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What makes a place great?

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, neighborhood schools—where we interact with each other and government. When the spaces work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives.

Young women practicing tightrope walking in Wicker Park

What makes some spaces succeed while others fail? In part, it is having a variety of things to do in one spot. When the space becomes more than the sum of its parts, it becomes a place. For example, an area in a park that has a fountain, playground, somewhere for parents to sit in the shade, and a place to get something to drink or eat will attract people to stay there for more than a few minutes and return. If the park had a library across the street, with an outdoor area that had storytelling hours for kids and exhibits on local history, people would come to both the library and park again and again. Easy access to a bus stop or bike trail and proximity to residential areas are additional components that cumulatively add up to a very successful place.

When people describe a place they especially enjoy, words like "safe," "fun," "charming," and "welcoming" tend to come up repeatedly. These types of adjectives describe the Intangible Qualities—the qualitative aspects—of a particular space. Intangible qualities can also be measured quantitatively in a variety of ways by using statistics or conducting research. When combined, positive intangible qualities lead to tangible success in public spaces.