62. The many evolving faces of our contemporary public spaces

Winston Churchill said ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Over the last decade we seem to have moved with effortless ease from one crisis to the next: debt, financial, Eurozone, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Rohingya, migratory, China slowdown, Trump, BREXIT, and – still – global warming!  Who knows what will be next.

Reflecting Churchill’s maxim, in times of crisis we often see a flowering of ideas and practices relating to that most quintessentially shared part of our built environment, our public spaces.  In smog filled Victorian Britain we saw a flowering of public parks, in the bomb-ravaged post-war period new forms of expansive Modernist public space firmly took root, whilst the economic shocks of the 1980s led to private corporations rediscovering the commercial value of the traditional public square.  Since 2008, whilst the world’s attention has been firmly fixed on the big economic, political and security questions of our time, closer to home we have again witnessed a period of significant innovation in our approach to public spaces; one that will have long-lasting impacts on our everyday lives.

So what have we witnessed?  Lets use the global melting pot and urban laboratory that is London to illustrate ten trends that I have noticed, both here and globally:

  1. Erosion of the everyday physical fabric

Hanging over the multiple crises described above are the politics and practices of austerity. In London, as elsewhere, the first cuts to be made when the public finances get tight are to the budgets for managing the city’s public spaces.  Whilst at first this largely goes unnoticed, the impact is cumulative, and as decline in the public physical fabric sets in, so does the closely associated wellbeing of citizens who now experience an uglier and seemingly less loved world. Feelings of alienation, insecurity and decline can all too quickly follow.

  1. Space as empowerment

Austerity is not without its benefits, however.  Biodiversity can flourish in those newly unkempt pavement cracks and community and local action can flourish focussed on filling the gaps in public space management practices.   In London crowd funding has been used to fund projects as diverse as The Line art walk along the River Lee and the proposed Coal Line urban park utilising disused coal sidings in Peckham.  Elsewhere communities have taken over the running of unloved spaces on housing estates, including the Rocky Park community garden in Bethnal Green which has transformed an unloved ‘hang-out’ space into productive space for flowers and vegetables.  At a larger scale the voluntary ‘20’s plenty for us’ campaign is encouraging communities to demand slower speed limits on residential roads, and, so far, has convinced 13 of London’s 33 boroughs to adopt 20mph speed limits across their entire local roads network.

  1. Reasserting democratic space

If a focus on public space is empowering communities, then some communities will always feel more empowered than others.  The demonstrations of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, against austerity politics in Europe, and, the more recent focus on Black Lives Matter in the US and the yellow Vests in France, have forcefully confirmed the critical democratic role of public space. In London the rights and wrongs of the 2011 riotsremain contested, but helped to drive significant public funds in the direction of effected areas.  The Occupy and Stop the War camps in the city’s public spaces more forcefully helped to re-assert the historic role of public space for demonstration and political purposes, although the legal limits of this have had to be redefined and do not (it seems) include the right to permanent occupation.  More recently the various Brexit demonstrations have largely been well mannered, and remind us of the vital importance of public spaces as the pressure valve for people when our politicians fail us so completely.

Stop the war Camp on Parliament Square, 2010 (now banned)
  1. Big business, private spaces

The corollary to local citizen rights is the impact of big business development projects that, in a global city such as London, are often funded by footloose international money.  This is shaping many of the largest development projects in the city, including three new Westfield shopping centres since 2008, and much new high-rise housing and office development in Central and Inner London.   In such places arguments rage around whether associated public spaces are too commercial, corporate, securitized, sanitized and exclusionary in feel, and therefore not really public at all.  As I have argued previously (Town & Country Planning86:11), the picture on the ground is more nuanced and complex (and always has been), but this is easily lost in the polemical arguments that so often follow

  1. Valuing the temporary and exploratory

The debate is so hotly pursued precisely because such interventions are so permanent.  Yet across London there has also been a resurgence in more temporary interventions that offer a wholly different vibe.  These begin with ‘meanwhile’ uses in places awaiting redevelopment, including a swimming pond and skip garden that have been amongst the programme of such spaces that have been animating the huge Kings Cross redevelopment.  Others encourage new ways of using the city, such as traffic free days on Regent’s Street; or encourage us to think and see the city differently, for example the hugely successful sea of ceramic poppies that slowly grew at the Tower of London throughout 2014, or the sea of lights that marked the centenary of Armistice Day.  Others focus on seeking out new revenue opportunities through the more intensive use of underutilised spaces such as car parks at the weekend for farmers markets or car boot sales. Finally we see the exploratory use of space in order to try out new ideas at minimal cost prior to more permanent and substantial investments being made.  Recently these have included new road layouts relating to London’s fast growing network of cycleways.

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, 888,246 ceramic poppies commemorating the Centenary of the start of World War 1, 2014
  1. Infrastructure as place-making

Ultimately growth requires permanent infrastructure to facilitate movement, the most impactful of which are new rail lines.  In the UK, Government itself has been on a journey.  In the past it viewed such infrastructure as costly bits of technical kit to be delivered at minimum cost to the public purse and with little concern for the local impact.  Only now is a realisation dawning that such investments are pieces of city building with huge place-making potential well beyond the lines and stations themselves.  In London, the commitment to carefully design a new public realm around the 40 new Crossrail stations soon to be opening across the city represents the clearest and biggest demonstration of this long-overdue thinking, although results have yet to be seen.  Seven new public spaces at locations where the new Thames Tideway Tunnel peeps above the surface also represent major new opportunities to connect us better to London’s primary public space: the Thames.

  1. The challenges of densification

In a more piecemeal fashion public spaces are playing a key role in long-term processes of growth and densification in London whilst at the same time helping to deliver on associated demands to become a less resource hungry and more sustainable city.  Huge regeneration projects at Stratford and Nine Elms are being planned around the city’s first significant new urban parks since Victorian times, whilst the regeneration (aka replacement) of post-war housing estates are substituting unloved ‘indeterminate land oozes’ (as Jane Jacobs once christened them) with diverse green infrastructure.  Public spaces in such environments will have to ‘work a lot harder’ than they ever have had to before as this historically low density city densifies.

  1. Space as spectacle

Public space is in the vanguard of another challenge reflecting the perceived need (often contested) for cities, globally, to compete with each other for investment.  In London, since the election of our first Mayor in 2000, the public sector has been investing in a sequence of small but cumulative public space projects across the city, including (in recent years) along the city’s suburban high streets.  Recently private and third sector organisations have got in on the act, with the developers of the Walkie Talkie tower in the City of London (in exchange for planning permission) delivering a ‘private’ public space at the top of the tower, for which tickets, albeit free, need to be booked in advance.  Elsewhere, whilst the Garden Bridge Trust failed in its controversial scheme to create a garden bridge across the Thames, the Emirates Airline was completed and offers one of the best views of London, as does the Tate Modern’s new viewing terrace.  Each create new ways of seeing and experiencing the city with associated knock-on public interest as well as commercial benefits.

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Sky Garden atop the Walkie Talkie Tower, a great view of London, in part because it is one of the few places in Central London where you don’t have to look at the Walkie Talkie itself!, 2015
  1. Re-balancing public space

Whilst such exceptional interventions are important, the majority of citizens in London, as elsewhere, live in already built places that have suffered from decades of mismanagement with priority given to traffic over people.  London’s everyday streets represent a case-in-point, although finally this approach has been changing.  Since 2014 London’s streets have been gradually re-classified against a simple matrix that recognises each as a ‘place’ (for people) as well as a corridor for ‘movement’.  Appropriate design standards have been defined reflecting the position on the matrix. Gradually (very gradually), a re-balancing of street space is occurring, with more space given over to pedestrians and cyclists, and less to vehicles.

  1. Management by cappuccino

This re-balancing of the city’s space is likely to be a long term trend in London as in many cities globally. Other pressures are acting faster, not least the pervasive impact of the internet on almost every aspect of life, and notably on shopping habits, a consequence being that local shopping streets are moving from a utilitarian to a leisure function.  My nearest, rather ordinary parade of shops, has recently seen the opening of a pottery café, a micro-brewery, a select deli, a wood oven Pizzeria, and a dog grooming parlour.  Elsewhere, pop-up coffee venders seem to be appearing on every corner leading many to wonder when ‘peak coffee’ will be reached.  Not yet it seems.  All this is changing both why we visit key spaces in the city and how they function and are funded, with commercialisation opportunities increasingly funding enhanced (or perhaps just basic) local public management regimes.  Management by cappuccino is a new fact of life.

 I have written previously that cities, large and small, are characterised by multiple complex evolving public spaces, each shaped by local political, economic and social systems that are all as varied and complex as London’s (Town & Country Planning81:10).  Clearly the endlessly stimulating diversity of public spaces across the world needs to be nurtured and protected against pressures (if and where they exist) to undermine the key qualities that give a sense of ‘publicness’ and that continue to make traditional public spaces so attractive to their users.  News that the Mayor of London is preparing a Public London Charter along the lines of the Charter for Public Space Rights and Responsibilities that I have long argued for is to be welcomed (Town & Country Planning83:2 and 86:11).

We are at an exciting time in the history of our public spaces, one of rapid and unpredictable economic, social and political change, and that is in turn impacting on how we design, use and manages spaces.  I, for one, would conclude that the direction of travel, if not every outcome, is more positive than negative, but we need to remain vigilant and continue to argue for a vital, equitable, beautiful, democratic and sustainable public realm.

Prof Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


March 2019