Bottom-up approaches to small scale public realm

Bottom-up approaches to small scale public realm

Buildings can conjure an image of a city, but public space defines its character. Public realm - the communal space between buildings - is a canvas for history, customs, activity and interactions. It is not a decorative trimming to urban development, but an intrinsic element in its own right, which should be promoted and implemented as such.

"Cities, and the communities within them, have always found ways to create equitable spaces that reflect their needs from the bottom up" - Alpa Depani, Fellow

In London, new public realm is prevailingly introduced top-down as a component of large-scale development. In this scenario, it becomes a discrete entity scaled and orientated to its supporting structures rather than its surrounding neighbourhood, and it presents uneasy questions about ownership, permissions and use.

But cities, and the communities within them, have always found ways to create equitable spaces that reflect their needs from the bottom up: spaces that emphasise the situational, the quotidian, the local, and weave into the existing urban fabric; spaces that reflect people through a human scale. In London, these spaces are challenged by diminished public funding and a dominant perception of land as commodity, but the study of other dense global cities could identify approaches to tilt the balance.

New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong are all geographically constrained metropoles where development is commercially driven and underscored by rising land value and population increase. But they are also singular cities. Taking account of shared challenges and differing contexts, the aim of my Fellowship was to visit each one and study successful public realm and community-driven public space initiatives.

In New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong, I visited a range of spaces and met with designers, policy makers, academics, community groups and activists, to discuss the challenges in and opportunities for the provision of public space.

In each city, a dominant thread would emerge. In New York, the focus was the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) Plaza Program, in Tokyo it was about perceptions of public space and play, and in Hong Kong it related to the relatively new emergence of young designers with an interest in community projects and the interface of private and public which was not so easily drawn across obvious lines (eg private: bad, public: good).

During my travels, I learned of the limitations of public realm delivered purely through private means, but also discovered how communities can create and maintain public realm to enhance their neighbourhoods. I discovered that bottom-up initiatives were most successful when endorsed by some element of top-down infrastructure, meaning public realm strategies should place equal emphasis on private companies, municipal powers and community organisations. In travelling to the three cities, I realised that London has a great variety of public space (unlike Hong Kong where residents get an average of just 2.7m sq of open space per person, or Tokyo which has far fewer street trees or benches). In processing my findings, it became clear that recommendations for the UK capital should focus on engaging with communities to improve these abundant existing spaces rather than creating new ones. With that in mind, I have the following recommendations.

  • Set targets: aspirational targets regarding public realm help drive research and policy. The New York Plaza Program, which has created neighbourhood spaces from unused streets in partnership with community groups, came out of Mayor Bloomberg’s 2007 PlaNYC report, which set the ambition that all city residents should be within 10 walking minutes of quality open space. Targets also show commitment to an issue and express a unified message - the Mayor of London’s Public Space Charter has the potential to do both.
  • Promote a broad definition of public realm: public space is not just parks; good streets and paths often make the best public realm as they connect people to their daily activities and community life. The recognition of this fact takes the pressure off trying to carve new spaces out of dense cities.
  • Land ownership should be more transparent: the ownership and restrictions of use on privately owned public space should be clear to users, encouraging an awareness of such spaces and ensuring land owners are held to account over liberties enjoyed compared to those promised in their creation. Communities would also be better informed about whom to approach for improvements or alternative uses of existing spaces.
  • Public realm initiatives should prioritise even distribution: a focus on the distribution of public space across the city would naturally force a focus on existing spaces and different modes of delivery, since privately owned spaces are more likely to appear in commercial areas while residential areas are more likely to suffer from a lack of investment.
  • Encourage public realm events: regular street closures, neighbourhood walks and play events encourage ownership of public realm and foster a sense of community. They also help link public realm improvements with other issues such as safer neighbourhoods, reducing traffic and encouraging healthy lifestyles.

Since undertaking my Fellowship I have moved into local government and, as Head of Strategic Planning and Design, I have an active role in writing planning policy that relates to urban design and public space and have been able to directly implement some of the recommendations above. Specifically, my team at Waltham Forest Council is currently working on a Green Network Strategy, a policy document for achieving a network of connected and publicly accessible green spaces that are evenly distributed across the borough and are in proportion to the number of existing and new homes that will be built. The Strategy examines land ownership and community use and identifies projects for enhancement across a range of spaces from parks to verges and traffic islands and including tree planting, improved signage and new walking trails - ensuring all residents can benefit from a truly public realm.

Read more about Alpa's ideas in The Architectural Review.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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