Dysfunctional public spaces are regularly encountered in the everyday experience of Australian cities. Such places are typically understood to be ‘public space’, by virtue of being publicly owned and in principle publicly accessible, but are not fulfilling the concomitant expectation that they function as public domains—that is, as forums for public social activity. Often, a major cause of the dysfunction is to be found in the presence of competing needs from another urban activity that overwhelm and marginalise the requirements for the successful functioning of the public space in question. In these situations, the normative methods of developing public space, governed by regulatory planning instruments, seem largely ineffective in advancing the needs of the public space.
This study investigates design strategies for enabling these types of contested public spaces to better fulfil their potential and desired social purposes. The investigation is undertaken through speculative urban design projects in three Australian cities—Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast—on sites where the ability of a public space to foster public social activity is unrealised or under threat. A strategy of combined development is proposed, where the development impetus for a competing urban activity (such as commercial, industrial or environmental infrastructure) is leveraged for the simultaneous development of public space improvements. In contrast to conventional mixed-use development, where a number of different programs may operate essentially independently within the one spatial framework, this research investigates how public space might be physically, operationally and experientially combined with other urban activities in the one development in order to produce better public domain outcomes. By demonstrating how the direct engagement with urban development forces—through the leveraging of development impetus—can be an effective strategy for creating new opportunities for public space, this research extends the discourse of contemporary landscape architectural design practice.