Streets need buildings and buildings need streets. Without streets we can’t get to destinations, mainly buildings but parks if we are lucky. So it makes good sense to plan, design and manage buildings, their uses, streets and public spaces together as much as possible. This means bringing together planning and highway/public space work. Planning often takes longer to get going than public realm schemes, but can also influence the place for longer so it is important to coordinate the phasing of both.
The best public realm schemes do this, understanding how building uses, orientation and designs effect movement patterns and the demands placed on public spaces. They also think about the future as the very fact that they are being built might change demands for building development and uses in the area. Good schemes build in resilience so the public realm can adapt to support the area in the longer term.
But too many schemes are singular in their outlook, for example proposing a new shared space square in an area with very low pedestrian demand or surrounding building activities to give it life, or suggesting a new intensively used building that will depending on buses and stations without seeing if there is capacity in the intervening public realm to cope. This kind of thinking can waste, money, people’s time and create long term problems for an area.
Sometimes we gauge the success of public realm schemes by the uplift in local home and businesses rents, but this can drastically change the nature of an area, particularly high streets. So linking investment and planning policies to manage and support change can be very important to local people and businesses.
Localism and Neighbourhood Planning have the potential to help bring public realm and planning issues together successfully. Local people and businesses understand their areas and see them as one place – streets, parks and homes, shops etc together, not the separate fiefdoms of different local authority departments. They can work with local authorities to steer both public realm investment and longer term planning policies, considering issues like how to manage knock on effects from investment.
The Localism Act 2011 sets out processes for neighbourhood planning. It is early days but it seems slower to take off in London than in other parts of the country, maybe in part because we do not have Parish and Town Councils to take things forward. But we do have a growing community of local groups with experience of working with their borough to direct change in their streets and parks. So, considering the benefits of linking planning and public realm work, a London route to good neighbourhood planning could involve local groups who have worked on public realm projects moving forward to look at longer term planning policies for the area. Encouraging and supporting local groups so that the experience and effort everyone has put in to the public realm scheme is not lost once it is finished could benefit everyone.
The schemes listed in this document, both completed and in hand, offer wonderful opportunities to improve public spaces and streets, but some could go further, ensuring they dovetail with buildings and uses and become a springboard for longer term investment, management and planning. So local authorities and local communities are strongly encouraged to:
• Think about their area as a single place including both buildings, parks, streets, bus stops, etc and make sure schemes are based on agreed, practical ideas of how the area as a whole should look, feel and work.
• Recognise that public realm investment may act as a catalyst encouraging other changes in and around the area. Plan for this setting out what you want and how you will manage it – don’t just let change happen to you.
• Build on successful local involvement in public realm schemes to help take forward neighbourhood planning for the area. Consider using the skills and links developed locally and in the council to take forward planning ideas for the longer term.