Approaching public space as a real system


Conseil National des Transports (CNT)

This sheet has been selected and reviewed by Régis RIOUFOL, contributor to the CNT’s « Roads for All » initiative, coordinated by Jean-Charles POUTCHY-TIXIER and Hubert PEIGNE.

It is necessary to approach public space as a real system whose complex functioning requires an understanding of its uses. This approach, based on an understanding of the dysfunctions of public spaces, aims to identify useful knowledge for action. However, the difficulty of integrating consultation with users, an essential element in the development of these spaces, remains.

Understanding what people experience

Travel on the roads and public spaces of the 21st century has nothing to do with the commute to work of 50 years ago. The majority of travel today is not about commuting to work, but about other travel. These other trips require a detailed analysis to understand how public space actually functions in order to determine the best possible use of it in a systemic way.

The approach to public space, based solely on physical planning, which seeks to take into account all uses and users, is reaching its limits today, and quickly leads to the impossibility of ensuring that all users can live together in a peaceful manner. The Centre d’Études et de Recherche sur les Transports, l’Urbanisme et les Constructions Publiques (CERTU) and the CNT have, for example, tried to list, classify and give elements of hierarchy of uses : more than 150 have been counted, making it impossible to adopt any systematic approach according to linear and/or technical methodologies1.

Faced with this new challenge, it is now necessary to approach public space as a real system whose complex functioning requires an understanding of its uses, behaviors and collective appropriation. The methodology proposed here to meet this challenge is to include the development of public space in a systemic approach and to show the benefits derived from it2.

The peaceful functioning of public space requires a threefold action: awareness of the rule, respect for the rule and adaptation of the rule to new practices. The best development project does not solve the problem of collective appropriation of objectives. Today, the project appears to the public as an attempt by designers, technicians and elected officials to impose their choices on a population that they think they can easily convince, without integrating the prior dialogue that is essential for proper functioning. The decision-making process must therefore shift from the technical to the sociological domain, with the technician intervening to formalize the project.

It has been observed that the main cause of failure in the implementation of a policy for the development of public space generally stems from a poor understanding of the concrete functions and dysfunctions of this space. Before deciding, it is important to understand what people experience.

The systemic properties of public space

Public space is above all a territory. As such, it combines the systemic properties of a territory with the systemic properties specific to public space, which can be listed briefly as follows:

The proposed approach consists in treating public space as an evolving social system with components, states and modes of regulation. The elements of a network of roads, supports of mobility, in a given urban context, are in permanent evolution according to the practices. Its dysfunctions are more or less resolved by its own operating rules within a general regulatory framework more or less adapted to the context.

Descriptive approach to the « public space » system

Failing to be able to characterize the complex system that constitutes a public thoroughfare, to list its users, uses and functions, the approach methodology, by analogy with systemic approaches, is interested in dysfunctions. Their inventory is not necessarily simpler than that of the uses, but there are nevertheless some indicators of these dysfunctions.

Entering the system «  public space  »

For all that, the system is not a «  black box  » on which we would test an action in an experimental way, whose impact would be evaluated a posteriori. The public space has geometric characteristics and an environment of interlocking territories that are relatively simple to describe. But what is to happen there is not defined in advance and multiple actors will use this space in a variety of ways.

It is therefore important to treat the roadway not as an axis, but as an element of larger territories, with the three recommended approaches that have proved their worth in road planning or safety:

Moving from exhaustive analysis to actionable knowledge

In the absence of being able to identify the multiple uses of public space 3, we can describe its main vocations (rather than its functions). The ITER consultancy4 has thus built a grid for identifying spaces and their vocation by means of « activities located » in the space: place of pedestrian circulation, cars, bus stops, forecourts, terraces, landscaped spaces, etc.

We can then identify the modes of regulation of the system : the regulations applied in the public space (highway code, specific by-laws on speed and parking), the operating tools (traffic lights, priorities, pedestrian crossings, parking meters, etc.)…

Finally, we do not analyze the uses by category, but the practices that can generate dysfunctions :

It is a question, to use the terms of the theorists of the systemic approach, of gathering knowledge useful for action5.

Focusing the diagnosis on dysfunctions

All these elements are collected in order to combine three types of action: development, modification of operating rules, and better control of these rules. This « knowledge useful for action » thus constitutes a diagnosis with a predefined purpose, making it unnecessary to describe in too much detail, which above all makes it possible to target, rather than detail, a contextual analysis according to the three criteria recommended above (urban setting, supply and demand of travel)6.

The ITER office is developing a comparable approach by building a database called ACABIT which specifies for each public space its scale (neighborhood, city, etc.), its expected purpose, its actual use, its problems of ergonomics, dimensioning, potential conflict and insecurity.

A much simpler approach carried out in Toulouse on a peripheral district, has made it possible to recommend a wide range of development solutions based on an accidental diagnosis revealing dysfunctions7.

The difference between these two approaches is a question of the scale of treatment of the problem. The ITER approach identifies, on a larger scale, the potential micro-conflict, an indicator of systemic dysfunction. The approach developed in Toulouse is carried out at the neighborhood level and crosses network and urban vocation data. Both constitute much richer diagnoses than usual practice, for three reasons :

In both cases, the development of the roadway appears to be one of a wider range of solutions: transfer of certain journeys to other routes, urban planning operations, operational measures, public order measures, etc.

Political choices, technical expertise, citizen expertise

But these two approaches have a major drawback: they remain specifically technocratic and do not include a dimension of planning that has become essential: consultation, or better still, dialogue. At most, they can lead to decision-making tools that facilitate the work of the project owner.

In reality, the decision-making process is increasingly out of step with the pseudo-rational approaches of technicians, whether they are classical (most often) or systemic (still rarely). On the other hand, the merit of systemic approaches is that they have developed approaches to decision-making in unstructured situations, where the decision-making process is undefined.

The decision-making tools used in the field of development, such as multicriteria analysis or value analysis, very quickly show their limits as soon as negotiations are opened up to a set of unpredictable actors, linked to the project by particular interests : users or local residents.

Today, consultations, assuming that they are conducted in « good faith », very often lead to definitive blockages or to compromise solutions that are disappointing for everyone. In this context, the best technical study appears to be a new attempt by technicians and elected officials to impose their choice on a population that they believe they can easily convince.

On this point, in the absence of a universal systematic methodology, the courses of action are inspired by the theories of fuzzy logic8 with moments of dialogue allowing, on a case-by-case basis, the development of a specific methodology for the sharing of public space in order to make it « a road for all ».

A shared project for the public space to be treated

The new practices of co-production of the decision require much more work on the process. The production of the decision shifts from the technical domain to the sociological domain, with the technician intervening to formalize the project. More than « recipes » or solutions, the recommendations that follow are processes to be adapted and enriched by the experience of the multiple impasses that project owners experience today in dialogue and consultation.

The public space to be shared is first of all to be considered as a project territory9. The approach comprises four phases :

An iterative and evolutionary approach

This approach is obviously evolutionary and iterative. It is indeed impossible to predict whether it will lead to an easier and more relevant decision. However, it is an alternative (among many others) that cannot be ignored because it is imposed today by the very idea of dialogue and sustainability.

Dialogue cannot be improvised and must be organized on the basis of common information, which also makes it possible to integrate the representation of « absent third parties »11 and « future generations ». It is also necessary that this dialogue be led by « neutral third parties », whether they be unanimously recognized personalities or citizen panels.

The association of users, local residents, consumers, citizens, absent third parties and the public must be matched by a profound cultural change in the decision-making process. For consultations to no longer appear as a fool’s bargain, technicians must change their mindset and admit that :

Finally, it should be noted that dialogue is not just an avatar of democracy, but that it is essential in a « marketing » type of approach, where the user must be involved if we want him to appropriate the space and use it wisely.

(note) 1] The attempt to identify these uses and conflicts, even if it does not lead to a systematic method for ranking them, is nevertheless of definite interest. The systemic approach at the local level is in fact based on an attempt to understand the conflicts of use.

2 This methodology is applied differently depending on the local context

3 This hypothesis would indicate a space that is very little used or very functional to the point that any use that transgresses the intended functions would be impossible. This is what makes the difference between the street and the road, between the boulevard and the bypass, between the public road and the highway or the railroad.

4 Functional diagnosis of departmental roads of the General Council of the Hauts de Seine - ITER study - LROP 2004.

5 In reference to the decision theories of the economist H.A. SIMON

6 This type of systemic diagnosis was experimented in May 2004 by the group, at the invitation of the Paris City Council, on the Place Victor et Hélène Basch, illustration presented in the sheet «  Crossing of flows, crossroads and intersections ".

7 Development of the Plana district in Toulouse, CERTU - DSCR - CETE de l’Ouest, 1999 study.

8 Fuzzy logic consists of moving away from the binary logic of « yes/no » answers to a logic with at least three answers: « yes/no », the sign « yes » can mean « don’t know », « maybe », « why not », « to be studied », « to be experimented », « to be tested », « to be measured », « to be studied further », « to be evaluated over time », « to be indifferent », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated », « to be evaluated, « to evaluate The most efficient expert systems and robots currently work on the principles of fuzzy logic.

9 In this respect, a powerful systemic methodology was developed in the publication «  Constructing a territorial project  » of September 1997, co-produced by the DATAR, the Ministry of Employment and Solidarity, the Ministry of Equipment, Transport and Housing, and published by the Comité de Liaison des Comités de Bassin d’Emploi. The six phases of this method, which allows decisions to be made on territorial projects, are: 1 - Initiate the process ; 2 - Identify the actors to be consulted and involved ; 3 - Consult the actors to identify the issues and federating projects ; 4 - Prioritize the issues and federating projects ; 5 - Produce a diagnosis of the issues and projects ; 6 - Confront the actors with the conclusions of the diagnosis.

10 It should be noted that in systemic approaches, particularly those concerning spaces and territories, the collection of knowledge necessary for action is not done beforehand in the form of an « inventory » that is then analyzed, but much later, in a form adapted to the concrete case, after having defined the goals, the hierarchy of issues and the decision-making process.

11 The « absent third parties » are all the people concerned who cannot be represented: users in transit, non-federated populations or those without a defined representative, potential victims of accidents or disasters, the elderly, unborn children. It is up to the social facilitators or mediators to ensure the representation of these absent third parties in the dialogue and participatory processes.


This text is extracted from Une Voirie pour Tous - Sécurité et cohabitation sur la voie publique au-delà des conflits d’usage - Tome 1 : Rapport du groupe de réflexion, Conseil National des Transports (CNT), 2004, published by CNT and La Documentation Française in June 2005

Une voirie pour tous - Tome 1- pages 52-57