From plazamania to Garden Bridge: why the fuss about public space?

Sunday 18 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Battle for our Cities

Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley have proposed a new bridge over the Thames that ticks all the right-on boxes: it is solely for pedestrian access, has impeccable environmental credentials and creates a new park over the river. But protests have erupted that claim the bridge is only notionally public due to hosting corporate events and closing early on weekdays. Similarly, architecture critic Rowan Moore bemoans that the public Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street – located 35 storeys in the air – cannot be ‘public when you have to go through airport-style security and book at least three days in advance’.

It has long been a worry that public spaces have become steadily privatised – but nowadays, there is also an insistence that notionally private spaces be opened up to the public. Yet there seems more proscription about what and who public space is for. Often, these spaces are seen as ‘catalysts’ for something unspecified. While Granary Square in Camden has generated some liveliness around its restaurants and water-features, there are many more designated public areas where the public are noticeably absent. Newcastle’s Blue Carpet remains empty and grim; King’s Cross station’s public realm was branded ‘dull and uninspiring’; and the Project for Public Places notes that Tate Modern’s plaza ‘is a study in aggravating design’.

As a result, some try desperately to give their plazas meaning. Cardiff’s Central Square, for example, simply proposes to ‘give a positive impression to people visiting the capital’, while Birmingham City Library’s public square has being ‘revamped’ to provide space for ‘events and happenings on the square’. Whatever it is, public space tends to be seen as an unqualified good, a designated realm where people can come together as a public. But who comprises the public that designers and politicians constantly invoke? Why has public space provision become so ubiquitous? Who is it for and should there be so much of it?

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Rowan Moore
architecture critic, Observer; author, Why We Build

Daniel Moylan
former deputy chairman of Transport for London; Conservative Councillor; co-chairman, Urban Design London

Jack Self
contributing editor, Architectural Review; director, the REAL Foundation

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies; founding member of New Narratives
Recommended readings
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Controlling the Commons: How Public Is Public Space?

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Jeremy Németh, Urban Affairs Review, 2012

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