Building high quality public realm has real, tangible benefits for people’s wellbeing and a city’s liveability – and can bring financial rewards too.
Those were some of the key messages to emerge from a breakfast talk this morning, sponsored by Broadgate Estates and Cluttons, which formed part of the NLA’s Public London events programme.
Chaired by Never Mind the Bollards curator Sarah Gaventa, the ‘People need Places’ event was kicked off by Bartlett professor Matthew Carmona, who declared that there had been a ‘renaissance’ in public space since the 1980s, albeit one where such schemes are too readily susceptible to budget cuts in times of austerity. We shouldn’t always think about formal public spaces, said Carmona, regulators need to be flexible enough to understand how public spaces are evolving and diversity must also be recognized. ‘It’s important to have something for everybody but not necessarily everything for everybody’, he said. The best spaces are also clearly delineated, encourage active uses, are meaningful, comforting and relaxing, and not just in the summer months. ‘One of the key failures is overdesigned public spaces’.
Grosvenor’s director of placemaking Will Bax said that for most of the last century our approach to dealing with city growth has ‘brutalized’ the people who inhabit those cities. But with a Grosvenor estate that runs from Mayfair and Belgravia to Southampton, Lille, San Francisco and Tokyo, public realm ‘is at the heart of how we think about everything’, Bax added. Building on work with Jan Gehl, Grosvenor has invested £20m over the last five years on its ‘stewardship’ and schemes including at Mount Street, as well as a pocket park in Belgravia that had made deep impressions on the children Bax helped plant shrubs. An emotional survey the company ran last year showed anecdotal evidence that ‘places that are planned for people make people happy’, but creating great places also has to be more than philanthropy. ‘There’s an acknowledgment that investing in public space requires patient capital’. Such investment pays real dividends, with rents at Mount Street outstripping those in neighbouring streets by 6%, and a further spend of £75m across all its sites to come. ‘Our belief is that financial benefits will follow.’
The event also heard from head of research at Cluttons Sue Foxley, who demonstrated research that showed that for those looking to buy residential accommodation, the ‘micro’ locational issues such as green spaces, amenities and a ‘villagey’ feel rose up the pecking order once they were in, with an ‘urban feel’, for instance, going down. And Gunther Vogt, director of Vogt Landscape demonstrated how cities are dealing with the idea of the Green Belt as a park system, as well as smaller schemes such as planting birch trees at Tate Modern. ‘Placemaking sometimes is really simple’, he said.David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly