Improve public realm; enhance London

Wednesday 20 May 2015

London has come a long way in recognizing the primacy of public realm to the city in the last 10 years but must raise its game to stave off the pressures of a population set to rise by a million more in the next 10.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a keynote speech given by Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer at a NLA conference on public realm this morning. Schemes such as the Olympic Park, said Farrer, show the way that landscape-led city design had emerged as a major force, with playable landscapes like Granary Square adding to connected spaces such as Woolwich Square and people-centred places like Dalston Eastern Curve. London is a ‘narrative of change’, said Farrer, but ‘we must never see our work as fixed’, and London must remain a green city, with grand gestures like the Garden Bridge important to show that London can ‘embrace change’. London must remain a city for everyone, he added, but a particular area of concern is the development at Nine Elms, which is too small, disconnected and underinvested. ‘Landscape has not had the right prominence here', he said.

For GLA area regeneration manager Paul Harper, the strides made by London are due in part to a series of initiatives and publications and former mayor Ken Livingstone’s being ‘appalled by the shabby and neglected state of some of our public spaces.’ That prompted exemplar projects, the 100 public spaces programme, manifestoes and the really significant shift of TfL giving equal importance to place as to the movement functions of streets. Ben Plowden, director of surface strategy and planning at TfL, said that 10 years ago he was asked to don a radio mic and try to run across one of the adjudged worst crossings in the country, at Vauxhall Cross. But it was a mark of how far the city had come – aided by the mayors, developers and the boroughs – that it is now looking to instill dramatic improvements to places such as Vauxhall, and at outer London Crossrail stations. The conference also heard from Victor Callister, assistant director of environmental enhancement at the City of London, on the importance of creating people places and dramatic improvements to areas like Aldgate, and Pat Brown, who showed the lessons from places like New York, Lyon and Bilbao. In part these were about being decisive and overnight moves, such as at Times Square, but they are also about joined up government and deciding to invest in cities as a way of investing in the wider region. ‘Let’s just make spaces which look local and relate to the vernacular rather than have a one-size-fits-all policy. Camden’s assistant director, environment and transport Sam Monck said that, faced with dramatic cuts to local authority budgets, it was time to entertain notions of things like the visitor levy to pay for maintenance, and even public toilets run by private companies. ‘We don’t need to be the people who do everything now’, he said. And while DSDHA architect Nicola Ibbotson showed how schemes such as that to pedestrianize and green Alfred Place could provide an oasis in the west end alongside the newly two-way Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street, Publica’s Lucy Musgrave showed how a reworked Hanover Square could do the same for Oxford Street, as well as providing an attractive backdrop to the area’s new front door, the new Crossrail station. Finally, Broadgate Estates CEO Steve Whyman demonstrated that each area should be managed according to its idiosyncrasies, and to a judgment call to what constitutes a security issue. For Anna Strongman, senior projects director at Argent, building public realm first had helped, while a ‘tweaking’ or ‘enlivenment’ fund the developer sets aside can improve spaces once they see how the public use them. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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