Principles for public space design, planning to do better
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This paper sets out a series of normative principles for planners and others to use when planning for and regulating public space design and management. Based on an exhaustive examination of public space in London, the substance of which is reported elsewhere, a first section sets out three overarching principles relating to the critical but often missing strategic planning framework for the development and regeneration of public spaces. A second and final section sets out seven more detailed considerations for evaluating the quality of public space design. This is an unashamedly positive framework for shaping public space, based on the notion that public spaces in our cities come in many different forms and guises, but collectively add huge value to the experience and potential of urban areas. Consequently, they deserve serious consideration by those with regulatory and other responsibilities for their delivery.
KeywordsPublic space Design principles Planning
What is clear is that since the 1980s, public spaces of all forms have witnessed a renaissance in that they have increasingly become a key component of many regeneration and development schemes (both residential and commercial), worldwide, with far-reaching impacts on how the resulting places are perceived and used (Crowhurst Lennard and Lennard 1995; Corbett 2004). In such a context, it is vitally important to design public spaces well, although experience suggests that often our ambition is not met by the reality. When we do get them right, however, high-quality public spaces offer huge economic, social and environmental benefits to their localities and communities (CABE 2004a).
This paper draws on research conducted in London (Carmona and Wunderlich 2012) to propose a set of rules, first, relating to the critical planning considerations for the development and regeneration of public spaces, and second, concerning the more detailed considerations for evaluating the quality of public space design. In doing so, it builds on, organises and better articulates a set of new normative principles for public space that stemmed from the research underpinning this paper and that were originally offered as a provisional attempt to re-theorise public space discourse on the basis of the actual experiences of public space creation, use and management, rather than simply on the basis of its critique (Carmona 2015). The original research involved a London-wide mapping of new and regenerated public spaces constructed between 1980 and 2012 across the city; a ‘quick and dirty’ impressionistic survey of 130 of these; and the more detailed analysis of 14 case studies reflecting the diversity of space types encountered. The case studies involved the gathering of 70 stakeholder narratives (with those who had been involved in their creation and or on-going management), 650 interviews with public space users across the spaces, time-lapse observations to record how each space was used, morphological analysis and the collection of secondary data from the local press and from relevant policy documents.
Planning for public spaces
The issue of delivering better public spaces is seen here first through the prism of planning because planners have a critical role to play in the creation and shaping of public spaces; a role that manifests itself in two distinct ways. First, planners are often the initiators of public space projects, for example, recognising the need and potential for new or regenerated public spaces in particular locations through the auspices of proactive site or area-based plans, frameworks and briefs, or otherwise encouraging them in policy. Second, planners are the guardians of how public spaces come into being through the regulatory processes of development management (granting or denying permission to develop).
Both are critical roles in ensuring that the public interest is fully served by public spaces, and as much heralded success stories such as Barcelona show (Monclus 2003, p. 417), arguably it is important to get the strategic decision-making framework for public space right before worrying about the detailed execution. This is all the more important given that, globally, more often than not it is the private sector that is actually designing and delivering new public spaces and which is ultimately also often responsible for their on-going stewardship. In such a context, planning is the gateway through which the public interest, as regards the design and management of public space, is tested, and if the opportunity is not taken then to safeguard key qualities and interests, it is unlikely to quickly come again.
What are the processes through which public spaces evolve, and how does planning and other forms of regulation interact with them?
What types of public spaces should be provided, and where?
How should rights and responsibilities for public spaces be safeguarded over the long term?
Evolving public space (whether formal or informal in nature)
Public spaces require something in their physical form that allows us to distinguish them from their surroundings as a clear and identifiable place. Typically this is a sense of enclosure, where the buildings and landscape, to greater or lesser degrees, first open up to create a space, and second, wrap around and ‘contain’ space in order to hold the eye and create a distinct place (Cullen 1961, p. 29). Whilst the factors determining a sense of enclosure are contested (Haile 2012), many formal public squares are of this type and planners will need to work closely with developers and other interested parties to ensure they exhibit the sorts of qualities discussed in the second half of this paper.
Planning controls to sanction new public space proposals or where changes of use or alterations to the (non-highways related) built fabric occur in existing spaces.
Highways orders, focussing on changes to highways themselves (including ‘stopping up’ existing rights of way).
Listed building consents, for changes to the historic (listed) built fabric, a category into which many older public spaces fall.
Street trading licencing, if proposals involve uses concerned with selling goods or services in public space.
Planning therefore also has a vital coordinating function across the various actors in order to ensure that policies and approaches are in harmony and outcomes, including innovations in practice, are optimised.
Diverse public space (avoiding one-size-fits-all)
This diversity recognises the diversity of lifestyles, preferences and needs amongst urban populations and that through the design of their public realm there is the opportunity for urban areas to offer something for everyone in the right locations although not necessarily everything for all everywhere. It is important for planners to recognise this legitimate diversity, particularly in large cities, and to avoid imposing one-size-fits-all aspirations on public space projects that play into critiques around the homogenisation of public space (e.g. Light and Smith 1998; Sennett 1990). In this respect, the public spaces of a town or city can be planned in a strategic sense just as the buildings are, with care taken to ensure that all sections of the community are catered for, and that spaces are provided in locations that are safe, convenient and inviting to use and that avoid conflict, for example, between skateboarders and commercial interests or between revellers and residents.
Free public space (securing rights and responsibilities)
Designing public spaces
How public spaces are clearly delineated from private ones so that they feel and are publically accessible.
How the uses surrounding public spaces contribute to creating engaging places for users.
How spaces can be made more meaningful through the amenities and features they host.
How the opportunity is taken to maximise the potential for a positive social environment in public space.
How a balance between vehicles, pedestrians and other users in public space is set and safeguarded.
How spaces are made to feel comfortable through their ability to foster safe and relaxing use.
How robust public spaces can be created as a consequence of their ability to adapt to changing demands across time whilst remaining distinctive.
Delineated public space (clearly public in their use)
Engaging public space (designing in active uses)
Meaningful public space (incorporating notable amenities and features)
Social public space (encouraging social engagement)
Balanced public space (between traffic and pedestrians)
Comfortable public space (feeling safe and relaxing)
Robust public space (adaptable and distinct in the face of change)
Normative frameworks for urban design have often been much criticised for the tendency they encourage in us to focus on a narrow view of defined physical outcomes in the absence of a proper understanding of their socio-political context (Sorkin 2009, p. 181; Bidduph 2012; Arabindoo 2014, p. 48). Whilst this must be a danger and uncritical application of any design prescriptions in policy or projects should be avoided, we should not be so weary that we are prevented from articulating the results of well-grounded research and analysis in normative terms as this paper has attempted to do.
Evolving (whether formal or informal in nature).
Diverse (avoiding one-size-fits-all).
Free (with secure rights and responsibilities).
Delineated (clearly public in their use).
Engaging (designing in active uses).
Meaningful (incorporating notable amenities and features).
Social (encouraging social engagement).
Balanced (between traffic and pedestrians).
Comfortable (feeling safe and relaxing).
Robust (adaptable and distinct in the face of change).
As the recent UN Habitat (2013) report on streets and public spaces as drivers of prosperity reminds us, these are universal concerns of equal or perhaps even greater significance to the cities of the global south than to already rich and highly developed cities such as London. Such issues are too important to be left to chance or to ad hoc case by case negotiation on individual projects and propositions. Instead, as has been argued, in advance of development there is huge value in setting out a series of well-grounded positive principles for public space design, set within a coherent strategic framework for the long-term planning and management of public spaces. This paper has attempted to show how.
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