Plazamania: who is public space for?

Thursday 17 September, 18.00 until 20.00, The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow G1 3NU UK Satellites

This event is free but please reserve a place via Eventbrite.

A dream-team of Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley has proposed a new bridge over the Thames that seemed to have ticked all the right-on boxes: it is solely for pedestrian access, it has impeccable environmental credentials and it creates a new park over the river. But protests have erupted over the fact that it is only notionally ‘public’, because it will host corporate events and close early on weekdays. The Guardian has described it as a ‘privately managed tourist attraction’.

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 an insistence that notionally private spaces should be opened up to the public. Author Anna Minton suggests that we should ‘emphasize the social value and social consequences of schemes for communities’. Defending ‘the public square’ seems to be fashionable.

Emboldened by the Occupy movements’ battles over public space in favour of the disenfranchised, author Douglas Murphy says that public space ‘gets ever more murkily private; we need to redress the balance of who owns what’. Acting on behalf of the public, architects are ticking the box to provide public space purely as a technical exercise to gain planning permission.

Ironically, while public space is making a resurgence, there seems to be less recognition and more proscription about what and who it is for. Often these places 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 – designed specifically with the desire to encourage public engagement – in which 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’.

Locally in Glasgow, George Square was infamously not deemed worthy of a design-led redevelopment and public space around the City Chambers remains a carpark rather than accessible public space. Stalled Spaces funded by the Glasgow City Council repurposes land waiting for development in the form of temporary public parks, allotments, exhibitions and outdoor exercise space. Do pop-up shared spaces offer a short reprieve rather than a solution to the failure in provision of shared public space in Glasgow?

Lots more so-called public spaces lie barren and unloved. 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 other public squares are only lively because orchestrated events artificially make sure that they are. Gateshead’s Baltic Exchange plaza, for example, is primarily home to buskers, while Birmingham City Library’s public square has being ‘revamped’ to provide space for ‘events and happenings on the square’. Meanwhile, a recent Joseph Rowntree report states that it is somewhere ‘to allow people to “do nothing”’.

Whatever it is, public space is often seen as an unqualified good – as 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?

Dr Katrina Brown
director, The Common Guild

Jonathan Charley
director of cultural studies, Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde

Raffaele Esposito
architect and urban designer, DRS / Glasgow City Council

Penny Lewis
lecturer, Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, Robert Gordon University; co-founder, AE Foundation

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Sarah Strang founder, CIVIC ROOM

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