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A debate on civic space in the 21st Century

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According to Sunand Prasad, architect and CABE commissioner, the concept of 'civic space' is the product of 'that moment of faith in centralised government' during the years of the welfare state, which found such optimistic architectural expression in the populist aesthetic of the Festival of Britain. But for Prasad, the concept has become tarnished by its 'centralist, top-down tenor'; just as the South Bank Centre, described by Deyan Sudjic as 'a village hall for the city', has become tainted by accusations of elitism, corporatism and disregard for that sense of localised identification.

The three-way debate on the nature of civic space in the 21st century was appropriately sited at the heart of the South Bank Centre, amid attempts to resolve the tense situation created by the Centre's decision to shortlist two practices for a redevelopment of Jubilee Gardens and Hungerford car park, which few local residents actually desire. It brought to light the fact that there can be no easy definition of 'civic space', or any kind of space, for contesting interests lie at the heart of the evolution of landscapes. In particular, it exposed the vacuity of current consultancy jargon (notably the concept of the 'destination' location) in the context of a society where 'the underclass is turning on itself in the struggle over space', to quote a representative from Hackney's regeneration department.

According to Prasad, civic space could have a 'glorious future', if only we could work out an effective way of politically engaging the local with national government, and vice versa - possibly by converting the planning system from a regulatory to an enabling one. Film-maker Patrick Keiller pointed out that the dominant debate about civic space, often mistakenly merged with a more general idea of 'public' space, is couched purely in terms of pleasure (-seeking and fulfilment). But, as he says, that can often be found in unexpected places never intended to function in such a role.

It was sociologist Saskia Sassen, inevitably, who focused on what could be the key issue, especially following the May Day demonstrations and the negative press response they elicited. Identifying globalisation and digitalisation as the 'major dynamics afoot in the world today', she suggested that we have to 'rethink the connection between economics and civic space'. She spoke of the city environment in terms of 'sited materialities with global span', or, 'a repositioning of fragments of urban space on the global circuit'. These elements within the city - and there are more and more of them - are decisively 'not part of the local', but different, produced by an elite, increasingly autonomous, supra-national business community which 'feels it can make claims on cities'. In this context, she suggests, future civic space must be something to do with creating space 'where our differences can gather'.

Civic Space in the 21st century was part of the series 'Fifty Years of the Royal Festival Hall: Looking to the Future of Civic Space', jointly organised by the RIBA and the RFH.

vital statistics

Non-fatal fire casualties fell by 1 per cent between 1998-1999.The number of fire deaths also fell from 668 in 1998 to 663 in 1999 (including 31 deaths in the Paddington rail crash).

63 per cent of domestic fires occurred in houses without smoke detectors.

While 81 per cent of homes have smoke alarms, alarms operated in only 24 per cent of fires.

Coroners' verdicts in 2000 indicate that 2,490 male deaths were attributable to industrial diseases, against 101 deaths of women.

The 10-lane, cable-stayed Leonard P Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, on site and due for completion in four months, will be the world's widest cable-stayed bridge.

By 2016 the population of London should reach 8.1 million - similar to the population in the capital in 1961.Thirteen per cent of London's population is aged 65 or over and 3 per cent is over 80.

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