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Rethinking urban design for a changing public life

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Purpose ‐ The nature and conceptualization of public space and public life have been always associated with collective participation and socialization ‐ in other words, the capacity to live together among strangers. Today these associations seem to have become challenged and problematic, and often end in questioning whether public space still matters for our public life? This paper aims to bring new understanding to the reading of public life in public spaces and also contribute to rethinking of the role of urban design today within our changing public life. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The paper adopts participant-observation within a case-study area, "Parque das Nações", in Lisbon, Portugal. Findings ‐ The paper identifies a number of spatial, social and experiential conditions that are conducive to social interactions amongst strangers. Often it is the combination of three factors that generates the most interaction. Research limitations/implications ‐ Participant observation is a useful method to study public behaviour in the public realm. Nevertheless, as the study was conducted in one location, the findings may not be transferable to other locations/cultures, etc. Practical implications ‐ This paper demonstrates the need to rethink and adapt urban design practices to an increasing changing public life. Urban design needs to be much more sensitive to all locations (planned and unplanned) and the favourable spatial, experiential and social conditions people make use of and which can provoke positive interactions need to be recognised. Social implications ‐ A better understanding of the factors that are conducive to positive interaction between strangers and non-strangers in the public realm will help to develop more favourable conditions for these to take place. The interaction between people is part of the fabric of social life. Originality/value ‐ This is the first paper to combine social/spatial and experiential factors in the observation of social interaction in public places.

Keywords: Physical planning; Portugal; Social interaction; Urban areas

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010


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