In defence of the realm: 10 principles for public space

13 Sep 2018

Ben Rogers, director and founder of Centre for London, outlines some key commandments for urban planners

This essay is one of a collection of articles created by Lendlease and the Centre For London, written by a selection of built environment experts. These thought-provoking commentaries explore the great power and great responsibility that comes with placemaking – and how to create a city space that enhances the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it.

You can read the other articles in the series here.

The urban public realm matters. Our impressions of a city we visit for the first time are primarily shaped by its streets, squares and parks. If its streets are ugly, filthy or threatening – or for that matter dull and over-controlled – we are unlikely to want to return. There is no successful tourist city anywhere that does not have a rich and inviting public realm.

If the public realm matters to tourists, it matters all the more to residents. Building on the insights of Jane Jacobs, that great student of street life, social scientists have come to appreciate that the spaces between buildings can foster connections of distinct and influential kinds. They shape neighbourhood ties. They militate against loneliness. They can encourage community action, facilitate political mobilisation, help prevent crime and support the socialisation of young people.

Public, semi-public or ‘third’ spaces like pubs, cafés and libraries provide places to share ideas – what economists call “spill-over effects” that impact urban productivity. And of course, an attractive public realm is good for our health, both physical and mental – we are much more likely to get active when we have attractive spaces to be active in.

We can go deeper still: the way the public realm is designed and run reflects and shapes values, culture and social structure. Social hierarchies are re-elected and sustained in the way that public spaces are designed and controlled, and also through patterns of use and behaviour.

Modern dictators tend to go for large, imposing city squares, flanked by government buildings – these spaces lend themselves well to military parades, and can be easily controlled.

Our most successful civic-minded cities, by contrast, are generally characterised by a rich and varied network of largely informal public and semi-public spaces. As a general rule: the more varied and lively a city’s public realm, the richer and more democratic its civil society.

London’s public realm resurgent

If I am right in emphasising the value of the space between buildings, it follows that one of the great challenges of our fast-urbanising world is to build and extend the public realm. Yes, city dwellers need decent housing, clean air and water, reliable energy and good schools, but we also need places where we can connect and collaborate as neighbours, friends, associates and citizens.

London is fortunate in its public realm. As Steen Eiler Rasmussen argued in his classic London, Unique City, first published 80 years ago, the combination of layout and architecture makes London exceptionally liveable. I am not sure that any other large city can match the variety and conviviality of its streets, squares, parks, arcades and lanes.

Recently, big steps have been made towards rebalancing our city away from motorists and towards pedestrians. Transport for London (TfL) estimates that central London has lost about 30 per cent of its road space, as pavements have been widened, bus and bike lanes introduced, and experiments in ‘shared space’ conducted. Some major new public spaces have been created – most obviously the former Olympic (now Queen Elizabeth) Park – and a long stretch of the South Bank brought to public life.

The Mayor, TfL and boroughs have made important contributions, but developers have often led the way – notably in central London, where both the historic estates and new landowners have invested heavily in architecture and public realm. As ever in London, the best results are achieved when different layers of government, developers, landowners, civic organisations and community groups work together.

The urban commons

The public realm is, by definition, an open democratic realm. It works best when it manages to connect people to each other in open space while operating with minimal management or oversight. Of course, no one wants the public authorities to abandon our public realm altogether. We want to know that we can pick up the phone and call 999 if we see someone being assaulted in the street. We appreciate it when those in charge of our parks lay on activities for children and young people – especially during the long summer holidays. But the public realm should belong to and, as much as possible, be looked after and animated by the public.

Writing in London Essays, Charles Leadbeater has argued that the inspiration for London’s parks should be the ancient commons. The same can be said of London’s streets and squares. Too much neglect will kill the public realm. But too much control – or indeed too much design and ‘curation’ – can do the same. The art lies in designing and running spaces so that we feel empowered to look after them ourselves.

Principles

Here I set out 10 principles that we need to follow if we want London’s public realm to work on the model of a commons:
  1. Learn from London’s architectural history. If people choose to pay a premium to live in the historic parts of the city, it is in large part because they like the layout and mix of activities on offer.

  2. Make the most of London’s historic built form – which can include 1960s heritage as well as 1860s. The public realm is by definition a collective thing. The public spaces we tend to value and admire the most are the work of many hands, including hands long since dead. They link us to earlier, often varied, cultures, styles and technologies.

  3. Design streets and squares so that they can look after themselves and don’t need extensive monitoring or maintenance. This means no hidden and indefensible spaces or expensive water and lighting schemes, unless there is an income stream to pay for them.

  4. Keep public space truly public. The default should be that ‘public space’ is owned and run by public authorities, or in some cases, trusts with a strong and clear public benefit duty. There is space in new developments for semi-public spaces, on the model of, for example, Holland Park’s communal gardens. But private roads, streets and gated developments should not be permitted.

  5. Build to a human scale. Towers have their place but they need a lot of thought in the way they hit the ground. There is much debate about London’s skyline, but what about the street-line? As Jane Jacobs argued 50 years ago, narrow streets are, as a general rule, better than wide, and small blocks better than large.

  6. Plan and design to generate outdoor activity. Public activity is largely a function of two factors: the density of a neighbourhood, and the mix of activities in it. Of course, a neighbourhood can be too busy – many people like the quiet of London’s suburbs. But an area needs a good level and mix of activity if its streets are to feel lively and safe.

  7. Plan, design and manage for small businesses. Large businesses (such as supermarkets) bring efficiency, but they tend to have little stake in local place. Small businesses take a long-term interest in a neighbourhood and give it personality and character. Providing for small retail units and supporting pop-up uses can encourage small business activity even in relatively expensive areas.

  8. Where possible, design and manage roads and streets on ‘shared space’ principles. Don’t let vehicles dominate – but don’t let pedestrians dominate, either. Vehicles have their place in the city and in most cases can live side-by-side with pedestrians. Keep regulation to a minimum – the fewer road signs and street markings the better.

  9. Make public space green. Some of our most valued public spaces are almost entirely grey; Trafalgar Square being the obvious example. But trees and plants, and the wildlife they sustain, humanise a city and draw people outdoors (as well as combatting pollution, extreme weather conditions and the urban heat-island effect). Green public spaces will become even more important as London densifies and fewer of us have access to our own private green fiefdoms.

  10. Engage the public in the design and management of public space. The principle of public ownership is inherent in the concept of public space and most of London’s public realm belongs to the boroughs, who are in theory democratically accountable. But there can be a big difference between theory and reality. Those responsible for our public realm should be looking for ways – beyond borough elections – to engage voters and users in its development and maintenance. Londoners already play a large role in shaping and running London’s public realm, especially its parks. But new developments, including new technologies, an ageing population and the neighbourhood planning movement, offer new opportunities.

Challenges

Following these principles won’t be easy. London’s population is growing fast and the city will need to grow to accommodate it. This will mean plenty of new development, as well as increased pressures on existing public realm.

The London Plan identifies some 40 ‘Opportunity Areas’ that offer extensive scope for regeneration and development across outer, inner and even central London (Tottenham Court Road is an Opportunity Area). Some of these represent major engineering challenges: but they all represent significant design, placemaking and public realm challenges too – these places won’t be turned from ‘opportunities’ into successes until they are full of busy streets, squares and parks.

Moreover, London faces issues not just about how it protects and develops London’s public space in the future, but also in how it treats public space now. I single out five issues in particular.

First, the dominance of the private car. Politicians are understandably wary of policies that can be presented as ‘anti-driver’ – car owners have swung many a borough election. But with congestion and air pollution now major political issues, it is surely time for politicians to be a bit bolder in at least exploring options for further discouraging private car use and ownership – including new approaches to congestion, pollution charging and greater support for car sharing.

A second challenge concerns London’s major roads. Most of the city’s large roads remain hostile places. The A501 (the Euston Road and its extensions) is a vital London thoroughfare, yet it is remarkably ugly, congested and dangerous. This is perhaps an extreme example, but London is full of unattractive and neglected A roads. Most of these would benefit from densification, creating Paris-style avenues lined with mansion blocks and trees.

Third, we are still building too many modernist-style developments – buildings in space, not spaces between buildings. The journalist and conservationist Simon Jenkins likes to say that everyone pays homage to Jane Jacobs but no one actually follows her. When you look at a development like Nine Elms, you get his point. We can build to high densities without giving up on the London grammar of avenues, streets, mews and garden squares.

Fourth, our public sector is retrenching and is likely to be doing so for many years to come. Cuts are falling particularly heavily on city and borough government, and there is little doubt that our public realm is set to suffer. As much as possible, the public realm should be designed to look after itself – or to enable citizens to look after it with minimal oversight from the authorities.

The final challenge is the privatisation of public space. A large number of writers and campaigners have drawn attention to the trend for developers and landowners to wrest control of space that had once been or should be public. The London Assembly has written a good report on the issue. Many boroughs have responded to the criticism by establishing policies that prohibit (or at least discourage) gated developments, and place conditions on privately owned ‘public realm’. But with the sheer scale of development that London requires, and the dire pressures on local authority budgets, we need to remain vigilant in ensuring that developers and landowners don’t further erode our precious public life.

London has always been, and will always be, a city that not only accommodates change, but thrives on it. The ability of the public realm to adapt to changing demands and preferences is no exception. But at the heart of the flexibility of London’s public spaces is an appreciation of the contribution they make to city life, and the principles that underlie their success. Following these principles may well have its challenges, but it is precisely in these periods of intense change that the value of the public realm is realised.


 

This article was written by [Ben Rogers] (“Author”) (independent of Lendlease) and originally published by the [Centre for London]. The opinions, views and representations expressed in the article are those of the Author. Lendlease has not independently verified any of the information in the article nor sought to confirm any underlying assumptions relied upon therein by the Author. Unless otherwise indicated, information contained in the article is current only as at the date it was originally published. Neither Lendlease, nor any member of the Lendlease Group, accepts any liability for any loss or damage suffered, howsoever arising, as a result of the use of any information in the article.