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Revitalising the UK’s public spaces

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Wednesday 29th June, 2016

With the news that the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames has approved a £400m redevelopment of Eden Walk shopping centre, Gavin Fancote considers exactly what’s needed for successful retail precincts and other public spaces – and looks at those who are getting it right around the country.

Eden Walk Shopping Centre in West London is the latest in a handful of public spaces to get the green light for a major redevelopment. Joint developers British Land and Universities Superannuation Scheme estimate that the scheme in Kingston’s town centre will see £400m invested[1] to improve its current facilities of a multi-storey car park, retailers and cafes and office space. The overhaul will include the addition of a cinema and new shops as well as 400 flats in the surrounding buildings. The project – like many others around the country – hopes to breathe new life into currently tired and dated facilities. But how can planners, architects and construction workers ensure the public gets the most out of these regeneration projects? After all, the focus is no longer on the traditional model of the high street – it’s not simply all about retail and purely functional spaces.

Re-imagining our town centres

There’s no denying there’s plenty being done to improve our everyday urban experiences. Whether or not the local authority or private customer really understands architects’ vision of what is needed for a public space to thrive is another matter entirely. It’s vital that we’re encouraging customers to consider the important ingredients of the public realm’s place in today’s society – and dissuade them from being driven purely by the commercial, more transactional element of the improvements.

The most thriving spaces are lined with pleasant surprises and reasons to keep walking and exploring, or simply to sit and take time out. Put simply, for a public space to appeal it needs to be a place where people enjoy spending their free time, not just a row of shops. As a result, local shops will naturally flourish. At the planning stage, we need to emphasise that the happiness of the people who use the space is paramount, and encourage clients not to dismiss unique-sounding ideas out of hand as it could be to the detriment of a well-designed, thriving public space. A good public space should prioritise distinctive character that creates a sense of place, it should aim to provide safety measures, look to include everyone, demonstrate diversity and be sustainable.

Which areas have done it best?

Cities will naturally show signs of age over time, and while urban renewal and redevelopment is vital to stimulate economy, it’s also important in maintaining that public sense of pride and, in turn, encouraging spaces to flourish. We’ve taken a look at some great regeneration projects from the last few years:

Clapham Old Town

A multi-million-pound budget was assigned to overhaul Clapham Old Town, and it has been one of the area’s most ambitious regeneration projects to date. It was named Best New Public Space at last year’s London Planning Awards to reward its efforts. The initiative aimed to tame traffic and create a space that was pedestrian-friendly. Changes included reallocating road space for public space, creating well-defined walking routes where pedestrians take priority and giving pubs and cafes some space to put extra seating outside. With extensive landscaping, cycle paths and stands and a public seating area, it’s now a valued local space and receiving much praise from its users.

High Street 2012, Newham

London’s oldest high street hugely benefited from its share of over £36m in funding, as the 2012 Olympics became the catalyst for a range of schemes that were collectively known as High Street 2012. It brought together 17 creative projects that generated a balance between pedestrians and vehicles, ensured people and places were connected and that the new areas would become places where people wanted to spend their time. Additional features included pop-up shops, a new green space, better lighting and drainage systems and – all in all – enhanced the public’s relationship with the spaces.

Gloucester Docks

The Gloucester City Vision came about in 2012, and cited delivering a flourishing economy and city centre, a vibrant evening economy and a city that is improved through regeneration and development. Improvements made to Back Badge Square, near the city’s Victoria Dock, were part of the wider regeneration of Gloucester Docks. The new-look public realm area now boasts a natural granite square and an events area that makes perfect use of public art, benches, recessed lighting and viewing lecterns. Next on the list for modernisation is Bakers’ Quay, for which work could begin any day now that will see the 3.5-acre brownfield site on the banks of Gloucester and Sharpness Canal brought to life.

Creating better spaces

Being an integral part of the design process, it’s vital we get urban planning right from day one, and really make that effort to encourage key decision makers to see – and trust – our vision. Perhaps it’s feasible – in certain circumstances – to actually take the client to view some of the products we’re planning to specify in an attempt to add more emotive value to discussions. We should be looking into the correlation between time spent and money spent on enhancing a public space so that we can qualify the values of a successful one. A good public space has the chance to become the backbone of society – we simply need to make sure all thoughts are aligned and that the whole design and build prioritises the public’s needs above all else.

[1] http://www.constructionenquirer.com/2016/05/27/green-light-for-400m-kingston-town-centre-revamp/

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