Transfiguring the public space with objects of conviviality

Note rapide n°850

Pascale Leroi, June 2020

Institut Paris Région (IAU)

Public spaces contribute greatly to the first impressions given by a neighbourhood, a city. As resources for finding one’s way around, resting, entertaining, eating out or socialising, they contribute to the attractiveness of the area. How can these shared spaces be marked with a conviviality that promotes well-being and living together?

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Too much soil mineralization, an excessive amount of space devoted to cars, difficulty walking or stopping for a rest, current public spaces do not always correspond to the amenities sought by the public or the objectives pursued by communities. The lack of services (restaurants, toilets, fountains), the feeling of discomfort, fear or simply the sadness of the place, the lack of animation are also negative factors for local daily life, the reception of tourists, and economic development.

Three hundred inspiring objects

After focusing on mobile and temporary economic activities, the Institute is continuing its exploration of micro-interventions in the public space with an inspirational notebook for convivial public spaces, based on « objects of conviviality ». These objects contribute to creating more pleasant spaces in a variety of ways. They bring animation, entertainment and culture, beauty and colour, and reveal the opportunities of the neighbourhood. They encourage meetings and gatherings of friends, family and lovers, allow people to give and exchange, to do things together; they promote physical well-being through rest, sport, games and sensoriality; they contribute to the presence of nature in all its elements and components, whether plant or animal; they provide security through human presence, the possibility of finding one’s way, of putting one’s bicycle under cover, of moving around in lighted streets; they renew one’s gaze and develop a sense of belonging; they send a positive signal about the attention paid to the territory and its inhabitants by the community. In order to offer a diversified range, the study identifies more than 300 examples of conviviality objects, most of which fall into generic categories: street furniture, artistic intervention, signage, events, mobile commerce, nature in the city, light real estate. Uses are attached to these different objects, such as resting, drinking, relaxing, moving, entertainment, exchange, etc. A bench, for example, allows people to rest and share moments with others. These uses sometimes become more complex: equipped with a USB socket, the bench will be used to recharge a laptop; refrigerated or integrated into a cool island, it will provide shelter in hot weather. An object can also have different uses depending on the point of view. A climbing wall is used by sportsmen and women, but for passers-by, it provides entertainment, a visual reference point, a signal of quality of space. Moreover, the main use of an object can be reinforced by its proximity to other objects. For example, other objects can be added around a sports course in the public space: a fountain to hydrate oneself, a concierge’s office to change clothes, vegetation for the pleasure of the senses, quiet areas to relax, a « food truck » to eat. Finally, the purpose of use can be individual (I rest on a bench, I buy a sandwich, I enjoy a work of art, I recharge my mobile phone, I rollerblade…) or collective (I chat on a bench, I picnic with friends, I play pétanque, I garden with my neighbours, I exchange books in a street library…).

Ten universes of conviviality

Conviviality objects have been listed in ten universes that contribute to the conviviality of public spaces: art, commerce, events, functional, active mobility, nature, sensoriality, sports and games, sharing and digital. The beneficial effects of these universes on individual and collective well-being have been reported by city professionals, through scientific or sociological studies. Thus, for example, psychologists and biologists have explored the benefits of the presence of trees in the urban environment on health and psychological balance, health professionals advocate active mobility and sport in the city to combat the harmful effects of sedentariness, tourism professionals recount the inhabitants’ attachment to artistic works based on the identity of the territory, or association leaders testify to the positive effects of shared gardens or collective compost on neighbourhood relations. Only digital technology is the subject of debate. While being able to recharge one’s mobile phone and access wi-fi coverage in public spaces is a convenience for many users, the collection and use of data and the relevance of certain digital proposals raise questions. Moreover, digital technology in the public space is more a means of offering additional services than an end in itself. A « digital » bus shelter remains above all a bus shelter, but it also provides real-time information and allows users to recharge their mobile phones.

Main contributions of each universe1 :

Renewed methods

The user-friendliness of a public space cannot be decreed and can only be summed up by putting objects in the space, it must be worked on with the stakeholders. Many of the objects listed in this notebook are the result of a process of consultation, construction and decision-making in which several stakeholders are likely to intervene. For example, planting bins, playgrounds, a temporary art showcase, a composting pavilion or a bench may be the result of a citizen’s mobilization, or that of an association. Participatory budgets, in particular, make it possible to carry out this type of project. Moreover, the same object can result from very different postures. Thus if we take the example of street art, in Vitry-sur-Seine, in the Val-de-Marne, the municipality has chosen to let this urban art live autonomously on the walls of its town, while in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, the large painted facades are the result of a well-established process between the town hall, an art gallery that selects the artists, and social backers who make their walls available. Methods of planning public space have changed over the last twenty years or so. Municipalities have opened a dialogue with groups of inhabitants and practices have been renewed. Thus, we can observe a diversification of the actors involved, in addition to municipalities and traditional planning actors, hybrid collectives focused on uses and inhabitants, citizens’ collectives. The interventions are lighter, with a search for less expensive productions, sometimes temporary, reusable or multifunctional, and transitional development proposals have developed. Sensitive, playful methods for collecting the opinion of users are booming. Finally, the ecological and energy transition is creating a general framework (reduction of waste, greenhouse gases, respect for biodiversity) that is shaking up choices in terms of development and attractiveness.

The notion of conviviality

Within the European Urbact network, several cities have come together around pilot projects aimed at changing the way public spaces are programmed and designed. In this European project entitled « User »2 , conviviality is associated with public spaces where people meet and interact easily in a spirit of tolerance and openness. In this article, conviviality is understood in a broader sense, associating the notions of sharing, tolerance and inclusion with notions of well-being, relaxation and pleasure.

Ten orientations to be favoured

At present, discussions on public space broadly share certain general orientations such as increasing the place of nature in the city, reducing pollution and noise, encouraging active mobility, proposing activities, creating lively and safe city centres, cleaner cities… The municipalities then set out their own vision of a successful public space in the choices and solutions adopted. Some, for example, display a « digital » vision of public space, while others focus on human relations. Obviously, the level of the budget that can be mobilised also plays a role. Moreover, current projects are more focused on uses and more often agree with the reality of practices, the specificities of the site and its users. Whatever the specific contexts, guidelines can serve as a framework for reflection within the framework of a user-friendliness project:

These proposals open many windows on what communities, entrepreneurs, citizens imagine for a more convivial and pleasant practice of public space, from the point of view of the person and his daily adventures. Each project is unique and must be designed with the actors in the field, as close as possible to the users and the context.

1 The universes are listed in alphabetical order

2 European Union, Urbact, User, Improving the use of public spaces in European cities, April 2015.


  • Gollain Vincent, Wided Batats Le mieux-être territorial au cœur des stratégies expérientielles, Note rapide, n° 815 , L’Institut Paris Region, août 2019.

  • Gosselin Camille, Mangeney Catherine, Soulard Odile, « Approches sensibles », revue Urbanisme, Hors-série n° 71, p. 30-31, décembre 2019.

  • Lecroart Paul, « Urbanisme tactique, projets légers, grandes mutations » dans Les Cahiers–Les villes changent le monde, n° 176, L’Institut Paris Region, 2020.

  • Leroi Pascale, L’économie éphémère, une opportunité pour renforcer l’hospitalité des territoires, L’Institut Paris Region, novembre 2017.

  • Leroi Pascale, Carnet d’inspiration pour des espaces publics conviviaux,L’Institut Paris Region, juin 2019

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