5 Unsung Design Features
That Make Places Better

These landscape architecture design elements – too often considered minor – make major contributions to quality of life.

Often, when we envision better, more sustainable places, we think of major developments, hundred-mile public trails and significant public investment. Here, during World Landscape Architecture Month, we share a few elements of landscape architecture and design that deserve a day in the sun.

1. A seat

A place to rest. A place to eat. A place to encounter new people. Whether bench, planter, chair or creative landscaping, the simple seat provides substantial benefits to urban places.

“Today’s urban places require public seating,” says Karl Weissenborn, SEH landscape architect. “Wherever you find people gathering together, it is cruel not to offer the possibility of a moment's pause.”

There are lots of ways and methods to improve opportunities for seating. One method is the parklet, where once-designated parking stalls are turned over to pedestrians for use as dining or gathering spaces. These flexible and temporary uses can be converted to parking if or when the weather cools. Many cities and suburbs are experimenting with this concept.

Another method is to provide movable, unchained chairs in public spaces that allow small groups to determine their own special gathering space. The French figured this out long ago. All of the great public parks in Paris have two styles of moveable chairs.

site rendering
A parklet can reclaim parking spots for people wanting a break from the busy city. IMAGE: nacto.org

2. A tree

They are so ubiquitous they’re almost invisible. But trees are major contributors to a healthy built environment. As more and more research comes out, we find our humble trees contribute substantially to quality of place.

A tree calms us down. It provides shade. It cleans the air around us. And, saves lives. It’s an intrinsic element in the foundation of healthy city planning.

When considering trees for a streetscape, placement, water and air exchange, and species selection are very important. Karl says, “The rule of thumb in streetscape design is that the average street or boulevard tree has a life span of 7 years, so finding the right tree for the right location is key.”

streetscape photo
Trees, planters and seating surrounding the SEH-designed Metropolitan Market Place in Rochester, Minnesota.

3. A sidewalk

Sidewalks do more than we think. Good urban sidewalks should have enough room for people to walk, stop and talk.

“The streets that people like to go to, and not just move through, have great sidewalks” says Karl.

Most of what happens in a park can also happen on a well-designed sidewalk – from civic activities to socializing, exercising to relaxing or play.  Finally, a sidewalk plays a crucial role in safety for people of all ages, by providing safer routes to school, work and play destinations.

4. A bicycle rack

A modest bike rack is a micro signifier of both a healthy bicycling culture and a commitment to multimodal transportation. When you know you have a good place to park your bike, you’re more likely to ride there.

More than a nice-to-have, studies continue to show that high-quality bicycling infrastructure has significant return on investment.

“Facilities like protected bike lanes and trails encourage more riding, increases the visibility of bicyclists and reduces overall biking risk,” says Karl.

Related Content: How to Address 8 Common Challenges of Complete Streets Projects

bike rack
When you have a good place to park your bike, you’re more likely to ride there.

5. An artwork

Whether a mural or artistic design element, well-placed artwork in a public space can accomplish much.  Beyond quality of life, art has been connected to providing economic benefits to cities incorporating public art works wisely. Cities throughout the country have created districts and display areas that are destinations for both inhabitants and visitors, demonstrating a city’s commitment to public investment. 

“When installed in appropriate locations with local and regional contexts, art can reinforce or create cultural identity,” says Karl. “If it’s memorable, public art also helps in branding a space and elevating its status in the minds of visitors.”  Successful public art is evokes emotion, thought and engagement to improve our existence and humanity.

Depot Square Building
Public art pieces at Depot Square, a transit-oriented development in Boulder, Colorado, help define and brand the space.

Bringing it all together

Every well-designed public space is the seamless culmination of hundreds of big decisions: from sustainability to programming to lifecycle costs. While these are critical elements of a successful project, we can’t forget the power of small things.

About the Experts

Karl Weissenborn

Karl Weissenborn, PLA, ASLA, CLARB, is a senior landscape architect committed to the planning and design of projects that are context sensitive, culturally appropriate and fit well within communities. Contact Karl


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