The movement to democratise London’s public spaces

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre in South London

The way that London’s developers and designers create public spaces is starting to change. A new movement involving a relatively small group of people, many of them women, believe the city’s urban spaces could be designed to support their local communities a lot better than they are now.

They’re challenging the way that projects in the public realm are briefed, procured and planned.

“How do we make cities and who are the voices that are being heard about what gets built? In the planning and architectural communities, there is a new wave of trying to open up that conversation,” says Alicia Pivaro, an urbanist and design teacher.

The innocuously-titled Neighbourhood Forums, introduced by David Cameron’s Localism Act in 2011, are supporting this diversity agenda. They enable communities to develop plans for their locality that are formally recognised in the planning process.

In Camden, the Camley Street Neighbourhood Plan, which covers the area north of Kings Cross station, has voiced community concerns and influenced council plans. In south London, VitalOKR, a grassroots group of people living and working near the Old Kent Road, is trying to influence Southwark Council’s planning agenda.

Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds fronted a rebellion against Lendlease’s plans to redevelop Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, South London, back in 2014—although that was more rogue effort than Forum. “They couldn’t stop the huge Lendlease project, but they definitely saved a lot of trees on the site and shaped the agenda to ensure greener spaces and community growing spaces. But it wasn’t the ideal process,” says Pivaro.

Much of the energy has gone into figuring out how to incorporate diverse voices at an early enough stage to influence the brief. The aim is to head off the corporate architectural styles that so often results from top-down development by councils and developers.

Deborah Saunt of DSDHA, the practice behind Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, says: “You have to go out and talk to people and push away your preconceptions. A lot of architects and designers find it very, very hard to let down their guard and to empathise with the range of often contradictory opinions.”

The Vauxhall project included the experiences of the LGBT community, night-clubbers, families with young children, sixth formers from the local school and professionals working nearby. “You have to be open to input and not to say ‘oh my God, this is too complicated’. If you want to democratise public space you have to respect all of those opinions,” says Saunt.

In Islington, the Central Street masterplan was shaped by a parkour workshop for 13- to 15-year-olds organised by designers We Made That. “We wanted to understand how young people could interact with the space in a way that wasn’t just walking down the street. It looked grey and concrete-y, but seeing it through their eyes we realised it could be incredibly playful,” says Holly Lewis, co-founding partner.

Built-ID, start-up technology firm, is recruiting new voices to property consultations by promoting digital surveys on Facebook and Instagram. “It leads to a more diverse consultation of a wider cross-section of society and not just people who have the time and inclination to go to exhibition meetings,” says founder Savannah de Savary. The firm translates adverts into Urdu and Arabic to connect to hard-to-reach groups and is much better at garnering views from busy working people compared to traditional exhibitions. It’s poised to go live on a consultation about Petticoat Lane Market redevelopment on behalf of the City of London and Tower Hamlets.

City Hall’s decision to embed social value and diversity into its procurement process has nudged diversity higher up the agenda for developers and designers. The measure can now tip the balance on winning or losing a project.

Saunt says: “They’re asking things like, ‘Who’s working in your practice?’ I’ve heard that some people are saying, ‘What do you mean?’ They can no longer just talk about how the project will increase diversity. No, no—it’s, ‘What are you doing personally and as an organisation to make life better for other people who want to participate in the project and in your profession?’ There’s nothing like that relationship between pressure and profit, and being asked those kind of ethical questions at the point of competition, to really help sharpen the mind.”


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.