Award winning public space design - talk by Tony O'Brien

Award winning public space design

In his talk, Tony O’Brien spoke about how to create more human-centered public spaces and illustrated factors and activation ideas that make high quality public spaces. He put special emphasize on the process of public space design used by Sydney-based consulting firm “The People for Places and Spaces” for award winning Pyrama Park in Sydney. According to Tony, great public space design is a process that engages citizens and stakeholders alike and ultimately results in better public spaces for all of us.

The “Human Spaces” talk series explores methods, implications, and innovations that bring a more human-centered perspective into the built environment. It aims to help to conceive, plan and build spaces with function, meaning, and soul, spark conversations, create new insights and kindle the flame.

Key take-outs from Tony’s talk

There are multiple forms of public space designs within cities: central town squares and parks, main streets and spaces between buildings, as well as shopping malls, airports, and train stations. Yet, these spaces have  differing levels of “public“ which influence how the space is used. While spaces like malls or train stations seem as public as a city-owned park, they differ in when they are accessible, who has access, and who sets and enforces the rules of how to behave.

Public spaces play an important role for people, contributing to well-being physically, emotionally and even economically. As humans are social beings, social aspects are the most important. “Great public spaces are social spaces” says Tony O’Brien. Hence public spaces need to increase the number of social interactions, for example by providing different activities and placing zones next to each other.

Great public space design is multi-functional: it contributes to the quality of life of differing individual interests at the same time. To achieve this, a good planning process is aimed at integrating all stakeholders, and creating ideas that activate people to make use of the space. The metaphor of the stage helps with the design: Who are actors, what are “performances”, which are the individual stages of the public space.

Using the example of two award-winning parks, Pyrama Park in Sydney and Briant Park in New York, the first created with the help of The People for Places and Spaces, Tony O’Brien illustrates key factors for the creation of high quality public space designs:

  • Use a rigorous process of analysis and solutions and iterate it until you reach a great solution.
  • Involve all relevant stakeholders in a democratic way, as well as those who have a keen interest in a vivid, thriving space. These could be  potential users, neighbors, local businesses, local governmental institutions and the like. 
  • Ask many questions, find out about who uses the site (even more important: who currently doesn’t), find out how wether there are programmed activity, time factors of usage etc.


In the end, Tony O’Brien shared six lesson for public space design and planning:

  1. Begin with a ‘blank sheet of paper’ instead of building on existing designs 
  2. Use a vision-led, yet bottom-up approach
  3. The more significant the space, the more democratic the process should be
  4. Establish a multi-stage process that interlinks actors with the planning/design teams
  5. Include everyone who wants to participate, yet consider individuals’ opinion, not groups
  6. For the design process establish a set of overarching principles that guide the process
Participants engage in a practical exercise to design a Hospitality Experience
Participants engage in a practical exercise to design a Hospitality Experience


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