This year’s World Town Planning Day, hosted by NLA at The Building Centre, attracted over 100 delegates with an interest in the balance between public and private rights and responsibilities. The RTPI, PIA and NZPI London branches organised a far-reaching debate set in the context of rising pressure for new development in London. This addressed questions as to whether the privatisation of London’s public realm isolates and excludes more than it benefits. Or does privately-owned publicly accessible space can contribute to a more active and friendly environment for Londoners to enjoy? The evening provided a chance to address these questions.
Zoe Green, RTPI Young Planner of the Year, set the scene for the evening. Zoe provided an excellent overview on the key challenges that landowners and communities face when it comes to privately-owned public space. She noted that “we are living in a city that is seeing unprecedented growth. High land values are putting more pressure to deliver high returns. Alongside this we are seeing increasing pressure on our social and cultural spaces. Space and access to it are at a premium. We have the power to improve it and restrict its supply. In this context it might seem to some that the city is being privatised and public space is a battleground for discussions around equality and personal freedom.” It was in this context that the following speakers then gave their presentations.
Peter Heath, Design Director at Atkins, was next up to the podium and focused his discussion of the differences and crossovers between private and public space in the city. He noted that public space in cities performs an important function for live, work and play, which includes the right to protest and to celebrate. Peter identified that it is crucial that spaces in London have physical and intellectual accessibility, legibility and disabled access. To this end he provided an in-depth analysis of the evolution of key spaces in London – including Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Regents Place and Waterloo Place. In the case of Trafalgar Square, for example, it was used in the 17th century for public execution, 18th Century for public punishment, 19th century for public play and politics and by the 20th century we saw the space evolve again as a destination for public protest and celebration. The message: the use of space changes and we need to maintain the right balance between “managed” and “unmanaged”, partly through design.
Victoria Thornton, Founding Director of Open City, described her organisation’s role in championing the value of well-designed places and spaces. Recent public surveys undertaken by Open City revealed that “46% feel ‘not involved at all’ in planning, consultation or development of their neighbourhoods and 97% believe well designed spaces positively effect mental well-being.” Victoria acknowledged that new developments in London are starting to bringing forward new ‘public space’ within them but that this can be severely compromised. This is most notably seen with the Leadenhall Building, the ‘cheesegrater’, which is the first new public space in the city for many years but comes with conditions and surveillance. This is borne out by Open City research which suggests that “62% of the public think that privately managed spaces isolate and exclude more than they makesattractive and safer spaces”.
Louis Woodhead from Long Live Southbank provided a fascinating, emotive and inspiring insight into his experience of space and interpretation of architecture from the viewpoint of a skateboarder. He discussed the campaign to protect the skatepark located in the undercroft of the South Bank Centre. He discussed the historic importance of the skatepark space, which for 40 years has provided an important creative outlet for self-expression (with artwork changing on a daily basis). Louis noted that there is a danger that cities could become more sterilised and characterless as chain shops and relentless CCTV surveillance take over our public spaces and control our creative experience in these spaces. He also showed how the Long Live Southbank campaign has provided an exemplary model for the protection of public space, which is based on the sense of maintaining a ‘unique identity’ and having the flexibility to accommodate evolving creativity within the space. Fellow coordinator, Paul Richards, added to the discussion stating that the public support the notion that London should be a creative city, clearly demonstrated by the collection of 170,000 signatures during the Long Live Southbank Campaign.
As usual there was, following the debate, a lively Q&A session where key issues were raised around how we can make public spaces in London more inclusive to all. A networking event then followed where the debate on how we can protect the character of London by encouraging more creative spaces to evolve in the city. Thank you to all our speakers and attendees to this interesting thought provoking debate to celebrate World Town Planning Day 2014, which comes at the culmination of a year’s centenary events in London, which has been framed by RTPI London’s centenary book Kaleidoscope City: Reflections of Planning and London.