RTPI London and the Urban Design Network hears from some of London’s top thinkers about what makes for an “excellent” public ream.
Perhaps for some, the challenge of answering the question of what makes an excellent public realm in an hour would be impossible, but our speakers had a good go. The bringing together the school of architecture and school of planning at Westminster allowed practitioners and students from both fields to discuss a question with, it seems, an infinite amount of answers.
Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design at Westminster University, gave an overview of Urban Design theory using examples of public spaces at home and abroad, with a clear message that success of a public space is just as much down to its management as its design; the opportunity, for example, for local people to take ownership of the public realm is a great factor contributing to its success, this can be as simple as local people being given control of raised flowerbeds.
From the theory to the practical, the Chair of the Urban design Network, Eileen Thomas, navigated delegates through a maze of do’s and don’ts from her experiences. We were shown a plethora of physical interventions in the public realm that she has observed and been involved with over her career, offering insight into what she thought made the successes. The message; detail is just as important as the strategy for making things work. From paving design to vehicle controls, infil developments and soft landscaping, some inspiring design approaches, some eye-wateringly incongruous. Eileen’s years of experience as a practitioner had certainly honed her eye for detail and gave the younger practitioners in the room food for thought.
Back to the theoretical, research Assistant Neal Shasore did a stirling job, stepping in last minute to offer his thoughts about the crucial factors to ensuring involved in the success of the public realm is just as much about what happens post-design process, and the crucial role that collaboration between agencies plays in ensuring better outcomes, using Croydon’s “place-making” department, bringing together planning, economic developments, urban design under one umbrella, as an example. There was also, he said, a part for the professional institutions to play in facilitating this.
Finally, an excellent on-the-ground example of regenerating Barking Riverside summarised very well by Douglas Ingils from Alex Lifshutz architects, described the design approach and challenges for creating a new public space as part of the development. With options still being discussed as to what final uses will be in surrounding areas, the complexities involved in making the design work from a planning point of view could not be ignored, particularly with regards to phasing.
The post presentation discussion again focused on the need for collaboration between professions, some more experienced practitioners referring back to days when Councils had their own in-house design teams. Interesting questions about choice of density at Barking riverside followed. And on the eve of the publication of Design Guide for Planners by Urban Design London, the question of whether design codes could have helped or hindered success at Barking Riverside, laid the foundations for a whole separate discussion, which time did not allow as to follow through with, laying foundations for a future discussion by the RTPI Urban Design Network on this topic alone.