Design for the People

07.01.2010 by Robert Nieminen

A recent article by the nonprofit organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS) talks about the idea that cities were designed for people and not cars—a concept that seems somewhat obvious until you look around and realize that in most cities, it appears to be the other way around.

As I continued reading, I was surprised to discover that PPS had engaged in a heated discussion with "starchitect" Frank Gehry about the importance of community input into projects, when he is apparently (and admittedly) notorious for disregarding environmental context in his work.

"Unfortunately," says Cynthia Nikitin, vice president of PPS, "it is essential to consider community context to do good public design," adding that the earlier managers realize who the real users of the public spaces are—citizens and residents—the more money and time can be saved. Personally, I find the idea of designing a building or interior space without respect to the end-users rather ridiculous. Perhaps it's because we've published so many projects in the past (and present) that do respect their environment the idea seems foreign to me. In any case, it begs the questions: What is good design, and how do you create spaces that accommodate the needs of a diverse group of users, such as in civic projects and public spaces?

Employing universal design strategies is certainly a step in the right direction. This principle produces buildings, products and environments that are usable and effective for everyone—not just people with disabilities. Ensuring people's safety and security in those spaces goes a step further. And as with any design that is deemed "good," it must also be aesthetically pleasing.

Such is the case with the projects we've chosen to feature in this issue: our cover story on the UA Cityplaza complex in Hong Kong by Alexander Wong Architects blends fine art with cinema, creating a completely new and exciting theater experience; our photo essay on the new Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte, NC, illustrates how a diverse set of programming requirements resulted in a single facility that meets the needs of a growing community; and lastly, the Greenburg Public Library project in New York showcases a design that respects both the environment and the community it serves.

After all, if design isn't for the people, who is it for?

Robert Nieminen,