Enhancing Neighborhoods: Programming Public Spaces

A More Livable City - It all starts with a bench.


Recently, I had a personal encounter that highlighted the importance of injecting public or semi-hybrid spaces into neighborhoods. As I was extra early for a morning meeting in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I decided to grab a quick bite at a nearby café. With a delicious sandwich in hand and the perfect weather for outdoor dining, I set off searching for a peaceful spot to enjoy my breakfast. To my astonishment, I couldn't locate a place to sit despite walking several blocks. I had assumed there would be a small park or seating nearby, but I ultimately found myself eating my sandwich at a bus stop. Does installing a bench prove to be such a formidable task? It all begins with a bench—a simple yet crucial element in transforming our neighborhoods into inclusive and inviting spaces for everyone to enjoy.


The Missing Bench, AI render by TWA


Understanding the Neighborhood


To transform neighborhoods into more vibrant hubs, it's crucial to start by understanding the area's history, inhabitants' way of life, transportation options, demographic changes, architectural developments, local weather, and topography. This foundational knowledge provides valuable insights into the unique character and needs of the neighborhood.


Understanding the economic activities in the area is equally important. Consider the primary sources of income, such as real estate-related operations, hotels, and restaurants. By examining the existing land use, one can discern the habits, routines, and movement patterns of the people who use these areas, setting the stage for more effective interventions.


Creating a lively neighborhood involves a mix of strategies and elements. A vibrant neighborhood is a tapestry of various entities, including retail shops, cafes, showrooms, green spaces, and more. Diverse retail formats encompass a wide array of products and scales, enhancing the appeal of a community while attracting prospective tenants. Traditional establishments like hairdressers, bakeries, cafes, galleries, retail stores, and supermarkets are fundamental examples of such formats. However, the concept extends beyond these conventional models.


The dynamism of diverse retail formats isn’t solely confined to the products and services offered. It also hinges on the unique experiences they create. Boutique shops specializing in niche items, pop-up stores introducing novel concepts, and experiential retail spaces designed for interactive customer engagement contribute to the vibrancy of a retail ecosystem. Establishing spaces that prioritize community engagement, such as hosting local artists’ showcases, cultural events or workshops can also foster a sense of belonging and support for local talent. 


Varying Degrees of Accessibility


The Nolli Map by Giambattista Nolli


The Nolli Map of Rome, created by Giambattista Nolli in the 18th century, is a remarkable resource for understanding the relationship between public and private spaces in the city. Nolli's map is celebrated for its depiction of Rome's urban fabric, not just as a collection of buildings, but as a reflection of the socio-cultural and political context of the time.


Nolli's map differentiates between public and private spaces through visual cues. Public spaces, such as squares, piazzas, and streets, are depicted as open areas, often without shading. In contrast, private spaces, like individual buildings, courtyards, and gardens, are delineated with solid black lines, indicating their enclosed and private nature. These private spaces often have access control mechanisms in place, such as door personnel or key systems.


The genius of Nolli's map lies in its ability to blur the boundaries between public and private spaces. It shows how private spaces can be open to public access in various ways. For example, some churches or noble palaces may have open courtyards that serve as semi-public gathering spaces. These spaces are visually connected to the public realm, creating a sense of permeability and connection between the two. We can draw inspiration from the principles of the Nolli Map to enhance the design and functionality of existing neighborhoods.


Ingredients of a vibrant neighborhood


The key to creating a dynamic neighborhood is establishing blurred boundaries through diverse degrees of accessibility. These include intimate and private, semi-private, hybrid, and public spaces. For example, a children's playground, a skate park, or a café/restaurant in a public space can encourage social interactions.


The use of vegetation is pivotal in blending the public and private spheres. Green elements like trees and bushes can become physical diffusers that blur the boundaries between private and public spaces. These natural barriers provide shade and serenity and, at the same time create a more harmonious transition compared to a solid wall.


Public landmarks or art pieces play a vital role in stimulating vibrancy. A fountain or art installation marks the neighborhood and fosters organic interactions, like the Piazza Nirvona in Rome, as shown in the Nolli Map above. A strong visual identity for the area helps residents and visitors easily connect with it - it acts as a welcoming signal, encouraging people to interact and spark informal conversations.


Nautilus, by SoftLAB NYC


A Case Study: BRIQ


BRIQ, a company based in Copenhagen, specializes in designing and enhancing neighborhoods, buildings, and spaces with the mission to fight ghost towns and empty stores. 


With clients ranging from international brands to property developers and investors, together they create, design, and transform urban development. Their services include commercial urban development and strategy, architecture, and spatial design, as well as finding tenants and collaborators who can help realize the dream and create a new neighborhood or place.



Carlsberg Byen, Divided into 10 zones to enhance diversity of programs, by BRIQ


Enhancing a neighborhood is indeed a multifaceted approach that goes beyond just architecture. It's about activating spaces with vibrant programs, maintaining the community's essence, and curating a mix of tenants and businesses that breathe life into the area. By attracting the right blend of restaurants, temporary markets, cozy cafes, and unique retail shops, a neighborhood becomes more than just a collection of buildings; it becomes a thriving, dynamic ecosystem. These elements create a tapestry of experiences, where residents and visitors can engage, dine, shop, and connect, fostering a sense of place and community.


So, how can architects contribute to creating a more vibrant neighborhood?


The delineation between public and private spaces often appears as a taut rope. Loosening this tension creates fluid, organic spaces that birth spontaneous or curated activities. Notable examples showcasing this blurred boundary are the Highline and the Prada Epicenter in New York City. The Highline's amphitheaters host public performances while doubling as observation points for passersby on the street below. Similarly, the Prada flagship store in Soho boasts a unique 'wave' design, sloping from the ground floor to the basement. One side of the wave accommodates fashion and exhibition displays, while the other forms a seating area facing the rising side, culminating in an event platform. This transformation turns the store into a versatile venue for lectures, performances, and film screenings.



Many perceive an empty space as 'dead' simply because it lacks activation through programming. Yet, the potential inherent in these empty spaces lies untapped, waiting to be activated through thoughtful programming and innovative design interventions. 


Architects serve as the neighborhood's storytellers, infusing unique character and purpose into the built environment. Through creative adaptive reuse, architects can transform forgotten structures into hubs of activity, breathing new life into communities. Sometimes, even the simplest gestures, such as introducing a bench or incorporating a coffee shop into a residential lobby, can evolve into urban focal points.


Lobby & Coffee Shop, AI render by TWA