Truly Public Space: The Key to a Liveable City

With the ever-increasing demands on space in London as the city grows, the debate around ‘private’ vs ‘public’ in relation to our outdoor spaces continues to rage. (see Anna Minton’s article http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/30/what-i-want-from-our-cities-in-2015-public-spaces-that-are-truly-public-boris-johnson-london. That this subject can generate such passionate responses was also shown by our recent Open-City poll on this subject, which generated more than 1500 responses in just half a day, and the discussions at the recent RTPI event on ‘Who has a right to the city?’ at which I was one of the speakers.

The importance of a well-designed public realm has been creeping up the developers’ agenda over the last decade, and we’ve seen this come to the fore especially in the past 5 years with new schemes such as Granary Square and The Leadenhall Building. When we see children playing in the fountains at King’s Cross or on the South Bank, there is some indication that we are on the way to achieving a liveable city – as Jan Gehl has so succinctly put it, when children feel safe in our public spaces, we are making a city for everyone.

Our poll asked Londoners the question ‘Do you think privately managed public spaces in London isolate and exclude more than making a more attractive, safer city?’. 62% of people answered yes, and 38% said no. Many of the former shared the widespread and real concerns that privately owned public spaces have restricted access and control – sometimes more insidious because it is hidden – that means that using these spaces is a privilege rather than a right, ‘with skateboarders, the poor, dogwalkers, cyclists etc. excluded simply because the owner doesn’t like them’, as one person commented. And it seems that even the much-feted Garden Bridge will effectively be more a privately owned tourist attraction rather than a new public right of way across the Thames.

What can be done to resolve this situation, when Londoners often feel wary and unnerved by privatised spaces where it’s ‘business first rather than community first’ – as evidenced by the presence of private security guards? Many of our respondents, however, acknowledged that the problem is a complex one. They considered that some privately managed public spaces did feel more inclusive and welcoming than others, and that it is better to have private management rather than no management at all, which could conceivably happen with the enormous pressures on local authority budgets. Effective, transparent and light touch management was seen by the respondents as the key to making all public spaces, even if privately owned, work for London – as well as of course the quality of the design.   At the end of the day however, public space should be just that, public and without restrictions.