Big Think Goes Soft + Smart

Last night Liane took part in a round table that was the third in a series of Big Think debates on the future of London. The event was hosted by Mischon de Reya solicitors, sponsored by Capita Symonds, Chaired by Pat Brown at Central and with Property Week as media partner.

Around the table were developers, planners, councillors, consultants, architects, entrepreneurs and academics, all with a different take on how public realm contributes to our everyday life and how best it could be delivered.

The discussion was focussed on how Londoner’s changing lifestyles are impacting on the capital’s streets and spaces. The main question posed was “how can we roll out good public realm that meets the needs of Londoners and innovates rather than replicates?”

Issues over creating an identity for public space, generating a quality urban experience and the tensions inherent in controlling access threaded through the discussion. Some of most key messages for me that emerged are outline below and you can download a paper I prepared here: The Big Think – Liane Hartley

Sanitised Space

The resounding message was that we are lucky to live in a city like London, with its mosaic of overlapping and hidden treasures of public space embroidered onto the ever-changing cityscape, over its long history. This diversity is seldom matched when set against other and more modern cities. The urban experience London has to offer is unique and not like any other city. Public space is where we craft that unique experience.

This is threatened by short-sighted approach to traffic management and its suffocating consequences and lazy attitudes to smarting up our streetscene.

I would go further than this.

Post-modern urban theory has been concerned for decades about the tendency for corporate urbanism to bring a sanitising urge to the treatment of public space. Bland, anywhereville clones of places lacking any identity, sense of place or spontaneity. Killing the opportunity for urban space to be more like a theatre stage, with the drama of everyday life playing out in rich mix of chance meets, the delights of watching the world-go-by and fleeting overheard conversation.

This public space is a dark alienating world of urban dystopia written by the likes of Ballard and Dick. The uniform manifesting architecture shouts of containment and control, of predictability and self-consciousness promoting a pervasive lack of the spontaneity, interaction and pseudo-confrontation that prompts what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet”. Instead we have a sidewalk conveyor belt. In short; it’s boring and predictable.

This is what threatens the future of public space in London; the failure to see public space as a vital sign of life and freedom in a city that has consistently rebelled against template and grid.

Command + Control

From the discussion around the table, it was clear that professionals and private owners wanted to deliver the kind of public spaces that people enjoyed and that there should be some freedom of that enjoyment; but there had to be some level of control and management.

At the heart of debates about public space is an enduring tension between ownership, control and the identity. There isn’t just one public, there are multiple publics based on levels of accessibility, and entitlement – the ability to rule out and in. Young people, the homeless, skateboarders, women all suffer from entitlement failure in public space in all cities. Let’s be clear who we are talking about when we talk about “Public”.

In many ways the aesthetic is used to argue that a space requires management and ownership if it is to remain pleasant and therefore safe to use. Neglect of public space is a profoundly powerful indicator that a place has a low tolerance to anti-social behaviour. But I think this argument is taken too far with a fear of freedom of access akin with a “public” resembling a wobbling mass of anarchism poised on the brink of frenzy.

To say a developer is “brave” for approaching their treatment of their public space on a private development in the heart of London being done professionally rather than corporately was a seminal moment. The space is characterised by openness, experimentation, spontaneity and play – what all public spaces should be right?

Except the issue of management and control brings with it the fear of losing control and the reputational risk that it evokes in investors, clients and the market. So in that respect, bravery means not emblazoning the spaces with logos, do-not signs, liveried guards and corporate insignia but a more subtle display of ownership in the form of other environmental cues.

London Wildness

Actually its this relaxing of control is what is exactly needed if public spaces are to ever be capable of generating the unique identities and experiences we crave and that has led to London’s delightful mix of the weird and unconventional  over time. Its uniqueness comes from the comfortable level of chaos inherent in letting a place grow organically and invite the unfettered mess of human behaviour in to shape “pre-place” ingredients (spaces, buildings, furniture, fixtures) into a place.

There were stories of crushing disappointment in missed opportunities to do something bold and exciting with public space. At architectural level, blandness and predictability prevail. Palettes conform to the power of greyskull.  Movement through space is a forgettable practice in destination hopping – except the destinations themselves lock and contort the fuzzy lines between what is public and private. Surely we can do better than this?

Much of this was about the need to meet over-prescriptive and conservative regulatory controls on how space should be designed and used. There was talk of how Hackney had lifted itself to be the destination of choice for “bright young things” – seemingly a feat of a policy of “iteration”: putting something in, testing a response and reacting to the feedback.

This piqued my interest and led me to think that there is glimmer of hope for a future of design of public space that is behavioural led and acts on the way people actually like and need to use space – as opposed to text-book diktat.

An Uncomfortable Marriage

We are all a user of public space at any given time. When we move through them, to what extent are we aware of the legacy of conflict, arbitration, negotiation, management strategy, leasing agreement, regulatory deficiency, adversarial positioning, relationship-breaking and building antagonism and feats of co-operation and collaboration that is behind what our urban space literally looks like?

No. And nor should we. Because the experience of the user is actually king. The community that has to adopt that space into its neighbourhood – for better or for worse – needs to feel it has a tangible, credible and authentic connection to it. Public space should emphasise and be defined by the public. Developers understand that to create spaces that are to be well used, well looked after and pleasant to be in, they need savvy dialogue and inputs from those users and the wider community that the space sits in. They need to embed social intelligence in how that space operates beyond the red line boundary.

Trust Economics

We think about cities a lot here at Mend and especially in terms of future social trends in cities. For example, we look at the role of citizenship and activism as ways of asserting the right to the city and we look at the role of emotional attachment to space as a way of assserting a stake in urban change.

There are massive social drivers changing the way our cities are changing. We are moving towards trust, sharing and collaboration being at the heart of our decision-making. If these sorts of behaviours underpin our economy, what is the spatial manifestation of this? Does that mean we will want more public space? Will there be more conflict and control of public space?

Glasgow was named as one of the government’s pilot smart cities. It will be interesting to see how real-time behaviours, monitored and processed by technologies embedded in the tools and resources we use to conduct our everyday life, will tell us about how we actually use public space and what they should be shaped by in the future.

Behavioural-led planning in a trust-based world……..sounds like a soft city to me!

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