In a recent report by Richard Rogers, the chief adviser to the Mayor of London on architecture and urbanism, and the man charged with improving London's public realm, the importance of the built environment cannot be underestimated.

 "It provides the physical framework for all our institutions and social programmes such as transport, education, health, employment and crime issues.

 "If the fabric of a city is well-designed, then such programmes will flourish, otherwise they will fail, wasting public money and undermining other progress," says Mr Rogers, referring to the emphasis he plans to put on public space in the capital.

 According to Paj Valley, associate director at Lovejoy in Birmingham, all UK cities should be following suit and adopting the idea that a major part of the built environment includes the design of public spaces. He believes that in cities that it is often best represented by public squares.

 "That design makes the difference between crammed, dense cities and helps bring a sense of quality to space while revitalising communities and neighbourhoods," he says.

 "In terms of improving the quality of life in cities, spaces are critical to make them places where people want to live rather than where they want to escape from."

 European hot-spots, he points to some of the world's most famous sights as being as closely related to space as they are to buildings.

 "Take St Mark's Square in Venice, or Trafalgar and Leicester Squares in London. Although the surrounding buildings are stunning in their own right, they are undoubtedly enhanced by the squares they sit in.  They provide a stage for public life," says Mr Valley.

 One such example of a town reinventing itself this way is Bilbao. Previously a typical, industrial Spanish town, it built a fantastic art gallery set in a fantastic public square.

 "Tourism increased and the local economy received a massive boost, all because the world looked at the town in an entirely different way."

 So, what of Birmingham's public squares?

 Uniquely, we live in a city where our public squares allow us to walk all the way from the top of Broad Street through to the new Bullring development without crossing a road.

 Brindleyplace, Centenary Square, Chamberlain Square, Victoria Square, St Philip's Square, St Paul's Square... the names roll off the tongue, but Mr Valley says we should ask ourselves what makes some of them busy, hustling lunchtime destinations while others seem like vast, desolate landscapes?

 Mr Valley identifies two of Birmingham's best-known public squares to emphasise how different spaces can work or not work, as the case may be.

 He explains: "Centenary Square and St Philip's Square both have merit and are successful in their own ways.

 "Centenary Square is one of the largest and newest public spaces whereas St Philips is more historical and is one our smaller squares."

 However one of the key components of a successful space is the how people engage with, respond to, and experience the environment. He says that's where there is the most significant difference between the two.

 "Centenary Square is a transitional space that sits off a busy road (Broad Street). Its surfacing is hard and although there is some green relief from the built environment, it could do with a rethink," he says.

 There is a significant lawn area but all the paths lead around the edge of the square rather than through it. People tend to naturally follow set-out paths and in this case it means they rarely venture into the heart of the square - they don't interact with the fabric of the landscape.

 Instead they are diverted around the peripheries because there is a feeling of "look but don't touch".

 Mr Valley says: "St Philips is more of a nodal point and it has a closer relationship with the buildings and the roads around it with active frontages.

 "The cathedral in the centre provides a real focal point and in contrast with Centenary Square, the paths lead from the corners into the heart of the square.

 "The more mature trees act as a sensitive safety cushion between the open space and the buildings - they provide intimacy whereas the open space of Centenary Square is very exposed to large buildings such as the ICC and the Hyatt Hotel."

 Mr Valley believes there are solutions for places like Centenary Square, such as clearer legibility and connectivity.

 Increasing people's engagement with the space would have a major role to play in appeasing their apparent phobia of the massive spaces and buildings that intimidate the space between, he believes.

 On the plus side, there are plenty of solutions, according to Mr Valley.

 One solution would be to accentuate its role as a square that "transports" pedestrians. Removing physical barriers would help people engage with the space, he explains.

 "At the moment, the square carries people from the Convention Quarter and Broad Street to Paradise Forum and beyond and the specifically designed footpath that runs along Baskerville House and the Repertory Theatre reinforces that," he says.

 "If the paths were diverted to run through the square rather than around it, there would be more interaction and people would use the space more."

 He is quick to point out that Centenary Square still has a major part to play in Birmingham, saying: "It's the only pubic space in the city large enough to host major outdoor events such as the New Year celebrations.  It's just that it could do so much more for the people of the city if it were given the chance."

 He also points out that regardless of what may seem an obstacle, most difficulties can be overcome with some fore-thought.

 "Take St Philips - who'd have thought people would want to spend their leisure time in what is effectively a graveyard?" he asks.

 "Yet they happily lie, sit, eat and people-watch among the graves. It's really quite an achievement and is partly due to the fact that everything is in context with the surroundings with trees offering shade in the summer and shelter throughout the year.

 "The square offers scale - nothing is oversized or intimidating. It's also sympathetic to the focal point - everything from the stones used for the path and the benches to the bins and railings.

 "Centenary Square suffers slightly in this respect. If you look at Baskerville House and the war memorial and then consider the modern paving used to join them, it's completely out of context with the history of the surroundings. However, it was really designed to be viewed from above."

 So how do we make more of our public squares?  According to Mr Valley it's important to remember that although designers may plan a space, ultimately, it's the public that will dictate its use and success.

 "That's why it's critical that consultations take place to engage the public," he says. "Stakeholder involvement is crucial to ensure the success of any project and this is certainly the case with public squares."

 He concludes that the wealth of creative expertise in this country is more than capable of making a real difference to public squares and spaces in general.

 "Look at the nation's current obsession with interiors and landscape.  Design is clearly high on the public's agenda so the powers-that-be should start to take note of their demands," says Mr Valley.

 "Let's harness that enthusiasm and talent and really start to be bold with our public spaces. We're well on our way to doing that here in Birmingham but it's important that we keep setting our goals higher if we want to create spaces that continue to make a real difference to the people of the city."

Take St Philips - who'd have thought people would want to spend their leisure time in what is effectively a graveyard? Yet they happily lie, sit, eat and people-watch among the graves