Written by Lucy Musgrave
Workshop kindly supported by Capita Symonds
Round-table discussions tend to suffer from one of two problems: some represent such diverse interests that it’s a struggle to agree on the basic parametres up for discussion; others are drawn from such a narrow stratum of society that they are little more than a convivial forum for self-congratulatory chat. The great thing about the Farrell Review is that it has managed to hit a productive middle ground – there is broad consensus about the issues that need to be tackled, but a wide range of perspectives and views.
In the UK we have a terrible habit of marginalising – or overlooking – the contribution that urban designers and landscape architects can make to cities and public space. Successful cities need great architecture, but the spaces in between are perhaps more important still. We have to be realistic – and clear – about the extent to which architects can influence the public realm. Generally, the client brief and the realities of the development industry, dictate that as much value as possible must be captured as buildings – as saleable real estate.
Our public spaces have to serve multiple functions; as spaces for relaxation, leisure and play, meeting, debate and protest, but also as part of the urban eco-system; a wildlife habitat, a natural drainage system; a place for growing food. Roads and streets constitute the majority of our public realm. If we want a sustainable, beautiful, coherent public realm, we have to ensure that they are not simply transport arteries, but social spaces; green corridors; places that unite rather than divide. It is the spaces in between – the formal and informal public realm – that defines the way our cities are experienced and used; that serves as the backdrop to civic life. This space has a social, cultural and symbolic value. And we are increasingly coming to realise the extent to which the public realm has an environmental value too.
It’s enormously heartening that the Farrell Review is putting place-making right at the top of its agenda. An holistic approach is desperately need. Crucially, this kind of comprehensive approach has to be brought to bear at the very start of the development process. One of the biggest obstacles to successful place-making is the fallacy that the public realm is the final piece of the jigsaw, the bit that can be done at the last minute in the unlikely event that there’s any cash left in the budget. Yet a well-designed, multi-functional public realm should be the starting point for successful urban planning. Green infrastructure and sustainable drainage can save a fortune in civil engineering costs; attractive shared spaces can hugely enhance the perception of the area and hence the value of future developments. Somehow, we have to establish a regeneration model that recognises the fact that early investment in landscape and the public realm will pay for itself several times over in the fullness of time.