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Maximising access to public open space

Easy access to quality green space improves quality of life for people living in towns and cities.

A busy Soho Square in the summer

A busy Soho Square in the summer. Photo by Stephen McLaren.

It is important to strike a balance between the sustainability benefits of higher densities and the need to ensure good access to quality public open space for residents, workers and visitors.

Establishing a strategic overview of public outdoor space provision at the regional scale can be invaluable in spatial planning at this scale. The South East region is the first to be subject to such an assessment. The Forestry Commission and Natural England have mapped and measured all the countryside in the South East region which is open to the public. The assessment shows that overall, nearly 140,000 hectares (345,000 acres – almost four times the area of the Isle of Wight) is available, though it also confirms that many households lack accessible natural green space within easy walking distance.

The proportion of ground area covered by parks and green space varies significantly between cities. The value of green space in economic and social terms is significant and urban areas with high proportions of green space are often also very popular places in which to live and work.
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Creating more green space in areas with a deficiency may require reviewing assets like roofs, floodplains and even car parks, which occupy large areas of land in cities. In severely restricted areas, even small amounts of green space work well, as at London Wall at Moorgate, or in the green bridge at Mile End Park. Birmingham is also looking at providing a new park at Eastside as part of a brownfield regeneration scheme.

High density development in cities has typically been lacking in private outdoor space, and this has generated a greater need for attractive public spaces. As a guide, 25 to 30 square metres of public green space should be provided per person as part of site developments (equivalent to the national minimum standard of 2.4 ha of public space per 1,000 population).

However, designers should also seek to maximise access to private outdoor space in higher density areas through the provision of roof gardens, outdoor terraces and balconies. Each unit should be planned with access to private outdoor space which is proportional to the type and size of unit, and all private outdoor spaces should be designed to be used. The space should be large enough to allow the expected occupancy of the unit to sit comfortably around a table to eat outside. The integration of ample outdoor private space provides an appealing architectural challenge, one which architects in Chicago are responding to in innovative ways.

Access to private outdoor space will become more and more important as the climate changes. The roles of private, public and shared/semi-public space are all important in cooling urban areas, providing effective drainage and ensuring that cities are comfortable places to live. New forms of provision may be needed in the future. A good example is the Accordia scheme in Cambridge. Here communal spaces are provided in the form of courtyards and internal avenues. Within these spaces, communal orchards have been planted with the intention that the space should also allow for food production.

CABE’s guidance on Open Space Strategies provides useful steer on ensuring good access to public space across a city or site. Appropriate local targets should be incorporated into Local Development Frameworks and relevant supporting documents.

Priority: maximise the potential of public space
Tags: public space, regions and subregions, cities and towns

CABE and Urban Practitioners
with the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield