From Courts to Open Space to Streets: Changes in the Site Design of U.S. Public Housing

Karen A. Franck and Michael Mostoller

Franck, K., & Mostoller, M. (1995). FROM COURTS TO OPEN SPACE TO STREETS: CHANGES IN THE SITE DESIGN OF U.S. PUBLIC HOUSING. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 12(3), 186-220.


Public housing in the U.S. has undergone significant changes in site design and building type over the course of its 60 year history. These changes fall into three distinct stages: (1) semi-enclosed courts formed by walk-up buildings; (2) expanses of open space in sites composed of row-house, walk-up, or elevator buildings; and most recently (3) private outdoor spaces and semi-enclosed or fully enclosed courts for row-house and other low-rise buildings. The relationship of buildings to streets also changed during these periods. The terms court, open space, and street suggest the design approach adopted in each stage. This paper describes these design changes, using public housing in Newark, N.J. as a case in point. The authors explore the accompanying shifts in ideas and values expressed in the professional literature that constituted one basis for adopting the new designs. The discourse of architects, planners, and policy makers reveals changing attitudes about: residents' physical well-being, the role of "nature" in relation to the "city" and the relationship between public housing developments and the surrounding neighborhoods. Now, as current attitudes necessarily frame today's evaluation of the past and shape present design choices, it is important to understand both the ideas that led to past design preferences and those that guide contemporary ones.

Main finding
The author suggests that the approach to open space in public housing in the U.S. has evolved from "court" to "open space" to "street" considering changes in site design, building types and relationship to city streets. This has been a response to the larger discourse about residents' physical well being, the role of nature in relation to the city, and the desirable relationship between the housing development/community and surrounding neighborhood. The author concludes that the prominent design directive of free standing buildings with swaths of open space between or around resulted in the "project" typology in public housing. Later approach to making public housing more responsive to local conditions and context were driven by alternative methods of creating safe and attractive outdoor spaces closely aligning the housing to the street. The author warns about the danger of ignoring possible negative consequences of any approach and embracing a uniform approach to the problem.

Description of method used in the article
Case study of public housing in Newark, N.J. to demonstrate shifts in site design, building typologies and relationship to surrounding neighborhoods.

Theoretically interesting

Organising categories

Other or N/A
Case Study
Environmental Psychology
Physical types
Geographic locations