildings—he also felt the need in many situations to create panoramic photographs.

Sketching involves really seeing something, and brings to light many aspects that casual observance or photography might not capture. As he observed and walked around the spaces (for hours at a time), he sketched maps en plein air to better understand the spaces and document locations of important elements and human interactions. He specifically chose not to look at maps of the spaces and surrounding buildings, but to create them from scratch in an effort to better understand the intricacies and capture any idiosyncrasies.

In addition to sketches, he compiled many notes based on his observations and feelings within each space. As he sat or strolled through the spaces, he asked himself many questions: What are the focal points? What draws people? What happens in the space? Do uses change throughout the day? How do people get to the space? What kinds of people come? Do they come alone or in groups? Where do they gather? How often do they come? How long do they stay? Do people pass through or do they stay a while? Are there places to sit? Is there vegetation? Is it bathed in natural light? What provides shade? What dimensions make the space feel right? What makes the space feel safe? Are there “eyes” on the space? What functions feed the space? Do people come for business or pleasure? What senses are stimulated? What noises can be heard? What catches the eyes? Why? What makes the space unique? Is it bustling or do people trickle by? Are there sidewalks? How wide? How are the sidewalks used? Are the streets used for cars? How are cars and pedestrians integrated? Where do people park?

Why Study Outdoor Public Spaces?

Though there are many reasons that Lukas chose to study outdoor public spaces, three personal beliefs stand out:

1) Space, Not Just Buildings | Some of the greatest architecture is that which is “un-built”—that which has no roof but the sky, no walls but the buildings surrounding it, and no purpose but people.

2) People | Outdoor space is the peoples’ space, defined by not by walls but by people. What better way to understand the people we build for than to watch them in their element?

3) Sustainability | An often overlooked key to designing sustainably is learning to appreciate non-building. The denser our cities become, the more we will need (and cherish) good outdoor spaces.


A lot of planning and pre-travel research went into this study. Lukas would like to particularly thank the following for their instrumental advice and contributions:

George H. Mayr Foundation
Cory Ticktin, AIA
Ashley Tierney
Goetz Schierle, PhD
Project for Public Spaces (pps.org)

Lukas Petrash Adia Design Company Affordable Design Innovation Architecture International Prefabrication Adia Adia Lukas Petrash Adia Design Company Affordable Design Innovation Architecture International Prefabrication Adia Adia