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Open the way to quality public realm projects

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The government should support design education if it wants top-class results, says Julian Lewis

My dad cut the top off his breakfast egg
with a flourish and a knife
And said ‘World class, Ian lad: world class!’
Maybe that’s all you need: flourish, optimism,
and something sharp
To shape your dreams

This extract from Ian McMillan’s charming poem ‘Welcome to a World Class Place’, commissioned by CABE to mark the recent launch of ‘World Class Places’, the government’s strategy for improving quality of place, usefully brings the high tone of the strategy to the breakfast table, and down to earth. Who wants a world class place? Is the benchmark for success really a tourist destination? When everywhere is designed to be exceptional, what happens to all the places between?

There are so many recent guidance documents for places, including CABE’s own recent ‘Open Space Strategies’, that one faces a risk of guidance overload. Nevertheless, this abundance means that attention is being directed towards improving what confronts all of us – our public realm. The government’s strategy is therefore to be welcomed.

But what does it actually demand? Almost every page of the strategy document seeks ‘quality’. But ‘quality’ means everything from low maintenance to happiness. In order to be able to define success, we need to scrutinise the qualities of ‘quality’, to understand not just how to design new set-piece spaces, but to work with existing conditions that would benefit from physical change.

To do this requires not only precision in understanding places and communities, but precision in meshing design with conceptual and spatial clarity.

At Bermondsey Square, a public realm design delivered by East Architects as part of a mixed-use development, we made it a priority to ensure that overlapping areas of ownership between private, borough and Transport for London sites were negotiated carefully to enable continuity of material, paving bond and lights fixed to buildings.Getting these overlaps and edges right means coercing those responsible for ownership and maintenance to agree on shared outcomes, which, although difficult to achieve, is perhaps the most important and most challenging part of any public realm project. This complexity of places and players is intrinsic to the day-to-day reality of ordinary spaces.

Among other sound proposals in the government guidance is a requirement to bring together planners, heritage officers, highways officers, designers and local leaders to deliver places. But what could the government actually do to encourage this? One way would be to support design education, not just in universities, but in schools. Then the very high quality of design that is asked for might stand a chance of being delivered.

Julian Lewis is director of East Architects

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