Public space has always been central to the political and social life of a city. Streets and squares are places for discussion and demonstrations, for formal and informal meetings. Public spaces by their essence are democratic places, where citizens have rights defined only by national laws. They are places to congregate and places for cities to define their character; to be generous and to show off. Erosion of public space, whether through loss of ownership or poor quality of design or maintenance, erodes the very fabric of society.
Public space should not be seen just as an amenity for urban areas, but as an essential element of urban infrastructure – part of the transport system, part of the ecosystem, part of the health service and – most importantly – part of the daily life of every citizen. And its importance has never been greater than in London today, as we hope to prove in Design for London’s (DfL’s) London Open City exhibition, which opens today (6 March) at Somerset House and will be followed in the summer by a public-realm strategy document.
It is possible to bring together landscape and movement strategies, and a current example of this is the East London Green Grid, promoted by DfL (AJ 13.12.07). In this project, green spaces are linked together to facilitate better connectivity and movement; to provide a robust design framework for the population growth in the Thames Gateway; and to connect the city with its green spaces and countryside.
London’s urban development has not been a planned process. Relative peace and prosperity allowed London to grow outwards and dismantle its city defences earlier than most other European cities. It was able to absorb outlying villages and was selective about where it built, often leaving spaces untouched to create a low-density mosaic of buildings and green spaces. Royal patronage was superseded by the estates of the aristocracy and by the enlightened planning of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which invested in London’s infrastructure and parks to create the framework we have inherited today.
One of the defining features of this process is that power has rarely been concentrated on a city-wide scale. Decisions to build and shape the city have been largely taken by individuals, privately funded, and negotiated and brokered with others. This negotiated urbanism gives London a pragmatism and dynamism and is alien to more formal approaches to planning.
This history of piecemeal development and absorption lends London’s public spaces their almost infinite variety. London resists all attempts to define a single style of street, park or neighbourhood. The cityscape does, however, include some common features: terraced housing, small squares, and local centres. Uniformity and blandness of design are not options to be pursued in London. Great and lasting design solutions can often be very subtle and have a deep understanding of context and a sensitive use of materials. There are only so many icons a city can have before it becomes a theme park.