10. Coming soon to a public space near you ….

I have watched with increasing fascination the transformation of two public spaces at either end of my journey to work.  Both are consequences of a privately owned public realm and an associated view that public space can be made to ‘work for its living’.

The first, I have written about before in this series.  Situated on the riverside in Greenwich, this space represents the planning gain for a large new residential apartment building overlooking the Thames.  The space was designed with a sprinkling of trees, some ‘sculptural’ off-the-shutter concrete walls (cheap, and it looks it!), and a massive green tarmac cycle path (the ‘road to nowhere’ as I previously described it).

Greenwich – fencing out users

The apartment block also includes space for a new (and so far un-let) restaurant, built to replace a local pub that previously sat on the site (‘The British Sailor’, a pub renown for its ultra-loud karaoke nights).  The intention – presumably – was for the restaurant, which fronts onto the new space, to fill it with civilised drinking and dining – continental style.  However, what neither the designers nor the owner (a local charity with extensive property assets) bargained for, was the attraction that such a space represents to the local youth.  Like a red rag to a bull, this community quickly took advantage of the empty space and its concrete blocks, using it as a place to hangout and to skateboard – shock horror!

The solution has been to fence and gate off the major part of the space (see image 1); one assumes in order that it can be shut off to the public and opened to paying guests when a restaurant finally materialises.  This antithesis to the creation of an open and accessible public realm makes a mockery of the planning gain negotiations that created it, and to any notion that the space is ‘public’.

From here we take the Docklands Light railway to Bank, change on to the Northern Line and get off at Euston emerging directly into the second space, Euston Piazza.

Euston Station, in common with major rail destinations up and down the country is now not so much a station as a shopping centre.  Gradually over time, every corner of this once cavernous monument to Modernism has been filled with retail outlets.  Now, it seems, it is the turn of the windswept and decidedly unattractive piazza that fronts the station for some of this ‘retail therapy’.

First, a ‘pioneering’ Starbucks Coffee in the form of a freestanding ‘retail pod’ appeared in the space, followed closely by a Bagel Factory pod.  Next to arrive was the West Cornwall Pasty Co., followed hot on its heals by a fourth pod, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts (see Image two).  Individually, these ingeniously designed retail pods are fascinating to observe.  Self-contained, and highly functional and efficient, these decorated pods are each designed in isolation, although share common features – the plan and form (roughly), the awning that doubles up as a shutter, and the prominent signage.  Together they sit like a mini American strip, each shouting over the others, and their environment, for attention.

This strategy seems to work, at least commercially.  In fact, so successful have the little pods been, that today much of the rest of the piazza is filled with rows of benches and tables of varied designs for their clients to use.  In places, the space is almost impossible to walk through as a result.   Taking its cue from the station, this is now not so much a public space as a food court.  Yet, for all this, their arrival has undoubtedly helped to bring this once dead space to life, giving it in the process a purpose.

Comparing the two examples, both are privately (or pseudo-privately) owned spaces, and both are being required by their owners to pay their way.  Indeed, one suspects that in the latter case, the owners (National Rail) are turning a very handsome profit from their ad hoc collection of retail pods.

Of the two, however, only the former – Greenwich – attempts to be actively exclusionary, turning a space that was beginning to find its purpose (at least for a certain section of the community) back into a dead space.  The lesson there seems to be that it is not enough to simply provide a public space, the design, long-term management and rights of use over the space all need to be carefully considered and tied down before planning permission is given.

Euston – retail pods, lining up for business

In the latter case – Euston – despite reservations about the blatantly opportunistic, market-led and ad hoc approach taken to the design and management of the piazza, the benefits of a more animated and valued public space are hard to deny.  Perhaps in the future, the profits generated from the pods can be used to fund a comprehensive re-design of the space, in so doing providing an opportunity to properly integrate these newcomers in a more considered manner.

In a context where even Trafalgar Square now has its own (very tastefully designed) Costa Coffee, one can only wander how long it will be until every public space has its own retail pod (or four).  Watch out, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is coming to a public space near you, soon.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


January 2006