MDAG - The future of public realm

Tuesday 16 February 2016

image: Barking_Philipp Ebeling

The next mayor must keep up the good work London has been doing in the name of public realm by forming a task force ‘with teeth’ to drive home its importance to the capital.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from this morning’s conference at NLA as MDAG launched its latest Good Growth report, ‘Public London.’

Introduced by MDAG member Pam Alexander as the crucial DNA of the city, the public realm is that which makes London so attractive, liveable and a joy to live in. ‘It is the glue that binds places together’, she said.

The report’s joint author Peter Murray said it was essential that the next mayor continues to champion public space as a key part of the city, but that our understanding of the public realm had broadened since the time of the World Squares for All project. There are great economic paybacks to be had by creating good public realm, alongside environmental outcomes such as reducing pollution and increasing biodiversity, not to mention broader social and cultural benefits. ‘What’s not to like?’ said Murray.

But against a backdrop of reduced budgets and a greater involvement from the private sector, the mayor must ensure access to privately owned public space is ‘as unambiguous as possible’. There should be a public realm task force for London, with better support for placemaking skills and more support for meanwhile uses. With mounting health problems, and higher levels of obesity, there also needs to be a clear understanding of the vital role walking and cycling play in good health, reinforced by a new role of active transport commissioner. And finally, said Murray, a single system for road charging should be considered, with more investment in high streets and in public realm around infrastructure.

Discussion of the points raised ranged from Victor Callister, deputy director of Architecture and the Built Environment, Design Council CABE, who praised that ‘London-ness’ and the emergence of a London vernacular was being expressed, to the Bartlett’s Matthew Carmona, who said the report was an ‘excellent blueprint’ to remind the next mayor of the vital importance of public spaces, albeit with too ‘clunky’ advice that bylaws are the most effective method for managing public spaces. Carmona added that there was a problem with a certain kind of public space – people’s front gardens – being rapidly tarmacked over and that this was in need of protection, while the problem of high streets was not physical but one of ‘curation’. And yet good public realm was often not difficult and sometimes we perhaps try a bit too hard. ‘Keep it simple’, said Carmona. ‘A little bit of grass, some benches and a café is hard to beat.’ DSDHA director Deborah Saunt praised the emphasis paid to ‘movement’ in the report but said brief writing needed an inversion to attend to tensions between cyclists and pedestrians. Saunt believed a missing component in the report was enough guidance on logistics and goods delivery, especially with a 13% rise in the number of white vans in London over the last three years. Finally, Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer said the report starts to recognize the complexities behind public realm provision which ‘determines London as a great city’. But there were missed opportunities with items like the cycle superhighways – why had tree planting not been an associated feature?

Other points raised during questions included public realm’s contribution to sustainability and amelioration of global warming, the sanitization of public spaces, whether or not rooftop spaces in private developments constituted public space and the role BIDs could play in London’s public space.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ 

Click here to download the report.

Video of 'Public London' Breakfast Talk





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