Blurred photgraph of people enjoying a night market under lights; Blurred photgraph of people enjoying a night market under lights;

Tones of the City: Creating urban spaces that evoke the senses and energise cities

Cities cater for millions of people, engaging in diverse activities, for the 24 hours of every day.

 As cities grow, and precincts are regenerated, the challenges to meet the changing needs and expectations of people – residents, businesses and visitors – become more complex.

Public spaces also have to address safety and security threats,  to enhance safety – and perceived safety – to not only maximise but encourage the use of the space by all members of the public.

What’s the ideal?

Well-loved places are inclusive environments in which people not only feel safe, but can engage with others, feel part of a community, and relax and be inspired. They foster a strong sense of belonging which in turn, can help strengthen a city’s resilience and vibrancy.

Designing urban spaces for people to share goes beyond practical considerations; it’s about creating those experiences which bring them alive and attract people, energising wider city precincts and ultimately cities themselves.

As ‘urban living rooms’, they are dynamic, diverse and multi-functional – brought to life by the people who interact in, and with, them. The most memorable public spaces are experience-driven and evoke emotion – through sound, light, colour, texture and scent. And it’s through these multi-sensory experiences that we develop our understanding of and connections to particular places.


However, the design of cities has traditionally focused solely on form, function and fairly static aesthetics. The human experience, sensory landscape, lighting, acoustics, safety and security are often only considered from a compliance perspective as part of the environmental assessment process or in the late-stage detailed design of the project. When designing public space it’s critical to involve those disciplines that design for the senses early-on.

The best outcomes are shaped by integrated thinking and design, founded on an understanding of all users, uses and experiences, right from the start.

Creating a space to feel safe and relaxed

In creating spaces for everyone to enjoy, lighting, acoustics, safety and security design are key elements.

By considering these elements in the planning and design of public spaces, small and low-cost – but context-driven – interventions can trigger more expansive and energising transformations for the local communities and businesses. 

Lighting the urban night-time’  goes beyond providing a practical solution “to light an area”; it enhances and activates a space that can ultimately improve community and economic outcomes.

How? When people do not feel safe walking at night, they are less likely to participate in outdoor activities or use public transport. Therefore, incorporating pedestrian-centric lighting interventions can enhance personal security and safety.

Arup has also been working with Plan International, Monash University XYX Lab and the Committee for Sydney on research, strategies, designs and practical action plans to improve the city-life experience for women and girls.

Darebin Council in Melbourne has engaged Arup’s specialists to deliver custom lighting to improve amenity and security in a village area identified by local women as unsafe.

From a user’s point of view, if the lighting and design of public spaces are considered together to reduce shadows and contrasts between lit and unlit areas, the perception of safety at night improves.

Lighting that is engaging and playful can also enliven the night-time atmosphere to encourage participation in the after-hours economy, maximising the use of public amenities like public transport, greenspaces and shopping and cultural precincts.

Likewise, security design is no longer about sterile spaces with perceived fortified rings of steel or unattractive lighting. Today, we take a context-driven, multi-functional approach to security design and risk mitigation. 

For example, in Sydney, we are currently working with a Local Government Authority to embed safety into the design of a high-profile public space. By analysing numbers of people using the area and the site’s exposure and visibility, we are exploring a range of safety mitigation features that will be integrated into the landscape as play elements, mural walls inscribed with heritage interpretations and seating with planting that contributes to water sensitive urban design.

In designing places that attract, engage and inspire people, smart acoustic design decisions are also critical.

A soundscape – the acoustic environment as perceived or experienced by people in context – impacts how people hear and feel sound within a space. By incorporating music and water, for example, or planting to encourages wildlife, adds soundscapes that provide comfort and contribute to a sense of place and personal safety.

However, acoustic engineering has traditionally focussed exclusively on controlling unwanted noise and acoustic effects by prioritising the potential impacts on residents of road traffic, industrial and entertainment noise. 

By building upon design to control unwanted ‘sound’ or noise and adopting a soundscape-centred design approach we can improve and manage the sound in our cities and civic spaces – evaluating the remaining sounds, and therefore preserving, reshaping or adding to them to create attractive, stimulating and healthy acoustic environments.

Creating a space that reflects its natural character and culture

The orientation, scale and layout of the built environment also influences how a space feels and the behaviours it encourages and supports. Finishes and materials inform the tone of a place – its formality, acoustics, visual perception and character. How? Because each element works in unison to create different spaces with different purposes.

Things to consider: Is it a destination space – a public place where social interactions are encouraged and supported? Is it a sheltered, private, intimate space – a quiet nook that encourages visitors to retreat and reflect? Or is it a throughfare – an in-between space for people to experience as they pass through it? What are its neighbouring spaces and uses and what kinds of urban characteristics do they share? 

Every space is unique and influenced by the natural and cultural character of the landscape, including the way people use and experience the space, now and through history.

By integrating the surrounding terrain, land uses, views and cultural associations to public spaces, we provide multiple opportunities for users to engage their senses and interact with the space.

Design decisions, such as tree and vegetation planting, coupled with water features and material selections, can provide diverse textures, colours and scents. And, they can also moderate temperatures, improve thermal comfort, and manage stormwater run-off.

Impactful interventions

Short-term initiatives with alignment to long-term visions for safe, enjoyable and activated urban spaces, can provide quick, cost-effective and tangible benefits for all – enabling community to contribute to the development of their future place, alongside public and private stakeholders.

Illustration of people interacting in a city Illustration of people interacting in a city
Community members should contribute to the development of their future place, alongside public and private stakeholders

So, what are some of the short-term actions that can quickly contribute to a great ‘sense’ of place?

  1. Establish a cross government placemaking group with neighbouring Local Government Authorities, private and public stakeholders and tenants to determine quick and easy ways to improve public places. Create a vision, identify interventions, then rapidly prototype, test and iterate ideas to activate the senses.

  2. Encourage short-term social enterprise tenancies or ‘meanwhile uses’ on vacant plots or in under-utilised spaces while policy and plans are being developed These might include pop-up skate parks, a local produce market, local art installations, bicycle garaging or short-term food and beverage tenancies that help to activate spaces with a ‘sense of place’ and with enhanced personal security and safety.

  3. Install a ‘COVID safe’ parklet with modular furniture to occupy a former parking space, an area of public realm, or an unused space on an infrastructure corridor for a day, a week or six months. This will enable increased community interaction with open spaces. 

  4. Prepare a pilot soundscape plan that defines the meaningful and wanted noise and acoustic effects to help activate the public space.

  5. Conduct a Lighting Vulnerability Assessment to understand the areas where people feel least safe. Use the findings to prioritise areas of human-scale lighting and activate the night-time. 

  6. Illuminate bridges, sculptures, graffiti walls and natural assets, including trees, to define entry and connections to public spaces and enliven the night-time pedestrian atmosphere.

  7. Embed wayfinding to make it easy to find places where you can connect with nature and the history and culture of a place – share stories of people and events over-time, geological and landform information, bodies of water, identify local flora and fauna – to encourage visitors to engage their senses and interact with the spaces.

  8. Include ‘living labs’ to flexibly test new innovations, such as festoon lighting to trees or streets, soundscape elements and new digital technologies to enhance personal safety and security and create memorable experiences.

  9. Improve provision of high-speed wireless networks, charging points and digital displays embedded into public spaces to encourage digital-accessibility and promote a culture of opportunity and innovation. 

  10. Develop a local public space wayfinding app that links points of interest and up-to-date accessibility information to raise awareness of providing inclusive, equitable and safe places 24-hours a day. The same platform could be to share temporal data on the number and types of people visiting the space, levels of activation, and longer term environmental data such as tree canopy cover, habitat diversity and climatic conditions to raise awareness of the role public realm plays in environmental performance.