The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces


Biophilia, neuroaesthetics, ergonomics, acoustics and wayfinding. These are all common terms in the human-centric design philosophy. Human-centric design has always been important, but its need has become more apparent as the modern world becomes more automated and inequalities continue. Human-centric design is essential to create a world where people can flourish in a safe, enjoyable and sustainable environment, whether at work, a shopping center or a hospital. 

The Benefits of Human-Centric Design

The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces

Human-centric design philosophy prioritizes the creation of spaces that fulfil human needs and desires beyond providing services. This means creating spaces that promote wellness, belonging and peace. All elements of a space are involved — the layout, design materials, aesthetics, functionality and use of space. 

Architects and designers worldwide are taking new approaches to promote well-being and supporting human needs and desires as they design public spaces.  Here are some of the benefits of human-centric design: 

  • Fosters well-being and connection through spaces that support collaboration and interaction. 
  • Provides clear direction and instruction so people find what they need quickly. 
  • Makes life moments in public spaces more comfortable.  
  • Contributes to health and well-being. 
  • Impacts overall experiences of public services. 

Although human-centric design has many benefits, it comes with challenges in planning, making prototypes and executing suitable designs. Designers must include the people they design spaces for at every step of their plans. Research, creating solutions, testing the designs and implementing them can take months or years, requiring focus groups, workshops and surveys. That’s why human-centric design has been implemented slowly or delayed in some places. 

The biggest question is how the building can be adapted to people’s ever-changing and diverse needs. These needs can be anything from leaving large grassy areas close to a market for community exercise and events to replacing fixed benches in a public space with backless squares that can be moved to shady spaces in hot weather.

Accessibility in Human-Centric Design

The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces

Virginia Tech Infinite Loop and Green Links - Image Credit: Sasaki Associates

A great example of accessible design is Virginia Tech’s recent campus revamp. The goal was to increase accessibility and promote a holistic campus experience by removing 376 stairs and adding more seating and places of rest. 

The architects and designers created an accessibility strategy using universal design principles incorporating human and local conditions to produce an inclusive typology. After grading studies and research, they came up with the Infinite Loop and Green Links. The Green Links are a 3.5-mile network of barrier-free paths that opened up new accessible routes around campus. Four hundred stairs were removed and replaced with ADA-compliant pathways with less than 5% slopes. The architects designed the path alignments to curve gently and respond to desire lines and building entrances. 

The Infinite Loop is a 2.1-mile barrier-free corridor that connects campus buildings and open spaces. The Green Links and Infinite Loop provide pathways across the core campus and weave through ecological, academic and residential districts. Pathways were also designed with the future of automated cars and various kinds of transport like bicycles and scooters. They also added seating to every 150 feet along pathways, according to universal design standards. 

Prioritizing Women’s Voices for Human-Centric Design

The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces

Women's College Hospital - Image Credit:

As mentioned above, intersectionality in design also includes prioritizing women’s voices, especially in places where they will spend time seeking a service. 

The Women’s College Hospital in Canada was redeveloped with input from a study called “A Thousand Voices for Women’s Health.” The study captured input from diverse groups, including recent immigrants, people with disabilities and transgender people during the research stage of the design process to create a space where they would feel safe and included. 

Some of the human-centric elements incorporated in the design include undulating walls, soft, organic shapes and rubber floors that support health care workers with under-foot comfort and reduced acoustics for comfort during long work hours. The floor is also bacteria-resistant, which helps with maintenance and cleanliness. 

The design also incorporates color cues for easy wayfinding when people visit the hospital. This design choice came from the study, which revealed that visitors had anxiety about finding their way to their appointments without advertising the reasons for visiting. As a result, ribbons of color provide cues and most centers are labeled ‘clinics’ for privacy. 

Volunteers and community members created the tapestry displayed on the first landing of the atrium with materials from different people like a pair of kid's jeans and a crocheted wedding dress. 

Incorporating Neuroscience

Although previous biophilic designs incorporate elements like water, trees and plants into the structural design of the building, research from Routhledge’s International Handbook of Neuroaesthetics shows that when it comes to biophilia, people are more likely to respond to elements that echo nature rather than natural elements placed into an already-built space. 

The degree of implicit naturalness perceived in buildings or design is as important as the explicit natural elements in a scene. It could produce different psychological reactions that differ from explicit natural elements. These low-level stimulus features include color, motion and rhythmic patterns in design. 

The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces

Chevron Perth - Image Credit:

In Australia, Chevron Perth’s offices are an excellent demonstration of combining low-level stimulus features that echo natural and explicit elements of nature. A rhythmic wood wall made up of pieces cut up into squares and chunks, while the fern wall garden was near a break area and wall climbers spilled from a frame in the office kitchen. Integrating local flora and artistic elements honors the land’s heritage to create a space that celebrates diversity while being functional. 

Architects and designers have long drawn from biophilic design's benefits, which include reducing stress and increasing positive emotions. How might this look in a public space? It can be combined with activity-based design in office spaces or experience-based design in spaces for health care. 

The Growing Need for Human-Centric Design in Public Spaces

Paytrail Office - Image Credit:

Sanna Laukanaho’s Paytrail Finland office interior design combines low-level natural elements through color zoning to create multiple spatial options that allow people to choose their working space based on activity and mood. The implicit natural features are in the colors of the Rockfon acoustic boards, which are installed in every room and corner to lessen the noise in an open office while still supporting collaboration.

Considering people spend a significant amount of time in public places, the spaces need to be as welcoming as they are functional. When the public realm is adaptive and caters to people’s needs and well-being, it reframes their experiences and humanizes experiences in public spaces. 

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