The Contribution of Natural Design Elements to the Sustained Use of Public Space in a City Centre
An increasing similarity in urban designs negatively impacts on urban space through a loss of meaning. Although the importance of meaning is stressed in the literature, this aspect of urban space has been neglected in the recent past at a time when sustainable development is also needed. A review of literature reveals that natural elements within physical settings have meaning for people and that the meanings are socially constructed by the users of the spaces. The contribution of meaning, activity, and physical elements in urban space is described in the Theory of Place. Investigating the affordance of these three components in the sustained use of small urban spaces in a city centre, where public space is at a premium and compatibility of design elements a pre‐requisite, forms the focus of this study. This research aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice by using the Theory of Place to assess natural design elements in small urban spaces. An investigation of theory, design characteristics and activity was conducted in four small urban spaces in the city centre of Wellington, New Zealand. The investigation used structured surveys with a facet approach, and photographic observation and GIS mapping of behaviour to answer the research question: Is it possible that natural design elements in public spaces influence the sustained use of a place? In addition, if observations of sustained use are related to natural design elements, is there a theoretical basis for this assertion and can it be examined through research? To answer these questions Study One examines the linkages between physical setting, social activity and meaning by investigating the behavioural and cognitive‐affective affordance of natural elements. With the results indicating a preference for natural over artificial design elements, Study Two investigated more closely how natural and artificial elements combine in design and which physical elements are likely to have strong links with other components of place. Study Three tests the validity of the theoretical findings of the initial studies by mapping user’s behaviour in small urban spaces. The convergence of the theoretical and observational research results emphasises the advantages of using both approaches in an investigation of place. Investigation of the link between meaning and activity through observation is an inferential interpretation which gives rise to the need to use complementary theoretical research with reliable predictive power. While designers should consider theory in design they should also be aware of the practical importance of creating meaningful combinations of design elements that meet the diverse needs and changing users and uses over time.