Garden design ideas that turn public spaces into ‘people places’

I always enjoy working on public spaces.  It’s a great joy to apply ideas about garden design in a way that enables and encourages people to interact in a positive way with the space around them. This was described at the last SGD (Society of Garden Designers) Awards event as ‘turning a space into a place’ – as one of the Judges said: ‘We tend to visually capture spaces to reveal design ideas, layouts, patterns, textures and colours, but, in doing so, we miss seeing them as living spaces – places which act as a setting for our lives and places which have the power to bring people together.Gardens do and must bring people together’.

So – what makes a public space a ‘people place’?

The theory 

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) – a US-based non-profit organisation – has evaluated thousands of public spaces around the world.  In their view: ‘great public spaces are where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges take place, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other … when the spaces work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives’.

Furthermore, the PPS has found that successful places have four key qualities:

  1. they are accessible and linked conveniently to other places
  2. people are engaged in activities there; the place is put to good use
  3. the place is comfortable (safe, clean, places to sit, ‘green’ and attractive)
  4. the place is sociable (people meet each other there to interact, and take people when they come to visit)

For more detail see the PPS article.

A practical example – Hare Court, Inner Temple Gardens, London

We have been fortunate to work with the Head Gardener of the Inner Temple Gardens near the Royal Courts of Justice in London over the last few years.  Our most recent joint project has been to renovate a historic courtyard which has undergone an exciting transformation to create a peaceful woodland landscape in the heart of legal London.  My team and I have found this a really satisfying project to work on.  We have been acutely aware of the historical architecture all around. It has been a real privilege (and responsibility) to be able to add to this special environment in a small way.

Hare Court is a planted courtyard which is home to a number of Barristers’ Chambers and residences. With a network of old Purbeck stone paths and draining channels that date back to the era of the Great Fire of London, the courtyard boasts four birch trees which are symbolic of the 4 Hare brothers who were members of the Inn in the late 16th and early 17th century.

The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by tall buildings, creating views from many different heights and angles as well as creating a ‘goldfish bowl’ effect for users of the space.  The existing design did not particularly engage with the Members of Chambers and residents or encourage exploration – people tended to travel quickly across the courtyard from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ in the course of their day, without making the most of being outdoors, away from desks and formal meetings and in the open air.

The new design set out to encourage better use and enjoyment of the space by evoking the generally respectful and peaceful usage that is found in the main garden of The Inner Temple.  A sinuous path was constructed to connect all the areas (in addition to the existing paths).  This created a more pleasing geometry, encouraging the user to wander into new planting areas.  The new path is variable in width and widens to accommodate seating areas and a large terrace area from which ‘Justice’ – a sculpture by artist Tanya Russell – can be admired.

A place for contemplation in the heart of legal London
A place for contemplation in the heart of legal London

Other garden design ideas to increase the appeal of the space concerned the new planting. Softer and denser planting was used to absorb any noise as it was previously prone to heavy echoes.  A diverse range of planting was carefully selected to cope with the unique and demanding microclimate of Hare Court.  The challenge was to find plants tolerant to shade, strong sun and limited irrigation whilst also creating a cohesive effect that would soften the strong vertical lines and brickwork of the surrounding buildings.  The new planting is denser and lusher than previous schemes, on slightly mounded contours to create further interest.  An upper area has planting tolerant of drier sunnier conditions and as the planting progresses to the lower area it becomes more shade tolerant and reminiscent of woodland edge planting.

Colleagues gathering on the newly-created terrace at Hare Court
Colleagues gathering on the newly-created terrace at Hare Court

At a recent opening party for Hare Court, we were delighted to see people (some with their dogs!) wandering about the courtyard – admiring plants, trying out the new seating locations and generally enjoying the space/place. We had called in earlier that day to chat with our client, and it was wonderful to see people having impromptu conversations outside, and bringing their sandwiches to eat in the (intermittent) sunshine.

Other public spaces that we have worked on in recent years can be found here and include business parks, Head Offices and school grounds.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ of course in the world of design, and in each case we have applied our ideas about garden design to meet a specific set of requirements.


In his book ‘The social life of small urban spaces’, William Whyte writes about how public spaces contribute fundamentally to the quality of life of individuals and society. When we think about how to create physical places that facilitate positive interactions between people and develop healthy communities, he concludes that ‘It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city’.

How true.

What public spaces do you most enjoy spending time in – and why?  We would be interested to hear from you…

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