June 28, 2015

Public Realm: Public London, Public Manchester?

Filed under: Green infrastructure,Public Realm,Sustainability — Tags: , — Liz @ 7:13 pm

The public space (including green space and green infrastructure) between buildings, the so-called Public Realm, is one of the most, if not the most important element of a city: It’s the place where people move through and interact and a large determinant of their quality of life.   The design and development of that space, its delivery and management is undoubtedly a challenge both practically and financially. Given the increase in urban populations (London’s population is predicated to increase to 11.3 million by 2050 whilst Greater Manchester (the second largest metropolitan area after London is set to increase to 2.95 million by 2031, with 36% of growth in the city of Manchester) as well as the climatic and biodiversity issues we face, there is arguably a greater need than ever before, to work strategically to deliver our public realm if we are to ensure the livability of our cities and towns. But is that really happening in the UK?

 

5 Reasons public space, green space and green infrastructure are critical aspects of liveable places

Green infrastructure (GI), as defined by the Landscape Institute’s position statement on Green Infrastructure is the network of natural and semi- natural features, green spaces, rivers and lakes that intersperse and connect villages, towns and cities. Individually, these elements are GI assets, and the roles that these assets play are GI functions. When appropriately planned, designed and managed, the assets and functions have the potential to deliver a wide range of benefits – from providing sustainable transport links to mitigating and adapting the effects of climate change. Whilst green spaces have long been valued for single uses such as sport and recreation, the term green infrastructure recognizes that one site could be providing several functions at once and provide us with multiple benefits.

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Here’s why they are so critical:

  1. They are vitally important for the physical and mental well-being and wellness of communities
  2. The quality of public realm is a critical element in quality economic development
  3. They can assist in reducing the urban heat island effect
  4. They can help reduce the risk of flooding
  5. They provide habitats for wildlife

 But we have heard all this before right? There is certainly a wealth of evidence on each of these reasons. Perhaps the city of Nantes (European Green Capital in 2013) as illustrated by the Director of Parks and gardens at the Sustainable Green infrastructure conference is an illustration of what is possible through landscape-led developments in combination with vision and commitment. It seems that we have some of the building blocks here in the UK, but perhaps that we lack the commitment and action necessary for such radical approaches?

 

The Public London Exhibition

Last month, as part of a trip to London, I was fortunate enough to visit the Building Centre to see an exhibition from New London Architecture entitled: Public London: Ten years of transforming public spaces. In addition to the visual review an insight study has been undertaken to look in more detail at how the city has changed and to make recommendations for the future.

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The review illustrates the changes from prior to 2005 when urbanist Jan Gehl was invited to advise on what could be done to improve London’s run down streets and public spaces. The subsequent contribution of both Mayors: Ken Livingstone and his 100 squares programme and the securing of the London Olympics

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and Boris Johnson who introduced London’s Great Outdoors and a manifesto for public space, which aimed to improve London’s image as the world’s most green and liveable city are described. Green infrastructure and its wealth of environmental benefits have come to the fore. Alongside this, the transfer of public health responsibilities to local authorities in 2013 has led to a much-increased focus on the benefits of green space for both physical and mental health and wellbeing. All are illustrated with high profile examples such as the Olympic Park and Kings Cross, but also smaller incremental changes such as the Derbyshire Street Pocket Park SUDs system.

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The study looks at how Public Space improvements have supported London’s economic growth but also enhanced its character as a permeable city. The study also looked not only at what is happening, but also the policy and funding frameworks in place.  Looking forward it highlights the major issues of the intense pressure on the use of public space alongside funding which, given the drastic cuts in local authority budgets is likely to see the private sector playing an even more important role.

In the light of this work, the study makes 4 recommendations:

  • London needs a code of practice to ensure that public space is public for all
  • London needs more expertise in placemaking
  • Utility companies should not be allowed to wreck the public realm
  • More innovative solutions are needed to deliver better public space in low cost areas.

I imagine that most, if not all of those recommendations could equally apply to other major cities whose public space will not have had the same input and focus as London’s public realm. I couldn’t help but drift my thinking to Manchester, the city where I live and work (I have also previously worked in the management of the urban public realm as well as the management of social housing landscapes). Whilst it is clear that much work has been delivered on a similar timeline to London, and that high profile work is ongoing at certain locations such as St Peters Square, as well as activities encouraging community engagement and understanding through garden festivals such as Dig the City, it is also true that we could probably be doing more to ensure a more holistic, strategic public realm/green infrastructure approach.  Looking across the skyscape of concrete and hard landscaping, I don’t see many green roofs, green walls or rain gardens for example but the Urban farm system: the  Biospheric Foundation started in 2013 is a fascinating development.   Manchester is smart, innovative and unique. It would be great to see some of that robust energy going into making our approach to public realm something to be proud of.  Perhaps we could start with a Public Manchester exhibition and review?

 

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