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The Public Space Database Project

Research team:

  • Professor Setha Low, The Graduate Center CUNY
  • Michael Mehaffy, guest researcher, KTH the Centre for the Future of Places
  • Professor David Brain, New College of Florida
  • Associate Professor Vikas Mehta, University of Cincinnati

Growing out of the previous Future of Places partnership with UN-Habitat, the Public Space Database Project is a compilation of the most significant research literature on public space, with findings relevant to current policy, education and practice. Among the topic addressed by the research is, why public space is important for cities’ economic, social and ecological performance; how it is used in different conditions by different populations; how it can be created and maintained; how it declines; and how governments, professionals and stakeholders can create, protect and improve successful public spaces.

The database is intended as a key resource toward the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the United Nations’ Habitat III conference. as part of the Centre’s current Memorandum of Understanding with UN-Habitat. Key participants now at the Centre (and formerly with the Future of Places partnership) played roles in developing the language of the New Urban Agenda as it addressed the topic of public space.

People, sitting in a conference room.
Members of the project team in Stockholm. Photo: Marta Marko Tisch © CFP

Since at least the 1960s, a large body of field research literature has accumulated on public space and city design. Nevertheless, there is still no central platform that connects the work that has been done, or that facilitates dialogue for greater cross-pollination between disciplines. Perhaps this lack of an evidence base for policy and practice is one reason why - despite the scientific and empirical evidence, good will and necessity - many cities still don’t get public space right. Designing safe, sustainable and healthy cities is the outcome of complex dialogues between many stakeholders, all with their own agenda. Urban form depends on the know-how of a plethora of actors; architects, urban planners, academics from different disciplines, politicians, traffic planners, and engineers, to name a few. To decrease the distance between practitioners operating in silos, platforms are needed where expert knowledge can be found in one place with a common terminology.

The purpose of the Public Space Database Project is precisely this: to collect relevant research from different academic fields, and merge it into one body of knowledge accessible and understandable by all. To enable a joint language on public space within which all identified research could be organized, a number of categories, called meta-data, were created. The meta-data is developed collectively by the academic research team, and consists of a set of information categories that are used to amalgamate similar research phenomena into cross-disciplinary groups, independently of their origin in any specific academic discipline.

With the support of a capable and highly motivated team made up by academics and practitioners, the database reflects a systematic effort to consolidate research findings, and bridge the epistemological gaps between disciplines. By mapping out and categorizing past and current knowledge, the database will furthermore be an invaluable resource for identifying gaps in knowledge and research, to better target new and needed research. 

The research team includes leaders in the field of public space research, together with sub-teams of their graduate students: Professor Setha Low (anthropology and environmental psychology) and two students at City University of New York; Professor David Brain (sociology) and two students at New College of Florida; and Professor Vikas Mehta (urban planning and design) and one colleague at the University of Cincinnati. The team also relies on a board of advisors, including eminent scholars from other institutions.

Belongs to: Centre for the Future of Places
Last changed: Jun 29, 2020