We can make our cities more vibrant, accessible, equitable, joyful and sustainable places by improving the public spaces that we share. These spaces are where the deep value of meaningful inclusion plays out – for people of all ages, races, abilities, gender expressions, nationalities, and migration backgrounds – by being a home away from home, an outdoor living room, for us all.

In our 50 years of travel and place revitalization around the world, we have taken nearly a million photos of how people live their lives in social places. Each photo tells a story, not only of that one captured moment, but of the broader context of people's lives and the powerful role that social places play in them. In our series, The Social Life for All, we've looked at where children play, where women spend time together, where men hang out, where couples linger, even where pets are most welcome and we have identified the common threads between these places.

What we've found is that the best places are those that have something for everybody because they are comfortable, engaging, safe, accessible, and joyful. In this article we will highlight a few wonderful public places around the world and talk about the elements that make them so great.

The Social Life for All Series:

Public Spaces Where Women Thrive
A photo essay that celebrates the social life of women in public spaces where women can thrive.
Public Spaces Where Kids Thrive: The Places That Work for Kids Work for Everybody
Kids bring energy and enthusiasm for life into public places and public spaces where kids thrive are great for people of all ages.
Men Hanging Out - Public Spaces Where Men Thrive
Men’s need for social connection is often overlooked, but this cannot be the case in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. This photo essay looks at where male social life thrives.
Couples and Friends Hanging Out - Public Spaces Where Affection Thrives
When trying to identify the great places around us, a good approach is to look for where the couples are.
Pets: The Ultimate Social Connectors
‘Pet-friendly’ places go a long way to restoring the social life of our cities.

Multi-Layered Destinations

We often think of the best public places as multi-layered destinations because of all the different offerings within them and the variety of ways in which they can be used and enjoyed. They have numerous amenities, activities, assets, and programs which together form beautifully complex environments that all kinds of people love to come back to again and again.

Bryant Park

One of the best examples of a multi-layered destination is Bryant Park. It has so many things to do, see, and enjoy within a compact area, including restaurants, a carousel, board game stations, ping pong tables, markets, concerts, and more that together create a magnetic intensity of activity and social life. It has become one of the most beloved and frequently visited public places in New York City, with good reason.

Pop-up Waterfront Restaurants at Paris Plage

The upper Seine on the Left Bank has always been a place of community gathering, with wide spaces and seating for people in groups or couples to relax and enjoy views of the river. But recently, further up the Seine, a group of highly creative temporary restaurants have popped up both on and off the water. Now, the options are even more plentiful in this area, especially during the summer when Paris Plage sets up along the river with abundant activities for everyone to enjoy.

Pop-up Restaurants on the Waterfront: Six Cities that Do It Well
Eating along the water is almost universally appealing. We are drawn to the waterfronts that have them

Paris Plage

Paris, the World’s Best Waterfront
Paris Plage challenges the idea of iconic design as a way for cities to show off. Instead centering the creation of iconic places, Paris Plage sets a high standard for other cities to emulate.

A Beach at the Heart of Detroit

Over the course of Detroit's 2013 transformation, one surprise for everyone was a pop up “urban” sandy beach space in Campus Martius. Sponsored by Southwest Airlines, this unexpected and creative addition ushered in a new era. Initially it was an experiment, but now it is a permanent destination in downtown and one of the most popular hangouts in the city. 

A bar anchors the "beach" and creates a stream of revenue that supports the management of Campus Martius. Ironically, it opened the same week that the City of Detroit went into bankruptcy.  This seasonal beach is regularly re-imagined and upgraded, keeping it interesting and engaging for all.

Campus Martius in Detroit
Campus Martius: The Catalyst for the Transformation of Downtown Detroit
“Every day, I can see thousands of people enjoying, using, and interacting in Campus Martius. The transformative success in social and economic development is priceless.” - Bob Gregory

Paris - Rue de Buci on the Left Bank

Rue de Buci is a Parisian street that provides ample space for people to spontaneously meet, socialize and enjoy a memorable experience. The narrow roadway allows access to both pedestrians and vehicles, but few cars can be found here because the number of people strolling slows them to a crawl. An interesting mix of shops, cafes, hotels and other businesses make it a place that attracts everyone. The curved design and moderately high buildings create a cozy sense of enclosure that helps people feel comfortable and relaxed.

Rue de Buci is the epitome of a pedestrian-friendly street


Great public places must have a variety of amenities, from benches for those who want to rest, to playgrounds for those who want to play, to cafés for those who want to chat with friends and enjoy a treat. The more amenities in a place, the more people that place will attract.


Anywhere both sun and people can be found needs to have shade. If it is too hot or sunny, people will avoid spending time outside and walking. Therefore, providing shade can be a strategy to attract people to certain places. Awnings, umbrellas and shade structures are important features of a pleasant street.

If we do it right, the addition of various forms of shade can have an enormous impact on walkability, social life, and climate resilience.

Throwing (Good) Shade for Placemaking
Shade can become an intentional strategy — developed with communities, led by communities. If we do it right, the addition of shade in all its forms can have an enormous collective impact on walkability, Social Life, and climate resilience.


Bollards are often overlooked, seemingly simple parts of our public spaces. At the most basic level, they are poles or posts designed to separate and protect pedestrian areas from vehicle traffic. But beyond serving this important function, bollards also uphold social life in our communities. They give us places to lean on and chat, offer a unique place to sit or play, can be places to gather round, and can provide an artistic statement. They can come in many shapes and sizes, even adding greenery to a community when they incorporate trees or flowers.

Bollards also "nudge" drivers toward better behavior around pedestrians, providing a visual cue to slow down or prevent parking in undesignated areas.

Bollards: How They Add to Our Social Life in Communities
Bollards are used to define public areas, create a place to gather and socialize, or just feel safe while waiting to cross the street...and importantly separate vehicles and people
To Save the Planet, Start With the Social Life of Sidewalks
Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William “Holly” Whyte


Seating is one of the most important amenities in a public space. It's where we rest, where we share a meal, where we chat with friends and meet new people. No place can become great without seating.

A simple bench can become a canvas for social life. One place that always comes to mind when it comes to seating is Zurich. In 2001, we stumbled upon a collaborative exhibit by the city, during which box structures were provided to artists who designed benches that were then placed around town.

You are where you sit: Zurich shows us how
People thrive in place that reflect their personality and where they can be seen in ways that others understand something about who they are. Different people need different settings. Diversity of seating is a basic need and varies for each place.

What we came to understand is that a diversity of seating options allows for people to live out a diversity of experiences. Also, since no two benches were alike, we saw how a bench can be a mirror to our interactions and behaviors in public spaces. People are drawn to the seating that they feel reflects them, their mood and their experience. This exhibit was a delightful experiment in public seating!

Barcelona - Antonio Gaudí designed the perfect bench over a century ago.

A Bench on Every Corner... Is More Than Just A Bench
A bench is not just a bench. What happens around it makes it catalytic. This seemingly simple amenity can grow to become a key for transforming not just a corner but an entire community.

Often, the best kind of seating is the kind that can be moved around. It allows people to create the kind of seating arrangements that feel most comfortable and enjoyable. Luxembourg Gardens, Bryant Park, and Harvard Square all came alive when movable chairs were introduced.

The Magic of Luxembourg Gardens
The magical appeal of Luxembourg Gardens is simply that people feel welcome to eat, relax or stroll. But it’s under-pining is that, it’s all about just a nice place to sit


One way to create a place where everyone feels welcome is by offering something that everyone likes, such as ice cream. Ice cream has a unique way of bringing people together and putting a smile on everybody's face. Especially because of how fast it melts, ice cream is often eaten where it's bought, leading people to hang around and strike up conversation.

But ice cream isn't the only way – other kinds of food or refreshment in carts, kiosks, shops, or trucks can also do the trick of drawing people in. People eat 3-5 times a day, so if you want to get people to visit a place, there's no better way to do it than by offering something delicious.

Ice Cream - The Social Life Magnet
A simple ice cream stand can incite a renaissance of activity in an area by anchoring a variety of commercial offerings and public spaces.

Maine's Ice Cream Stand and Bridge of Flowers

Mexico City's Food Stands and Bike Vendors


Sculptures, especially when they are interactive, are works of art that act as focal points. "Make Way for Ducklings" in the Boston Public Garden is a great example of a sculpture as a focal point. Because of its playfulness and storytelling, it is a major draw. The size and shape of the ducks is ideal for the garden's youngest visitors to sit on and play with.

The Pig at the entrance to Pike Place Market in Seattle is another great example, and Niki de Saint Phalle's well-known Balboa Park sculpture in San Diego.

Great sculptures get people smiling and posing so they can capture the interesting experience with a photo.

Play Sculptures
Play-friendly sculptures can be a part of making someone’s visit to a park particularly memorable, whether that’s by bringing a beloved character to life, or offering a landscape for play unlike any other.


Art can also be a way to attract people to a place where there were no people before. One of our favorite examples of this is Gabriel's Wharf in London. Once a bare, industrial area with nothing to offer in terms of attractions or entertainment, a beautiful mural depicting a Georgian street initiated the complete transformation of the area into a bustling outdoor market.

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: Gabriel’s Wharf, London
Built in 1988, It took 3 months to develop, cost 78,000 pounds and created 60 jobs. It is still thriving today.

Art takes a sidewalk to the next level. By adding murals, posters, and exhibitions, the street comes alive with unique character. Especially if local artists are showcased, the city's personality can be beautifully represented.

The art exhibits outside Luxembourg Gardens are often double sided with art displays on the fence as well as the other side of the sidewalk, creating a more multi-layered art experience.

Fountains and Water

There's something magical about water, especially when it flows and splashes. Anywhere you put a fountain, you'll find people relaxing around it.


Design is important, especially in regards to the amenities in places, but the soul of a place comes from the programs and events hosted there. What's more, programming can't be done by one single person or organization, it has to be a collaborative effort between various organizations, institutions and the community. Only then can the programming reflect the needs and wants of those who are expected to take part in it.

Performance - People Gathering in Large Groups


People visit and stick around in places where they can do things, so the more kinds of things you can offer in a public space, the more kinds of people will visit it and keep coming back. Bryant Park is a great example of this, with its numerous activities for every kind of interest and year-round programming.

Paris' Hotel de Ville (city hall) also does a great job of activating its front "porch" with various activities throughout the year such as wheelchair basketball, volleyball, and a variety of other programs.


People are drawn, above all, to other people. Characters with interesting stories to tell, goods to offer, or performances to give are what create the personality of a place and make it somewhere that people want to explore. Making a place inviting for characters is making it more interesting for everyone.

Places Where All Kinds of People Get Together

"What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people." - William "Holly" Whyte, 1980

Follow the people. Wherever people gather in large groups is where the most fun can be found. The spots in the photos below show the broad variety of great places around the world. As different as they are, what they share is the presence of countless things to see, feel, and do which is what makes them so popular.

London's Borough Market

Hong Kong Street Market

Istanbul Shopping Street

Paris Blackboard on the Left Bank of the Seine

Barcelona - Carrer de Asturies in Vila de Gràcia

Vancouver - Granville Island Waterpark


The best places are those where there is social life for all. The most iconic, popular, frequently visited public places are those full of children, women, men, and all kinds of configurations of every kind of person.

A placemaking strategy that starts with creating inclusive public spaces and puts a community’s future back into its hands is the first step in addressing some of the major systemic issues that hurt and divide us. Creating great public places where people come together is at the root of healthy, happy, and prosperous societies.

At the foundation of those great public places is a mix of things to experience and enjoy. By adding layers of activities, amenities, and programming, we create public places where all kinds of people want to be. The more variety a place offers, the more people will be drawn to it and benefit from the powerful impacts of these beloved destinations.

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities.If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.

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