12 October 2020
By William Butcher
Public space as the “glue of the city” – what we have learned in lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live, work, and play in our cities. It doesn’t take long to realise the scale of its impact, as travel plans are cancelled, shops closed, and people banned from gathering in large numbers. Our society is adjusting to the new norm of working from home, which some have embraced and has been proven challenging to others. It has also changed the way we move through our cities. Instead of bypassing large areas underground or in fast moving vehicles, slow modes of transport and people’s immediate local context are starting to play a larger role in our daily activities.
Public space is not limited to the large parks and central squares of London, but rather, it is the intricate network that connects these public spaces, buildings and the people inhabiting them. It is often the first thing we experience when leaving our front doors. Traditionally, these spaces have been left to the rules of efficiency and functionality. Ease of vehicular movement, safety, maintenance, and cost are the main considerations, whilst more humane properties such as play, meeting and the benefits of greenery are put on the back burner.
During the recent lockdown months, public space experienced a renaissance; streets which once seemed unenjoyable and were to be avoided at all costs, are reclaimed by cyclists, runners, and walkers. Pedestrians are rediscovering their neighbourhoods, finding a renewed love for local shops, which previously many had been indifferent about. The important role green spaces play for physical and mental health has also become acutely obvious- the fact these were one of the last places open during the pandemic signals how vital they are. However, rather than being viewed as such in planning policies, they are currently deemed a discretionary service or an amenity, rather than statutory service – something that is nice to have, but not essential. Ultimately, the pandemic has highlighted the need to protect and enhance our civic commons, especially for those areas where there is otherwise limited access to nature.
Our revived interest in more localised living and working, and desire to reconnect with our natural surroundings resonates with the sentiments expressed by Carolyn Steel in her latest book, Sitopia. She calls for us to rediscover the way that food binds us to each other and the natural world, and in doing so live healthier and more sociable lives. Accessible community assets, like community-run shops, pocket parks, cafes and workplaces, creates the opportunity for meaningful engagement and interactions, and is what defines a self-sufficient, healthy and happy city.
At KLH, we engage with clients and design teams to ensure projects deliver social value to residents and the wider community. One project which embodies this approach is GS8’s Orford Mews, a 9-home development in Walthamstow which provides indoor and outdoor community space to be defined and used by the new community as they wish – however on-site composting, edible planting and a ‘swap-shop’ for sharing of DIY tools and gardening equipment will be provided.
This zero-waste development (recently featured in Architects’ Journal) aims to provide the facilities to allow a sense of community to develop amongst residents. Another example is the East Wick and Sweetwater development near Stratford where ‘liveable streets’ are incorporated within the masterplan. These are shared spaces between building blocks, which provide access to homes but remain car-free. They are well lit, overlooked and furnished with soft landscaping, planting and play elements to provide a safe and health environment for social interaction. If you’d like to talk to us about how to integrate social value into your project while reducing carbon emissions, please get in touch!