How global crises are changing the shape of our cities

Updated 8th September 2017
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global crises improving public spaces
How global crises are changing the shape of our cities
Written by Matthew Carmona
The chair of the first RIBA International Prize grand jury, renowned British architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Richard Rogers joined CNN Style as guest editor for November 2016. He commissioned features on a subject close to his heart: the democratization of public space.

Matthew Carmona is a professor of planning and urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning. All opinions expressed are his own.
Winston Churchill famously said: "Never let a good crisis go to waste." Since 2008 we seem to have moved with effortless ease from one global crisis to the next: debt, financial, Eurozone, Japanese Tsunami, Libya, Syria and ISIS, migratory, China slowdown, US governmental, oil price, Brexit, and US political.
Reflecting Churchill's maxim, it is precisely at times like these that, historically, we have seen the greatest flowering of ideas and practices relating to that most quintessentially shared part of our built environment: our public spaces.
Over the last eight years or so, whilst the world's attention has been firmly fixed on the big economic, political and security questions of our time, in the UK we have again witnessed a period of significant innovation in our approach to public spaces -- one that will have a long-lasting impact on our everyday lives.
So what are the major changes we have seen over the course of these difficult years? Let's use the global melting pot and urban laboratory that is London to illustrate 10 trends that are apparent in public spaces both there and globally.

1. Erosion of the everyday physical fabric

In London, as elsewhere, the first cuts to be made in our times of austerity have been to the budgets for managing the city's public spaces. Whilst, at first, this can go unnoticed, the impact is cumulative. Ultimately, decline in the public physical fabric is closely associated with feelings of alienation and insecurity as citizens progressively experience an uglier and seemingly less loved environment.

2. Space as empowerment

"Sensation" (2003) by Damien Hirst on The Line art walk
"Sensation" (2003) by Damien Hirst on The Line art walk Credit: Courtesy Damien Hirst/Luis Veloso/Science Ltd
Austerity is not without its benefits. Biodiversity can flourish in those newly unkempt pavement cracks, and community action can blossom to help fill the public funding gaps. In London, crowd-funding is being used to finance innovative public projects such as The Line art walk along the River Lee, and some communities are taking over and transforming unloved spaces themselves, producing flowers and vegetables out of abandonment.

3. Reasserting democratic space

Around the world, movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter have reminded us of the critical democratic role of public space. In London, Occupy, Stop the War camps, and anti-austerity marches have forcefully reasserted the historical role of public space for demonstration and political purposes, although the legal limits of this have had to be redefined and do not (it seems) include the right to permanent occupation.

4. Big business, private spaces

In a global city such as London, development is increasingly funded by footloose international money. Arguments rage around whether associated public spaces are too commercial, corporate, securitized, sanitized and exclusionary in feel, and therefore not really public at all. The picture on the ground is more nuanced and complex (and always has been), but this is easily lost in the sort of polemical arguments that ensue.

5. Valuing the temporary and exploratory

"Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" (2014) at the Tower of London
"Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" (2014) at the Tower of London Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Temporary interventions across London offer a wholly different vibe. These include "meanwhile" uses in places awaiting redevelopment, such as the King's Cross Skip Garden; occasional activities, including Regent Street's traffic-free days; cultural interventions, like the 2014 Blood Swept Lands ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London; and experimentation -- quickly and cheaply trying out ideas, such as new cycle lanes -- before setting them in stone.

6. Infrastructure as place-making

Ultimately, a growing city, such as London, also requires new, permanent, heavy infrastructure. But only now is a realization dawning that these huge investments are not just bits of technical engineering, but also pieces of city-building with huge place-making potential. The commitment to delivering high-quality public space around the 40 new Crossrail stations opening across London from 2017 represents an obvious case in point.

7. Greening to densify

Public spaces can help to facilitate long-term processes of densification. In London, huge regeneration projects, such as those at Stratford and Nine Elms, are being planned around the city's first new parks since Victorian times. Similarly, the regeneration (aka replacement) of post-war housing estates are substituting unloved "indeterminate land oozes" (as Jane Jacobs once described them) with rich, green infrastructure.

8. Re-balancing public space

In London (as elsewhere), streets and spaces have suffered decades of mismanagement during which priority has been given to traffic over people. Based on the simple idea that streets are places (for people), as well as corridors for movement, gradually, very gradually, a re-balancing of street space is occurring, with more space given over to pedestrians and cyclists, and less to vehicles.

9. Space as spectacle

The proposed Thames Garden Bridge
The proposed Thames Garden Bridge Credit: Garden Bridge Trust
Public space is also being used to promote the global brand that is London. The proposed new Thames Garden Bridge, and the private and ticketed (albeit free) public space on top of the Walkie Talkie tower are both examples of this phenomena. They provide new ways of seeing and experiencing the city with associated knock-on public interest or commercial benefits.

10. Management by cappuccino

Finally, our changing lifestyles (both large and small) are impacting on why we visit public spaces, and how they function and are funded. Internet shopping is driving local shopping streets to become places of leisure, moving away from a more utilitarian function. Pop-up coffee vendors are appearing on every street corner, leading many to wonder when peak coffee will be reached. Management by cappuccino is now a fact of life.
As the evolving faces of our public spaces demonstrate, this is an exciting moment in the history of our cities, one in which rapid and unpredictable economic, social and political change is impacting directly on how we design, use and manage these places. I, for one, would conclude that the direction of travel, if not every outcome, is more positive than negative, but we need to remain vigilant and continue to argue for a vital, equitable, beautiful, sustainable and truly public, public realm.