Making space in cities

We lived in Leeds for a while when I was a child. Whenever we'd drive past the Town Hall, my dad would tell us that the magnificent building - I particularly liked the statues of the lions - showed the pride its Victorian founders had had in their city.

I have been sent a thoughtful book called Transforming Cities: Revival in the Square by Nick Corbett, which takes this simple idea - pride in the public realm - and applies the concept to public space.

A lot of the excitement about modern urban renewal is focused on new buildings - the Sage in Gateshead; the Bullring in Birmingham...

But the argument of the book is that healthy communities depend on shared space and not just shared buildings. (By contrast tyrannical regimes tend to hate the idea of public shared space: the book points out that General Franco placed strict rules and control over the use of public squares).

Public space creates community - from public art to cafe culture.

The planning system gives Local Authorities the power to make a difference, and they need to use it.

posted on 22 March 2006 15:00 by David Miliband
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# 23 March 2006 02:28 John C wrote:
re: Making space in cities

Hi, this is interesting and important (and a belated welcome from me for this innovation). I grew up near Leeds, though actually in Kirklees, and Leeds is a great example of what a progressive authority can do in terms of renewing the heart of a town. The outskirts in this case proving more challenging, but not a lost cause!

When I first started working in Local Government I was deeply puzzled as to why in this secular (not to say PC) age so many grants were being made to churches - eventually it dawned on me that this was the only public place that many rural communities had, and they were largely capital grants to ensure disabled access.

Another interesting publication on a related theme is "touching the state" from the design council, about how form and context affect citizen-state encounters. I think the greatest challenge for the next few years is combining open access to public space with public confidence that those spaces are a safe place to be - the public realm is in retreat in many areas, and that's sad.

Two minor things also - for those who use Livejournal as an aggregator I've set up a syndication of your RSS feed here, hope that's ok: and finally <a href = "">something you might enjoy</a> from my visit home at Christmas.


# 23 March 2006 13:35 Run Seven wrote:
re: Making space in cities - Growth Areas


What is your take on how the ODPM-designated Growth Areas are facing up to the challenge of having to design communities from scratch? It's particularly relevent in Milton Keynes, where the grid square setup means that new developments are automatically somewhat disconnected (at least psychologically) from the surrounding housing and shops in the other grid squares, but also in the Thames Gateway, Ashford, etc. It is definitely important to work out how the 'city square' concept can be best be applied so that these new communities come together and flourish.

Run Seven.

P.S. The Town Hall in Leeds is indeed amazing - the interior is just as spectacular as the exterior. The city is blessed with a number of well-planned public spaces around the centre of town.


# 25 March 2006 18:45 Ian wrote:
re: Making space in cities

The huge impact made by people like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, Clayton/Dobson/Grainger in Newcastle that produced buyildings like Leeds Town Hall simply couldn't happen now. It appears that the concept of 'public service' no longer has the same standing as it did then. A pity...


# 27 March 2006 16:43 David Miliband wrote:
re: Making space in cities

Run Seven - this is an important point because Milton Keynes is in some ways an exemplar of environmentally sustainable development. I've met representatives from Milton Keynes and am holding a departmental event there in May so I'll be able to have a look myself. My adviser Tim Williams was also in Milton Keynes on Friday and I will ask him to look into this too.


# 29 March 2006 17:24 Nick Corbett wrote:
re: Making space in cities

David, good to hear you getting the word on the street. Thanks for looking at the book. It's true that if people are to appreciate notions of civic identity, unity, equality, and respect for others, etc. there must be a place where they can sometimes go and experience a diverse cross section of public life. Being an Arsenal season ticket holder you probably get a good dose of this already, but it’s also one of the functions of public space - and especially city squares. Squares are a microcosm of society in action and they can bring people together for a more positive, shared experience of city life.

Most of the big cities have proved they can do urban renaissance but the application is still very patchy and every city has great swathes of neglected space. So what do we do next? The public realm goes from regenerated city centre sites to the front door step of every resident and so if we are to secure the well-being of whole cities we need a new vision for all public space. A local authority could roll out justice by delivering a public realm strategy – this being a vision document and a practical design manual to coordinate everyone involved in the design and management of public space, from the director of planning and highways to the traffic warden.

Public Realm Strategies could be used to deliver a degree of equality. At the moment you often see a lot of clutter and advertisement hoardings etc. along the streets where poorer people live. This can rub salt into a wound, especially when these residents see a completely different value system being applied in better off areas. The pavement could be a great leveller and an up-lifter - it should encourage a general sense of belonging and participation. If the same value system and thoughtful design codes were applied to all public space it might do a lot for social cohesion. Perhaps this is another form of civic renewal that we need elected mayors to deliver on?


# 31 March 2006 15:55 Anna Minton wrote:
re: Making space in cities

Hi David,
I wonder if you've come across my report published last week by RICS, 'What kind of world are we building? The privatisation of public space'. It deals with the changing nature of shared public space and posits the view that the public realm is becoming ever more managed and controlled, to the detriment of local culture and identity. For example, one of the case studies cited is the Paradise Street redevelopment in Liverpool which will see 34 streets in the city owned and managed by the developer who is to replace traditional rights of way with 'public realm arrangements' policed by 'sherriffs' with the power to ban various behaviours ranging from rollerblading and eating to political demonstrations. This is but one example of the myriad huge regeneration schemes under construction across the country which will be managed in a similar way. It seems to me that this type of control over the environment - and the consequent sterility which results - is a key reason behind the loss of civic pride in places. I wonder what you think.
Anna Minton