The elements of a great place

What is it that makes a great place? A place where people want to go to, be in, and stay? 

At first glance, it seems like there can’t be any hard rules - just opinions. However, experience shows that it’s not as subjective as one might think.

Places that we love tend to have common characteristics. These are high level traits, but their manifestations produce the same emotions. We feel that we are some place worthy of our attention, care, and respect. In return, we sense feelings we love - safety, excitement, and the presence of a certain energy that feeds our zest for life.

Is there any way to quantify these attributes? Can we describe certain beneficial features? Again, the built form can achieve these ends through innumerable designs, but the list below lays out a couple guiding principles to help inform the development and design of good places.

1. Legibility


Legibility refers to the ease with which someone can understand the layout of a place. In order for us to be able to thrive, we must be able to understand our environment.

Paths for travel should follow desired lines with buildings placed in a manner that makes sense. Activities that can take place in a given area are obvious. Edges, landmarks, nodes, and other wayfinding elements are placed in a way that allows for a quick understanding of how to be and how others will be in a place.

2. Enclosure


We like our spaces contained, to a certain degree. We need something that encloses us, making us feel more secure and in a defined space. Often, our favorite streets are those with a continuous wall of buildings on either side - not dominating and large, but comforting and protective. Think of the main street of many towns, complete with small shops and cafes butted up against one another. It creates a sense of coziness and safety.

Another example is a tree lined street, or a college quad. Both have specific elements that enclose them, but not in an overbearing way. A surrounded, positive space encourages people to linger, and does not encourage movement the same way an open, negative space does. We like these spaces because they feel like a good spot to meet someone, relax, or watch the world go by. Discontinuous spaces don’t have this same quality, and instead encourage us to move through towards a place that is more comforting.

3. Active

Active Edge

We need things to be happening in our spaces. Places that are not active - that don’t have people moving through or hanging out - are not spaces we want to be in. 

Having other people around makes us feel more secure, makes a place more interesting, and means that the space was designed for us. An area that is inactive - such as a long blank wall or an abandoned block - is not interesting or welcoming. We crave areas of activity, where the dance of humanity is playing out and we can join in. We need places to sit, eat, read, drink, and be. Those are the places that can remind us about the beauty of life in all its myriad incarnations.

4. Permeable


We like to be able to move through things, or at least see into them to understand what is going on. A large wall that has no windows is unwelcoming. A large building or fence that we can’t get through is the same. We want to be able to observe things, see into what is happening, and perhaps be a little bit enchanted by it all.

The spread of zoning throughout the early twentieth century separated land uses with good intention - but how incredible is it to see a donut machine working? Or to watch a brew master prepare a batch of beer? For too long these things were hidden from the public view, with what was thought to be good reason. Yet, in truth, we are fascinated by the way our world works, and love to see behind the scenes. 

The same is true of those funny little alleyways that connect main roads and the side streets we wander down. We like to get a bit lost in the mysterious, and being able to move through and around the city apart from the main transport grid provides this.

We want to be a part of it all, able to observe and move around at will. Permeability is the key.

5. Connectivity


Closely related to permeability is connectivity. We need our spaces to connect both within themselves and to the outside world. Pathways need to be continuous, defined, and allow us to move through an area in a desirable manner. We need to be able to access all necessary parts of a place, moving through things and to things. We also like to have many ways in and out of a space, so we can access whatever might be on either side of it. 

Ease of access to important areas is crucial, along with clear indicators of entry and exit points and the paths that lead to them.

6. Context

London Gherkin for context

When the contents of a place fit in that place, it feels right. This means that the layout suits the landscape and the built form suits the layout. A cohesiveness in style, size, and quality is present throughout the space. Buildings are clumped in a way that makes sense.

The spirit and character of the place are both obvious and preserved.

Often, this takes the place of expressing the natural surroundings - the topography, ecology, or natural systems of the place. There may also be pertinent historical elements that are celebrated and seen throughout the layout and buildings.

We like it when places are different from one another, but in an understandable manner. Knowing the context of a place and shaping it accordingly is one way to achieve this.

There are many more themes that could appear on the list. Each of the ones mentioned could be further broken down into constituent parts. The point is that there are certain elements that make up a successful place, and they can be quantified. It is their incarnations that differ among spaces in a beautiful display of creativity. We love these places for the detailed, fine grain design elements, but especially so if informed by the high level ideals described.

With a little effort, almost any space can see drastic improvement without major financial input. Creativity directed by the traits that contribute to a great place works wonders!