Wednesday, 8 June 2011

GLA draws back from Mayor's pledge on Public Space

A disapppointing report from the GLA - Greater London Assembly - which draws back from the Mayor's pledge that public space in London should be genuinely public - ie. adopted by local authorities. The assumption of the GLA's review into public space is that it will inevitably be privately owned and that local authorities should negotiate with developers to ensure public access. Not the right way to go. I published a comment piece in Building Design, printed as part of a debate on the issue. My opponent makes the case very well I feel, by stating his view that the "the notion that when we go out in public we are exercising our role as citizen" is outdated!
As the magazine is subscription only the piece follows here:

Should local councils reclaim ownership of the public realm?

03 June 2011

Yes, says Anna Minton, the new report is a backwards step; while Crispin Kelly says shopping centres show the way forward.

Anna Minton, author of Ground Control

I wish I could welcome the London Assembly’s report on the city’s public space. At first sight it seems to say all the right things, that the public realm should be public, open and accessible to all. But the clue to the real message is in the title. The review is called Public Life in Private Hands, and that is exactly what it proposes.

Public space has become a surprisingly complex subject, as over the last decade in the UK virtually all new development has followed a model based on private ownership and private control, which includes the streets and public spaces within these new places.

This marked a significant change. Since the rise of local government and local democracy in the 19th century it has been customary for local authorities to “adopt” streets and public places.

In 2009 the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, grew so concerned about what he described as a “growing trend towards the private management of publicly accessible space” that he published a Manifesto on Public Space in which he explicitly stated that local authorities should continue to adopt streets and public places. But this report barely mentions this and appears to take it for granted that the ownership and control of places is changing because local authorities cannot afford to look after our streets and public places.

Instead it recommends that boroughs negotiate with developers to ensure public access is maintained in private spaces. This is a significant rowing back from the mayor’s manifesto and is no way to safeguard a genuinely public realm.

Crispin Kelly, developer, Baylight Properties

Management of public space hasn’t really caught up with the reality of what goes on there. The idea that public space needs to be managed and mothered by the state is left over from the notion that when we go out in public we are exercising our role as citizen.

In fact now we are largely going out for entertainment and shopping, and the codes developed for shopping centres have turned out to deliver both what the punter wants and the investor needs: safe, clean and orderly places. Now these codes can be applied more widely.

The fact that they are without character is accordingly inevitable. Interesting spaces have to be somewhat uncertain and edgy. They are unlikely to be strictly managed by anyone, public or private, and they are likely to transit from interesting to dull as they become successful.

Places may become attractive precisely because they don’t have the open arms of “inclusive access”. In my view, adoption by local authorities can just as often be a sterilising factor, leading to homogeneous management by the apparently unanswerable. At least private developers may have an eye on the market value of edginess. What is so hard is to preserve it. I would rather leave this calibration to the private sector.

For me a more fruitful discussion would be on the rules governing spaces which are not specifically public, but are shared by a smaller community: they have the potential for irrigating the dryness of the completely public space.