Urban Design Dimensions: 3.Social Dimension



Urban Design’s Social Dimension can be defined as the relationship between space and society. This chapter focuses on five key aspects of Urban Design:

  • the relationship between people and space
  • the concept of the public realm
  • neighbourhoods
  • safety and security
  • the control of public space


people-&-spacespeople & space

the physical form of a room clearly affects what its users can &cannot do- a window in an otherwise solid wall allows a person to see out; a solid wall without a window does not afford that opportunity

The relationship between people and their environment starts with architectural or environmental determinism, where the physical environment has determining the influence on human behaviour.

space with few or no street-level doors is less interactive
space with few or no street-level doors is less interactive
space with more number of street-level doors is more interactive
space with more number of street-level doors is more interactive

By shaping the built environment, urban designers influence patterns of human activity and thus, of social life. Dear & Wolch (1989) argued that social relations can be:

  • Constituted through space – where site characteristics influence settlement form.
  • Constrained by space – where the physical environment facilitated or obstructs human activity.
  • Mediated by space – where the friction-of-distance facilitates or inhibits, the development of various practices.
less interaction due to spatial arrangement
more interaction due to the spatial arrangement

The relationship between people and their environment is best conceived as a continuous two-way process in which people create and modify spaces while at the same time being influenced by those spaces.

public realm, school in India
public realm in India


The public realm has ‘physical’ (i.e. space) and ‘social’ (i.e. activity) dimensions. Public life involves relatively open and universal social contexts, in contrast to private life, which is intimate, familiar, shielded, controlled by the individual, and shared only with family and friends.


Defining Public Space:

“Public space relates to all those parts of the built and natural environment where the public have free access. It encompasses- all the streets, squares and other right of way, whether predominantly in residential, commercial or community/civic uses; the open spaces and parks, and the “public/private” spaces where public access in unrestricted (at least during daylight hours). It includes the interfaces with key internal and private spaces to which the public normally has free access.”

(Carmona et al 2004: 10)

The relative ‘publicness’ of space can be considered in terms of three qualities:
  • Ownership- whether the spaces is publicly or privately owned.
  • Access- whether the public has access to the place.
  • Use – whether the space is actively used and shared by different individuals and groups.

public life sidewalksPublic Life:

Public life occurs in social space used for social interaction, regardless of whether it is publicly owned or privately owned space, provided it is accessible to the public.

Public life can be broadly grouped into two interrelated types – ‘formal’ and ‘informal’.

The Public Realm:

The public realm can be considered to be the sites and settings of formal and informal public life. The concept of physical public realm extends to all the space accessible to and used by the public, including:

  • External public space – those pieces of land lying between private landholdings (e.g. public squares, streets, highways, parks, parking lots, stretches of coastline, forest, lakes and rivers.). These are all spaces that are accessible and available to all.
  • Internal public space – various public institutions (libraries, museums, town halls, etc.) plus most public transport facilities (train stations, bus stations, airports, etc.)
  • External and internal quasi- ‘public’ space – although legally private, some public spaces – university campuses, sports ground, restaurant, cinemas, theatres, nightclubs, shopping malls – also form part of the public realm but includes privatised external public spaces.

footpath encroachment

street foodchennai railway station


Accessible Public Realm:

The criterion of universal access (open to all) suggests a single or unitary public realm. A constructivist interpretation, however, suggests there is no single or unitary public realm since a space that is public for citizen A may not be public for citizen B.

The Democratic Public Realm:

The key functions and qualities of the public realm relate to a notion of a ‘democratic’ (and political) public realm – one that has a physical or material basis, but which variously facilitates and symbolises socio-political activities regarded as important to democratic citizenship.

cycle of use of public spaceThe Decline of the Public Realm:

Use of public realm has been challenged by various developments, such as increased personal mobility- initially through cars and subsequently through the internet. Public realm activities like leisure, entertainment, gaining information and consumption can be satisfied at home through the television or the internet. Domestication of such activities has meant the public spaces are less significant as a focus of people’s lives.


Overlaid on the physical and spatial design of a neighbourhood were more social ideas and objectives, such as social balance (mixed communities), neighbour interaction and the creation of identity and sense-of-community. Three interrelated strands of thinking thus informed neighbourhood design:

  1. Neighbourhoods have been proposed and/or designed as a planning device – that is, as a relatively pragmatic and useful way of structuring and organising urban areas.
  2. Neighbourhoods have been proposed and/or designed as areas of identity and character to create or enhance a sense-of-place.
  3. Neighbourhoods have been proposed and/or designed as a means of creating areas of greater social/ resident interaction and enhancing neighbourliness.
Some ways how design can support neighbourhood diversity, Talen (2009a: 184-5):
  • by showing how multi-family units can be accommodated in single-family blocks.
  • by designing links between diverse land uses and housing types.
  • by creating paths through edges that disrupt connectivity.
  • by increasing density near public transit.
  • by demonstrating the value of non-standard unit types like courtyard housing, closes and residential mews.
  • by fitting small businesses and live/work units in residential neighbourhoods.
  • by developing codes that successfully accommodate land-use diversity.
  • by softening the impact of big box retail development in under-invested commercial strips.
  • by designing streets that function as collective spaces.
  • by connecting institutions to their surrounding residential fabric.


People face a variety of threats in the urban environment – crime, ‘street barbarism’; acts of terrorism; fast-moving vehicles; natural disaster/phenomena; and unseen problems such as air pollution and water contamination.

Creating a sense of security and safety is an essential prerequisite of successful urban design.

Fear of Victimisation:

Safety and securityA distinction should be made between ‘fear’ and ‘risk’- the difference between ‘feeling safe’ and actually ‘being safe’.

In response to fear-of-victimisation, many people take precautionary actions either to avoid the risk or, where risk avoidance is not possible or desirable, to reduce their exposure through risk management. Hence fear-of-victimisation is a cause of exclusion not just from particular places but from much of the public realm.

Many people are fearful of certain parts of urban areas, such as pedestrian subways, dark alleys and areas that are deserted or crowded with the ‘wrong kind of people’.

Crime, Disorder and Incivility:

In public space, it is important to distinguish between criminal and disorderly behaviour since it is often disorderly rather than criminal behaviour that is problematic.

Approaches to Crime Prevention:

‘Dispositional’ and ‘situational’ represent two main approaches to crime prevention. The dispositional approach involves removing or lessening an individual’s motivation to commit acts, through education and moral guidance. The main thrust of the situational approach is that once an offender has made the initial decision to offend (i.e. has become motivated) then the techniques make the commission of that crime in that particular place more difficult.

Situational measures manipulate not just the physical but also the social and psychological settings for the crime. There are four overarching opportunity reduction strategies:

  • Increasing the perceived effort of the offence.
  • Increasing the perceived risk of the offence.
  • Reducing the reward from the offence
  • Removing excuses for the offence.

Opportunity Reduction Methods:

Opportunity reduction methods have been developed within the mainstream urban design literature with key themes of activity, surveillance, territorial definition and control. Jacobs argued that, rather than by police, the ‘public peace’ was kept by an intricate network of voluntary controls and standards and that sidewalk, adjacent uses and their users were ‘active participants’ in the ‘drama of civilisation versus barbarism’.

Hillier, based on his research concludes:
  • The relative safety of different dwelling types is affected by the number of sides on which the dwelling is exposed to the public realm (flats are most safe; detached dwellings least safe).
  • Living in higher density areas reduces risk, with ambient ground-level density (as opposed to off-the-ground density) correlating particularly strong with safer living.
  • Good local movement is beneficial, but larger-scale thorough-movement across areas is not.
  • Where large-scale movement exists, the greater movement potential provided by more integrated street systems lower risk.
  • Relative affluence and the number of neighbours has a greater effect than layout type, whether grid or cul-de-sac.
  • A Larger number of dwellings per street segment reduces risk in grid, cul-de-sac and mixed-use areas.
  • Higher wealth increases safety in flats by decreases it in houses, particularly in low-density cul-de-sacs.
  • Dwellings should be arranged linearly on two sides of the street in larger residential blocks that allow good local movement but that are not over-permeable.

Criticisms of Opportunity Reduction Approaches:

Opportunity reduction approaches are criticised on two main grounds – their image and the possibility of displacement.

  1. Image: Use of opportunity reduction techniques has often raised concerns about the image presented and the ambience of the resulting environment e.g. resulted in the emergence of highly defensive urbanisms.
  2. Displacement: By restricting opportunities for crime in one location simply redistributes it. Displacement takes different forms:
  • Geographical displacement- the crime is moved from one location to another.
  • Temporal displacement – the crime is moved from one time to another.
  • Target displacement – the crime is moved from one target to another.
  • Tactical displacement – one method of crime is substituted for another.
  • Crime type displacement – one kind of crime is substituted for another.


While by definition, the public realm should be accessible to all, some environments- intentionally or unintentionally- are exclusionary and are less accessible to certain sections of society. If access control and exclusion are practised explicitly and widely, the public realm’s publicness is compromised.

Lynch and Carr (1979) identified four key public space management tasks:
  • Distinguishing between ‘harmful’ and ‘harmless’ activities – controlling the former without constraining the latter.
  • Increasing the general tolerance towards free use, while stabilising a broad consensus of what is permissible.
  • Separating – in time and space – the activities of groups with a low tolerance for each other.
  • Providing ‘marginal spaces’ where extremely free behaviour can go with little damage.
Exclusion can be considered in terms of the following:
  1. Excluding conducts: Managing public space can be discussed in terms of preventing or excluding certain undesirable social behaviours. ‘Exclusion Zones’- zones designed to be free of some undesirable social characteristics, for example, smoke-free zones, campaign and politics-free zones, vehicle-free zones, skateboard-free zones, mobile/cellphone-free zones, alcohol-free zones etc.
  2. Exclusion through design: Includes physical exclusion being the inability to access or use the social exclusionenvironment, regardless of whether or not it can be seen into. Economic access, a form of direct exclusion can be practised by charging an entry fee. Exclusion through design is typically a passive means of exclusion.
  • Excluding people: These kind of exclusions are more active and prevent the entry of certain individuals or social groups. They include exclusion on the grounds of conduct (behaviour over which people have a choice) as well as on the grounds of status (factors over which people have no choice- skin colour, gender, age, etc.)

The ‘Policing’ of Public Space:

Managing and ‘policing’ public space commonly involve more than just the public police. Policing needs to be considered in terms of ‘social control’ and in terms of public and private police.

Jones & Newburn (2002: 139) distinguished different types or levels of social control:
  • Primary (formal) social controls – these are direct and are exerted by those for whom crime prevention, peacekeeping, and investigators and related policing activities are a primary and defining part of their role.
  • Secondary (informal) social controls – these are more indirect and are exerted by those for whom social control activities are an important secondary aspect in their role.
  • Tertiary (informal) social control – these are also indirect and are those exerted by ‘intermediate’ groups within local communities.


If urban design is about making better places for people, then the ‘people’ referred to are all the potential users of the built environment – old/young, rich/poor, male/female, those able-bodied and those with disabilities, the ethnic majority and ethnic minorities.

Disability, Ageing and Exclusion:

disability and social exclusionFor many – the disabled, the elderly, those with young children in pushchairs, pregnant women, etc, various physical barriers prevent them from using the public realm.

The US-based Centre for Universal Design defined the principles of universal design as follows:

  • Equitable – the design should be usable by people with diverse abilities and should appeal to all users
  • Flexible – the design should cater for a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive – use of the design should be easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible – the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient condition or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error – the design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental of unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort – the design can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach use – appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.
Burton & Mitchell (2006) demonstrated a range of design features and helping to deliver six design attributes:
  • Familiarity – streets that are recognisable, with long-established forms and features and designs that are familiar to older people.
  • Legibility – streets that help older people to understand where they are and to identify which way they need to go.
  • Distinctiveness – streets that reflect local character in their built form and uses and thereby give a clear image of the place.
  • Accessibility – streets that enable older people to reach, enter, use and walk around places they need or wish to visit, regardless of any physical, sensory or mental impairment.
  • Comfort – streets that enable people to visit places of their choice without physical or mental discomposure and to enjoy being out of the house.
  • Safety – streets that enable people to use, enjoy, and move around the outside environment without fear of tripping or falling, being run over or being attacked.

disable friendly transportation

Mobility, Wealth and Exclusion:

Mobility can also be considered in terms of car-based and non-car-based accessibility. Groups with low mobility also tend to have low accessibility.

Automobility is a ‘source of freedom’, whose flexibility enables car drivers to travel at speed at any time in any direction. Cars also provide a means of security. Lower income groups, devoid of the luxury of owning a car, rely on public transport. The poorest people tending to live in the least safe and healthy environments with the greatest likelihood of environmental hazards such as floods and pollution. Exclusion of such groups is a product of inaccessible facilities, poorly managed parks and public spaces, dilapidated housing, living in locations with high traffic volumes, and the disturbance, pollution, noise and potential injury this causes.

Exclusion of the Young:

At many public places, certain groups of people such as the poor, homeless teenagers etc are excluded on the basis of appearance, e.g. hairstyle etc. They are also excluded because of their pastimes, e.g. skateboarding, regarded, by some, as ‘anti-social’ because of the conflict it creates with other groups and due to the damage to street furniture.

Rather than positively designing for and managing such activities, the more common strategy is to banish such uses to dedicated spaces and to design or police them out of shared spaces.

Cultural Difference and Public Space:

cultural diversityThe Cultural difference should be celebrated rather than alleviated. As communities have become more ethnically diverse, these notions of different cultures colliding in the melting pot of public space can also be extended to how different ethnic groups use space, and to concerns that these different patterns of use are inadequately recognised in urban design processes.

In urban design is to be appropriately responsive to the needs of local populations, it is critical to understand the diversity of views and perspectives among minority groups as well as among the majority population – though, for a range of religious and cultural reasons, some minority groups are particularly hard to engage in participatory processes.

Certain spaces provided opportunities for dissimilar people to mix:

  • Neighbourhood and semi-domestic spaces, such as shared forecourts, school lobby etc.
  • Neighbourhood parks where young people interacts.
  • Local markets encouraged casual encounters between who would otherwise not come into contact.

Gender Perspectives:

It has been observed that in most of the environmental designs – intentionally or unintentionally- women are excluded. Women make up over half the population and have a very different lifestyle and patterns of movement to men. Many women spend a greater portion of their time in and around the home environment, they take shorter cross-town rather than into- centre trips.

Women frequently experience inconvenience and obstruction in the designed environment, inadequate solutions are imposed on them and they encounter a widespread lack of knowledge and understanding among professionals about how they use space.

(Cavanagh 1998: 169-1)

An example of gender blindness is that there is a general under-provision of female public toilets .whereas women, who for biological reasons need to use toilets more often and for a longer time.

Inclusive Design:

Keates & Clarkson argue that, whatever the product, inclusive design is not a niche activity, nor one addressing ‘special needs’, instead, it is about ensuring design outcomes are of greatest value to the widest possible range of users.

By its very nature, good design is inclusive and is the responsibility of all built environment professionals, as well as land and property owners. Inclusive design thus aims to:

  • Place people at the heart of the design process.
  • Acknowledge diversity and difference.
  • Offer choice where a single design solution cannot accommodate all users.
  • Provide for flexibility in use.
  • Create environments that are enjoyable to use for everyone.


More than any other dimension, urban design’s social dimension raises a host of issues concerning values and difficult choices regarding the effects of urban design decisions on different individuals and groups in society. While the aim should e to create an accessible, safe and secure, equitable public realm for all, economic and social trends can make his increasingly difficult to deliver requiring urban designers to consider their values and their actions in designing and creating public spaces.

This is a Summary of the Dimensions of Urban Design from the Book “PUBLIC PLACES- URBAN SPACES by Matthew Carmona, Tim Heath, Taner Oc and Steven Tiesdell, Architectural Press


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