Urban public space is once again a ‘hot’ topic and figures strongly in place quality discourse. City spaces are being recycled, reinterpreted and reinvented in a drive for a competitive quality of place. This article illustrates the changing face of contemporary UK public space through a qualitative analysis of the perceptions held by public and professional-bureaucratic actors. Drawing on empirical case study research of five recent enhancement schemes at prominent nodes throughout the North East of England, the research explores the culture and economics of urban public space design. Tentative observations are expressed in terms of the links between cultural activity and economic vitality, and some reflections on policy and practice are put forward.