Not only did Demos offer a better than usual launch last night for their research on public space, but the press release also offers a neat summary and so reduces the blogging effort for those attending. Double thanks, folks.
Car boot sales, supermarket cafes and municipal allotments are among Britain’s most-loved public spaces according to a report published today by Demos, the leading democratic think tank. People Make Places: Growing the public life of cities finds that across Britain’s cities, a wealth of characters – from ‘Mall Walkers’ and ‘Home Birds’ to ‘Displayers’ and ‘Public Spirits’ – are helping to shape public spaces in the most unlikely places.
The authors Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims did a lively double act at the launch with plenty of photos and not too many words on slides, and the panel were brief with comments and sparky in their response to the audience. Drinks before and after, and a video art installation that played our persons back on the walls with distortions alternately mellow and manic added to the buzz (right).
You can read more here, and download the book free. One of the main themes in the research is the need to strike a balance between over-controlled and arid public spaces, and spaces that may be lively, but in which their users are segregated by choice or management ... and so have little interaction. Rules like "no dogs" may do something for hygene but remove one of the main ways through which people find excuses to talk to each other. The report says:
“The current focus of both urban designers and city planners on creating grand plazas and iconic architecture ignores the role of the people who are meant to use them,” say the report’s authors. “A new town square can be carefully, expensively designed, but there’s no guarantee that people will come and use it. Architects and planners need to start with people; they must understand public space from the perspective of those who live and work in towns and cities.”
It adds that the research highlights a number of typical places found in British cities regarded by people as most welcoming. These included:
The car boot sale – Where people feel comfortable passing the time of day with strangers, but are also likely to bump into people they know. There is also a sense of novelty and surprise in the possibility of ‘discovering’ a bargain.
Supermarket cafes – People are drawn by the welcoming atmosphere, and find escape from boredom and are able to relax and linger as they take a break from the hubbub of shopping.
Allotments – Bringing together people of different generations and ethnic backgrounds, allotment regulars report a strong sense of companionship, coupled with the pleasure of learning, often done through trading gardening tips and produce.
The arts centre – Users appreciate the high degree of diversity, and the tolerance of people who are often not tolerated elsewhere. At the same time, cutting edge film and art helps confer a sense of status and esteem.
The report argues that the best public spaces are vibrant and welcoming because they are well used, and that this vibrancy is created by people and communities themselves. It is the use of public space, rather than its ownership, physical design or aesthetic appearance that makes a place public, and any space has the potential to play this role.
There was perhaps a little over-emphasis on do-what-you-will, which prompted George Nicholson, who has management roles both with the successful Borough Market just up the road from the launch, and a local park, to warn again the belief that doing away with rules will lead to safe places that work for all. George does good pictures too.
Steven Clift, e-democracy guru and champion of virtual public spaces, was with me in the audience and confirmed that it is precisely rules and agreed codes of behaviour that make community issues forums a success.
The report started lots of conversations - which was great - but I couldn't help wondering how long these would continue. The report's funder, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, produces enormous amounts of social research which can seldom be faulted on its methodology, scope, editing, or the generosity of free downloads. But does it make much difference?
The issue in many of the areas researched by JRF these days is not so much knowing the problem, but getting the public agencies who can do something about it engaged and working together. I fear that the more research you produce, the more Government and other agencies can say - "ah yes, we know about that and are working on a comprehensive strategy". Few people remember to come back a year after the launch and ask what actually happened. Most funders are correctly strong on funding evaluation of local projects to find if they were value for money. Is anyone evaluating the results of research programmes? Would any think tank propose that?(Addendum: JRF have funded a couple of pieces of work I have done, and they are Very Nice People).
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