Placemaking Through Public Infrastructure

February 3, 2021
Ashwini Karanth, AIA, LEED AP, ENV SP &

The design and reimagination of public spaces are multifaceted challenges that require unique skills and creativity. The resources, education, and conversations around public infrastructure design are limited and highly technical. While designing heavy-duty infrastructure developments may be debatably less romantic than boutique urban projects for some architects, there is an argument to be made for the passion behind them. Let’s bring the romance back!

“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture.”

Rem Koolhaas

It Starts with Community

Improving a neighborhood, city, or region encourages people to recreate and reinvent public spaces as the heart of communities. With public projects, a good understanding of the community is a crucial piece of the design solution. Sensitivity toward the historical importance of buildings defines the needs of the proposed project. The best decisions for a public project are made in conjunction with the community through careful listening and dialogue fostered by design charrettes, on-site interventions, digital communications, public opinion polls, etc. We learn about the context of a site informed not only by desktop analysis and GIS mapping but through in-person site walkthroughs and verbal interactions.

User-Centric Design

Private buildings have a fixed set of users with generally defined socio-economic parameters. In public buildings, these confines are broadened. Almost every public building must cater to many user profiles. They need to be comfortable spaces for people of all backgrounds and, above all, flexible. In this way, buildings can enhance the user’s experience and accommodate everyone without prejudice.

How a person experiences a public amenity can vastly determine the success or the failure of design. The user’s ease of navigation is critical to their overall experience. Visual elements that enhance this should be prioritized. Also essential are safety, materiality, and space planning. On a regional scale, considerations include determining the optimum location and visibility for a project.

The most crucial element of good architecture is prioritizing health, safety, and well-being for all users. In public buildings, these three aspects are magnified simply because of increased foot traffic. Robust HVAC systems, natural and artificial lighting, and durable materials that ease cleaning, waste management, and ADA accessibility contribute to resilient design and a great user experience.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Technological advancement has physical implications on built environments. It is important to ask questions about rising mobility trends, urban development, and the user’s changing needs to produce a robust design.

Most public spaces need to be equipped to serve the present-day user and planned for an ever-transforming future. This idea applies to the technologies and amenities that a building houses and the visual aesthetic associated with the space. For example, with the abundance of mobile devices and the ability to review train schedules and purchase tickets in the palm of your hand, are large schedule display boards and ticket vending machines necessary? Considering the reduction in size and number of large elements can allow spaces to be used for enhanced functionality.

Placemaking with Purpose

Great spaces connect destinations, foster safety and security, provide opportunities for a range of uses and activities, and promote the engagement of community members. There is a lot to unpack about placemaking through public infrastructure.