An Ecological Approach to Placemaking, Part 4

About this blog series: This is Part 4 in a series that explores the notion that people are creatures like any other, and there are basic characteristics that we seek, or need, in our habitats. Part 1, Intro is here.


Mouse trap.jpg

In our continued exploration of how we can create urban habitats that are welcoming and healthy for our human species, we consider the importance of the Program.

The program refers to those elements in our urban environment that offer utility, such as a retail store, a playground, an interesting fountain, or a temporary event.

The more diverse the offering of activities and engaging elements, the more people will gravitate to a place. A simple test of whether a public space makes use of a program is to ask: Does this place offer a variety of things to do?

In the picture above, the cheese is the program that attracts a mouse to leave the safety of the wall it is creeping along. For the human being, it is any point of interest that offers a compelling reason to move toward it: in a public square like the one pictured, it can be a central fountain, which draws people out and away from the edges of the square.

Programs in Buildings, Public Spaces, and Urban Districts

Consider the architect: an architect would never start designing a building without first asking, who are the users and how will they use this building. For starters, will the building be residential, office or retail, or a mix of uses? If it’s offices, who are the employees and how many are they? What kinds of spaces will serve their needs? How many private offices, conference rooms, and restrooms? Will there be an open floor plan, common areas, and a kitchen? This is the building program.

Public spaces – our urban rooms – also need to be designed around a program. We need a sophisticated understanding of who will use this space and what for. If we go straight to designing a public space without the program, the result will be an empty space, because we will have left out the uses. Unfortunately, this is done on a routine basis.

Urban districts and mixed-use developments also need a program – it’s built into the architecture but is often overlooked or underutilized to activate the spaces between buildings and the street level in general.

The images below show three projects I was involved with that use programs to activate space:


Buildings: Above left is the program diagram of a new building at the University of Texas San Antonio, paired with a recent image of the soon-to-open building (I helped to create the ground floor program to make sure it would be active and public – a building that contributes to the street life in downtown).

Discovery Green program.jpg
Discovery Green1.jpg

Public spaces: Above left is the program diagram of Discovery Green in Houston that we developed at Project for Public Spaces, which was used by Hargreaves Associates (now HargreavesJones) to create the final design of this extremely successful and active urban park.

Pearl district program.jpg

Mixed-use districts: Above left is the director of The Pearl in San Antonio, paired with a view over one of its central spaces and adjacent food hall. Any directory of an urban district essentially represents the program of that district, showing all the uses across the spaces and buildings.

The importance of programs in creating vibrant places can’t be overstated.

If you see a public space that’s attracting people on a regular basis, it has a program. As a simple example, consider (below) this former parking lot on Warren Street in Hudson, NY which has been activated by the owner in a simple and attractive way.


The program breaks down on a typical day as follows:

Event programming is a different beast. Events definitely are one element in the program, but I consider them an overlay that adds value once in a while (whether weekly, monthly, or annually). Events take a lot of effort and creating an active park, street or district should never over-rely on them. It is imperative that the day-to-day program that is built into space takes priority! Otherwise, the space will be empty most days and someone will have an overwhelming burden to keep activating it with events.

Coming in future posts: how we can organize a program for maximum usability and how to fine-tune the program to create more integrated and equitable places.

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About Phil Myrick

Phil Myrick is an advisor to planning and development projects around the world and former CEO of Project for Public Spaces. Phil applies research into how people interact with their environments and each other to create vibrant places, destinations, districts, and developments. His strategic advice has helped his clients achieve their goals of attracting people, engaging people in their community, strengthening connections and social fabric, and stimulating economic development. Phil is married with two teenagers and struggles to satisfy his passion for being outdoors or on the water.

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