The Sociology of Public Space

by Andrew Wade

In a conference at LSE last week, invited panelists explored the themes and implications of the writings of prominent sociologist Richard Sennett.  In conversation with architects, academics and policy analysts, Professor Sennett led a multidisciplinary discussion of civic space and the role it plays in the city.

Richard Sennett, David Adjaye, Ricky Burdett and Richard Rogers review the form and appropriation of public space around the Pantheon from a Google satellite image.

The ideas of democratic space and adaptive space emerged repeatedly as key concerns in the design and planning of the city's public realm. Professor Sennett elaborated these concepts by stating that "the attempt to find a finished form is always self-destructive" because it immediately becomes a limited and unresponsive backdrop to constantly evolving societal needs and rhythms, and therefore tends toward the status of outdated relic.  He later reinforced this idea by characterising some spaces as "undemocratic because they are overdetermined".

The public plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou was brought forth as an example of a successful civic space due to its foundation on human interaction rather than material consumption.  Architect Richard Rogers explained that in designing the building he understood that one "can't deal with the public domain in two dimensions" and therefore visitors climbing the long stair along the façade of the building were intended to participate in the life of the public space in the plaza below.

In an age when outdoor retail centres often pass for public spaces, how do we nurture interactive civic space as the heart of community in the modern metropolis?

Credits: Photo by Andrew Wade.


  1. Thanks for reporting on this impressive meeting of theorists and practitioners. I agree that many public spaces don't spark much activity or interactivity. It seems important to create a pleasing atmosphere. If people are attracted to a place (that is, find it beautiful, comfortable, exciting, etc), good interactivity might just take care of itself.

  2. It sounds like it was an excellent meeting. I agree strongly with the statement that " "the attempt to find a finished form is always self-destructive". I would say that it is in the inclusive planning of a space, and the iterative redesigning of it over time with old and new communities, is what makes a successful and sustainable civic space.

  3. Thanks to both of you for sharing your ideas. Richard Sennett expands on his theories concerning the public realm in this online essay.

    I think enabling the true appropriation of civic spaces by the community breathes life into them. They are areas where static communities of place can become dynamic communities of interest, purpose and action through the unknowable encounters and relationships they foster.

    A great comment by panelist and director of the Young Foundation, Geoff Mulgan, was the observation that "we are the first generation where human life expectancy is longer than building life expectancy". This is of course not because of inadequate building technology, nor is it a result of merely improved medical technology and longer lives, but rather of the current economic dogma whereby the potential generation of capital supersedes thoughts of adaptation and sustainability. In a world where any possible future use of urban space suggests there are greater profits to be made, the existing use becomes instantly outdated, regardless of its true age.

  4. great points! i like the idea of inclusive planning and iterative redesign over time with old and new communities. i wonder how this can be organized in a way that works.

  5. Because of the quality and quantity of gathered minds I left these talks disappointed that we'd barely scratched the surface of the topics at hand. From an architects' point of view, I was mostly disappointed that the works discussed were merely single buildings. Whatever the merits of the Centre Pompidou and the Ideas Store, we are increasingly in the business of designing whole streets, parks, neighbourhoods, new settlements and occasionally new cities on our laptops. Would a discussion of public space at this city scale have been more fruitful for such an inter-disciplinary panel? Would it also have generated a more fruitful overlap with the afternoon's other strand of questioning around the "public space" of communication? Maybe next time?

  6. This is a very interesting point - I agree that the two panels could have been linked together more effectively. It is too bad that the specific examples were limited to the scale of the individual building and not to the wider city. While architects can certainly intervene with an urban acupuncture strategy, ultimately the interwoven nature of the city should carry its positive effects to larger scales of action and interaction.

    The video entitled Richard Sennett: The Sociology of Public Life - Panel 2 is now available for viewing online, as is the podcast.

  7. I missed this talk but saw Richard expound on this same theme in London last week.

    It seems to me that architecture is moving rapidly toward a time of real change and enlightenment. I am a Landscape Architect whose profession has been made vulnerable by its holisitic approach which has been seen as woolly with no specialist focus with which to differentiate it from the more clearly defined design disciplines. What does a landscape architect do being regularly misunderstood and hard to define.

    My work has always wished to explore the design of space which provides people with unprescribed possibilities for exploration, and enjoyment. This freedom and uncertainty allows expression and reinforces the identity of the individual and the community culture.

    My favourite play scheme is one where unbeknown to me children have invented, passed on and named a game which is now part of the right of passage in that school.

    I think the time for the holistic appraoch to design has arrived. The training of Landscape Architecs is now best aligned to meeting the social needs of community and the shaping of all scales of physical space. Architects have to change and landscape holds the key.

  8. Thanks for your comment Noel. I also feel that in a time where specialists, especially in their technological prowess, are more and more abundant, it is important to have professionals who understand a more comprehensive and cohesive view. I think that the misunderstandings that you speak of with landscape architecture also occur in the intersection of design and development, where a commitment to understanding existing socioeconomic networks in a community is often mistaken as willfully avoiding a committed design response. Therefore those who operate in the cities of middle- and low-income countries with a holistic approach are still somewhat marginalised in relation to their designer peers.

    I definitely agree that it is an exciting time with great potential for drawing the connections between different scales of space as well as its interaction with society. I'd be interested to hear what you think of the term and practice of Ecological Urbanism in this sense.

  9. Anywhere where we can hear podcast, see video or read more about the conference ?