36. Capital spaces, testing the public space critiques

The importance of securing high quality public space is often highlighted in public policy whilst the academic literature has long been replete with critiques of contemporary public space.  A few years ago this disparity seemed to me worth investigation, and with London as my crucible and funding from the ESRC that is exactly what I did.  Last month, the results were published in the book Capital Spaces, the multiple complex public spaces of a global city.

A London-wide survey and 14 multi-dimensional case studies were used to empirically test ten critiques.  That public space is:

  • Neglected – physically neglected
  • Invaded – sacrificed to the needs of the car
  • Exclusionary – excluding some users through physical and psychological barriers
  • Consumption-oriented – over-commercialised
  • Privatised – increasingly controlled by private organisations in their interests
  • Segregated – separating societal groups through design
  • Insular – undermined by a retreat into domestic and virtual spaces
  • Scary – with design and management strategies dictated by an overriding fear of crime
  • Invented – using placeless formulae-driven formats
  • Homogenised – reflecting a general homogenisation of public space.
Bishops Square, new private / public space

The research revealed findings relating to both the critiques of public spaces, and the processes that give rise to new and regenerated space.  Taking the latter first.

The London way

London is shaped by an uncoordinated network of hands; processes in which large landowners and powerful developers typically take the lead, guided by market opportunity, light-touch regulation and a fragmented state.  Through these processes a dominant new typology of space has emerged; more: urban, animated, and clearly an extension of surrounding land uses.  In essence, a more ‘continental’ form of space of a type advocated through ‘urban renaissance’ policy discourses, although, in London, predating them.

In this context public space projects involve a larger range of stakeholder groups than building projects, and there is no ideal set of power relationships between those groups.  Instead the influence of groups varies wildly between projects although, whether public or private, stakeholders typically have complimentary aspirations to deliver long-term social, economic and environmental value.  Nevertheless:

  • In local authority driven schemes, the concurrence of all key powers in one place creates a powerful cocktail of influence, although this is often poorly used.
  • Private and pseudo-private promoters of public space schemes are critical in establishing the funding package and set of alliances to make projects happen.
  • The influence of the community, through their elected representatives, can be a decisive one, although communities themselves are typically unengaged, preferring to leave public space issues to the professionals.
  • The designer’s power stems from a unique ability to creatively shape market, contextual and regulatory constraints into physical outcomes, although can equally be marginalised into a ‘space decoration’ role.
  • Management practices have the power to make or break public space schemes.

Rebutting the critiques

Turing to the critiques, in London the doom-laden critiques of public space often seem far from the mark:

  • Neglected space – is certainly a feature of the city’s historically fragmented governance, although from time to time (roughly every 50 years) this leads to a periodic outrage and to better stewardship and public space renewal. The return of London-wide government has inspired such a period.
  • Invaded space – still predominates in much of London, although successful reclaiming projects have been transformative across London, most notably in Trafalgar Square, demonstrating that people and traffic can co-exist.
  • Exclusionary space – is, in fact, rarely intentional. Instead it exists as a consequence of the diverse needs of London’s fragmented society, although it can be exacerbated by poor design and poor management practices.
  • Segregated space – Overwhelmingly public space is viewed as a value-adding element amongst private and public stakeholders. Deliberate segregation through gating, for example, is very rare.
  • Insular space – evidence from the research (and elsewhere) shows a far greater engagement with traditional public space, not a retreat from it into our private realms.
  • Privatised space – ownership and accessibility do not, by themselves, define ‘publicness’ and processes of privatisation do not necessary restrict public life; they may even may enhance it.
  • Consumption space – whether subtle or significant, unique or ubiquitous, consumption opportunities typically enrich public space and often cross-subsidise key ‘public goods’.
  • Invented space – All spaces are consciously invented to deliver certain experiences; whether fun, imposing, relaxing, or representational. London’s spaces are no different.
Spaces of fear or spaces of fun?
  • Scary space – does not reflect the experience of public space users in London who generally feel comfortable and relaxed in the city’s contemporary public spaces., whilst at the same time generally welcoming visible security measures.
  • Homogenised space – Long design processes and complex urban situations help to infuse London public spaces with character, in the process helping to avoid pressures for homogenisation.

Multiple complex spaces

Marking London out is the sheer diversity of spaces on offer – corporate, consumption, civic, community, domestic, and residual – the character of which change over time.  London and other large cities can afford spaces of difference and diversity that don’t always cater for every public space purpose or section of society.

The public spaces that are being created and recreated in London are finding a ready constituency of users who, on the whole, greatly value them.  The multiple complex public spaces of the city are something to celebrate not to bemoan.  In London we should celebrate them a little more and, with the eyes of the world on the city in 2012, we did.

Queen Elisabeth Olympic Park

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


September 2012

Note: Capital Spaces: The Multiple Complex Public Spaces of a Global City is published by Routledge: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415527095/

Thanks are due to the Economic and Social Research Council for funding the research on which this article is based