What Next For Our Public Spaces?

By Londonist Last edited 107 months ago
What Next For Our Public Spaces?

Granary Square in Kings Cross.

The increasing number of areas in London which are owned by developers, but open to the public, mean the debate on what constitutes a 'public' space is changing as rapidly as the skyline. Former director of CABE Space, and curator of Nevermind The Bollards Sarah Gaventa explores whether the line between public and private is being blurred and what that might mean for Londoners.

Public space used to be seen as the poor relation of architecture. Budgets for spaces were being value engineered out, as they were the last bit of the jigsaw in redevelopments and viewed as the least important element.

Thinking has changed in the last 10 years but it’s not all rosy yet. Our streets and public spaces are still too often described as just ‘the spaces between buildings’ as if they are somehow less important than them. Many of London’s buildings come and go so quickly that they seem to have the shelf life of a jar of pickles, while most of our streets and public spaces have a history that can be traced back hundreds of years.

As our buildings change around us, and with a trend in London for new architecture that is more background than foreground (pared back brick again — yawn), what gives a place its character and distinctiveness relies more and more on the design of our streetscapes and public spaces. These spaces help create a feeling of authenticity and a sense of belonging. The popularity of the term ‘placemaking’ demonstrates how far we have come in understanding the importance of our public realm.

The effects of cuts

In an age of cuts, local authorities in London, particularly the poorer ones, are under such intense pressure that creating and looking after public spaces slips down the list of priorities (it isn’t a statutory service for a start). Yet good quality public space for any city is a must-have, not a 'nice-to-have', and is a major consideration in the way we judge our councils' performance.

Public space is important too because it’s the only truly democratic urban place left. Many buildings might deny you entry, but a truly public space is one where everyone should feel equal, where there is a place to sit that doesn’t require you to buy a coffee, and doesn’t come with a long list of things you can’t do.

Welcoming spaces encourage people to stay. Photo by Zefrographica from the Londonist Flickr pool.

How people behave in public spaces depends a lot on mutual respect and what prompts are provided. If people are to feel relaxed, happy and respectful, then create an environment that encourages this. If we are made to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable and excluded, then we will react negatively. Attractive human scale seating that you can stretch out on if you so wish, is a good indicator of the client’s attitude to users, as are rows of horrible pig's ears (those anti-skateboarding devices scattered on seating) and spikes. Making a space people-proof makes it people-less, and therefore a failure.

In the last decade or so we have grown accustomed to colonising our streets and spaces more and more, for lunch breaks or summer evening drinks, and as extended work spaces. As public spaces become more popular, they need to work harder and more creatively to accommodate different users throughout the day. Solutions must be found for everyone, not just the dominant group. Civilised streets and public places require us to be civil to each other and to each others' needs — to accommodate others rather than insist we come first. As London becomes more crowded, public space equality becomes a growing issue.

Top of the POPS

And then there are POPS — privately-owned ‘public’ spaces. Their growth has raised real concerns regarding negative and restrictive use. Most people have a story to tell about being told not to take photographs, scoot, cycle, bounce a ball, drink, or breathe in one. When I wrote a book on new public spaces in 2006 I had to work out where the ownership boundary ended on many spaces so I could sneak photos before the security guard chased me off, even when I was standing on a public highway.

But my most depressing POPS experience happened a few years ago in New Street Square while judging it for a public space award. I joked with a fellow judge about how long he thought it would take for me to be told off by a guard for sitting on a grass covered ‘chaise longue’ feature. It was 45 seconds. 'Ok,' I thought, 'that is just a zealous jobsworth taking his responsibilities too far', but then something far worse happened. Two construction workers settled down on a bench to eat their sandwiches, enjoying a nice lunch break in the sun, away from a nearby building site. We watched in disbelief as they were asked to leave. I asked the representative from the developer why — her response was that dirt from their overalls might transfer on the bench and then onto the suit of another user. So it seems this was a white collar (or Hugo Boss) POPS. Needless to say, the space didn’t win the award. The policing (for that is what it was) of that square has relaxed a lot since then and you can sit on the chaise-longue now. But it is a cautionary tale I tell all would-be creators of POPS, as well as showing them the ‘keep out’ notice from Paternoster Square during Occupy’s residence by St Paul’s Cathedral.

No-one wants corporate blandness

The Leadenhall Building. Photo by Paul Raftery.

The good news is that some listen and do want to move away from the Big Brother approach in order to accommodate more public use. This is partly because the value of their projects is now also seen in terms of how successful they are at placemaking. The key qualities of good placemaking are inclusiveness and attracting people but it also means integrating new spaces and streets into the wider urban fabric rather than creating a pocket of corporate blandness, where ‘loitering’ is discouraged. It's early days yet, I’ll admit, but I am optimistic that the next generation of POPS will feel (if not actually be) far more relaxed, attractive in both design and management to all. With guards/ambassadors who welcome, rather than monitor you, and chat about the space and architecture. At The Leadenhall Building this is exactly the approach that has been taken.

Developers who want to call their spaces 'public' — and this needs to be demonstrated and challenged if not — have to accept that members might want to wear overalls, eat or take photos (take it as a compliment guys) scoot through or stop to play. This is a sign of success for all — I doubt many occupiers of these developments dislike this either; a sterile empty place is a depressing one to work in too.

POPS are growing, but at what scale is hard to judge — how many are there in the city and what is their impact? Comprehensive statistics on London’s POPS are very hard to find, so the picture is unclear, even the GLA doesn't hold such data.

Numbers are bound to grow as the provision and maintenance of spaces by local authorities shrink — most councils in London have lost much of their streetscape and green space expertise in recent years due to cuts and lack of support. This is storing up some real issues for London in the future.

Never Mind the Bollard installation, South Crescent, London. Curated by Sarah Gaventa.
The Never Mind The Bollards installation, curated by Sarah Gaventa, explores the design history and potential future of London’s public areas. Photo by Paul Raftery.

This city needs different types of spaces, identikit POPS with grey seats, puny birch or sad espaliered (crucified) trees, long rows of dark granite benches or mini amphitheatres/steps, cannot become the dominant model. Other spaces, quirkier, less corporate, greener and more distinctive, whether managed by communities, local authorities or even developers are an important part of the mix. The ideal would be to sit comfortably in a POPS and not know from its design or policing that it is private at all, but just another in London’s rich network of public spaces across the city. There is still some way to go towards creating better streets and public spaces in London for one and all.

Never Mind The Bollards installation is at South Crescent, Store Street, until 11 July. It is part of the Public London: 10 Years of Transforming Spaces exhibition is at the Building Centre. We're looking for your favourite public spaces — let us know in the comments below or Tweet us using #publiclondon.

Last Updated 12 May 2015