A code of practice for public space and enhanced expertise in placemaking are among the recommendations of a report that looks back on 10 years of public space in the capital and considers the best approach for the future.
Public space is arguably the most important element of a city. It is where people interact, the space that they travel through and, to a very large extent, the determinant of their quality of life. And nowhere is the quality of this space more important than in a major city where the area, the numbers and the complexity are at their greatest.
So it made sense for New London Architecture, for its tenth anniversary, to revisit the subject of its very first exhibition, public space in the capital, and to see how it had changed over that decade. In addition to an exhibition, ‘Public London: Ten years of transforming public spaces’, which runs until 11 July at The Building Centre, the organisation has undertaken an insight study to look in more detail at how the city has changed and to make recommendations for the future.
It notes the changes that have happened over the period of study, including the fact that ‘Green space and green infrastructure have become essential parts of creating a liveable city, bringing a wealth of environmental benefits such as reducing the urban heat island effect, air cooling, absorbing pollutants and promoting biodiversity. Alongside this, the transfer of public health responsibilities to local authorities in 2013 has led to a much increased focus on the benefits of green space in particular for both physical and mental health and wellbeing for children and adults.’
It looks at both high-profile successes, such as the Olympic Park and King’s Cross, and also at smaller, incremental changes which, it says, ‘has been more significant in some ways than the major signature projects. Public space improvements over the last decade have not only supported London’s economic growth but also enhanced its character as a ‘permeable’ city – through unlocking inaccessible courtyards and alleyways, creating new routes and connections, and overhauling rundown, un-attractive, crime-ridden and derelict spaces.’
The study looks not only at what has happened and is happening, but also at the mechanisms that bring it about – at policy and at the different ways of funding public space in the capital. Looking forward, it says, ‘Alongside more intense pressure on the use of public space will be the exacting challenge of continuing to fund, deliver and manage high-quality projects in order to build on the successes of the past decade. Funding will be an especially difficult obstacle owing to the drastic cuts in local authority budgets, and the private sector will play an even more significant role as services are outsourced.’
In the light of this, the study makes four recommendations.
1. London needs a code of practice to ensure public space is public for all
Over the last few years there has been considerable debate about the accessibility and use of privately owned public space (POPS). The complex patchwork of land and property ownership in London means that over London’s history many public spaces we perceive as public are in fact owned by estates, charitable trusts, the church or developers. What matters, we believe, is not who owns the space, but how it is managed and maintained.
New London Architecture supports the creation of clear guidelines about the use of POPS. The Greater London Assembly report Public Life in Private Hands of 2011 called for clear guidance on how boroughs could approach the provision and design of public realm and how subsequent management responsibilities can be negotiated between boroughs and developers; model planning and legal conditions and model clauses for Section 106, Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and similar agreements. Matthew Carmona, professor of planning and urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL has proposed a form of words that could be used by local authorities to ensure that new public space delivered by both the public and private sectors is kept public for all. Carmona proposes that: ‘Without let or hindrance all public space users have the right to roam freely, rest and relax, associate with others, use public space in a lawful manner without the imposition of local controls unless strictly justified, for example on drinking, smoking, safe cycling, skating, and dog walking, collect for registered charities, take photographs, trade (if granted a public licence), demonstrate peacefully and campaign politically, busk or otherwise perform (in appropriate non residential locations).’
2. London needs more expertise in ‘placemaking’
Public realm is delivered by a myriad of different stakeholders from architects to landscape architects, highways engineers to business organisations, creating a complex set of negotiations and interests. But who is championing the quality and identity of place? As has been advocated by the Farrell Review, the built environment industry needs to develop more expertise in ‘placemaking’. Public realm, when considered at the start of a project, can be a key driver in stimulating wider placemaking activity and generating civic identity. As expertise in public realm and urban design is being lost in the public sector due to funding cuts, skills in this area must also be developed and shared to give planning authorities confidence in enabling high-quality development and investment in public realm and embedding a strategic approach.
3. Utility companies should not be allowed to ‘wreck’ the public realm
All too often, London’s streets are dug up or closed off by utilities companies, causing disruption and lower-quality replacement works. London needs to develop more strategic city-wide coordination of work by utilities companies. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) should be given more powers to coordinate and ensure a higher quality finish or replacement.
4. More innovative solutions are needed to deliver better public space in low-cost areas
While major regeneration areas of London and central investment zones continue to see investment going into public realm, more innovation is needed in generating and combining funding streams to ensure adequate investment in lower-cost areas of the capital. This is equally important to support long-term maintenance and management. As London continues to grow, there is still huge potential in upgrading atypical spaces, underground and on top of buildings, railway arches, and on infill sites.
The exhibition runs until 11 July 2015 at NLA Galleries, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT