London’s ability to create better public realm has improved over the last decade, aided in part by the reduction in vehicular traffic in the centre. But it needs to get better in creating spaces fitting for a world city in the run up to the opening of Crossrail in 2018 and to prepare for the many more people arriving in the capital as a result.
Those were just two of the observations made at an insight study meeting between practitioners and key thinkers in public realm, in preparation for a season of events at NLA on the subject.
Sarah Gaventa, the guest curator of Never Mind the Bollards, an installation in Store Street timed to coincide with the Public London events, kicked off with her description of the project and her plea for more ‘playfulness’ in public space. The City’s Assistant Director – Environmental Enhancement
Victor Callister responded that one of the key changes to the square mile in public realm over recent years came as a result of the imposition of the ring of steel after the IRA bomb, when 40% of traffic was removed. ‘By taking it out, suddenly the City had a different atmosphere and feel’, he said. Now the City’s spend on public realm has risen to £20million a year from £1m a decade ago, moving from ‘peripheral’ as an issue, to policy.
Peter Heath, Design Director - Public Realm, Atkins, said that congestion charging had also had an effect, reducing traffic levels across central London, but it was the happy circumstances of the right people in charge, the right politics and money at the same time that had led to schemes such as World Squares for All coming into being.
For Gehl Architects director Riccardo Marini, Jan Gehl had acted to point out the dysfunctions of London, and the capital had moved on a lot in public realm, especially with the work of organisations such as Grosvenor. But having been ahead of cities such as New York, Moscow and Paris in thinking about a city for people, London seemed to have only played with the idea of being a people place, he said, and there is ’paranoia’ in the boroughs and mayor’s office about taking cars out.
A reduction in traffic levels has also helped Camden, whose Assistant Director, Environment & Transport Sam Monck detailed the way that the authority wishes that the 60% reduction around the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail works can continue after the project is complete. But there will be serious problems once Crossrail opens in places like Oxford Street and Regent Street, warned Marini, because there is not enough room on the pavements now.
Whatever happened to mayor Livingstone’s 100 Public Spaces programme, wondered LLDC chief of design Kathryn Firth, whose own patch has acted in the name of civilising space by, inter alia, reducing a dual carriageway through the Olympic Park to a single. In fact, said GLA Regeneration Manager Paul Harper, there were only ever 34 identified, and 20 were delivered in some form or other – a significant legacy considering the budget was just £100,000 at the time. ‘We thought success would be delivered in changing people’s approaches and doing exemplary projects – something that continues
to be highly relevant in the capital programmes TfL and GLA are implementing on behalf of the Mayor’, he said. But the mayor also had a Great spaces panel that met twice and disappeared, said Gaventa, something that paled against, for example, Lyon’s 15-year plan just for lighting.
Often, though, this debate is seen as just space for people or space for vehicles, said Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design, UCL, but it’s not either/or. ‘It’s about reclaiming appropriate space’, he said, as has happened in Windrush Square in Brixton or General Gordon Square in Woolwich. It was about getting the balance right; civilizing without changing everything. For Callister, it was about working with a local environment where someone will arrive on a bike in the City every 2.7 seconds, with efforts being made to convince more firms to adopt offsite consolidation to free up space. In Camden this is happening too, with a reduction of some 50% of such traffic, and acting to try and restrict access for taxis and other vehicles in certain time slots.
In order to get London to do better in public realm, perhaps a charter on public space could be a good way to go, said Carmona. This could set out what we should have rights to, but also to the responsibilities owners and managers have to us. It is the silly little things such as petty controls that get people angry in public space, like being told off when taking a photograph. And yet there are common laws which cover much of the charter, said Peter Heath. And maybe some of them are a bit bland, suggested Gaventa – perhaps it was more about a mindset. Either way the charter points needed to be something the public could engage with, and, added Gaventa, it must be remembered who these spaces were and are for.
Companies such as Broadgate Estates are often in a difficult position as managers of public space. Its consultancy services director Neill Maclaine said there was nothing in the charter it would object to, but that if something could be added to planning permissions on the management of public space, this would be beneficial. DSDHA director Deborah Saunt greeted the charter as a ‘fantastic idea’, and that BIDs in particular needed to be also considered when it came to public realm. Fred Manson, Associate Director, Heatherwick Studio said that it was crucial to investigate new ways of funding public realm in an age when local authorities simply cannot afford it. This is the case with the Garden Bridge, whose trust has the responsibility to maintain it in perpetuity, he said. Certainly, said Sam Monck, with government cuts, authorities such as Camden will not be able to maintain public space going forward, and yet more and more people are using that space. Perhaps a visitor levy of £1 per occupied bed might be one way around this. What the BIDs can deliver, said Camden Unlimited chief executive Simon Pitkeathley, is their own resources, with a different electorate. They need to be challenged to be strategic, however, and not just be about ‘hanging baskets’. They nevertheless represent a useful part of the new landscape.
Ultimately, public space needs to be considered as part of a network, said Gaventa, rather than as each needing to be all things to all people. Culture, too, has an important part to play in new public realm, said Mark Davy of Futurecity, and this can be epitomised by Crossrail’s culture line and its harnessing of the work of eight major artists. ‘There’s an appetite for funding’, said Davy, ‘when there’s a big idea’.
David Taylor, Editor, NLQ