Sponsored by Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Group
Professor Matthew Carmona, The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London
Re-theorising Contemporary Public Space: A New Narrative and a New Normative
About the research
This research responds to other academic work and commentary that has suggested that public spaces are being increasingly privatised, segregated and commercialised (or sometimes neglected) – that they are becoming 'public spaces in name only'. It tests whether this is true by examining new and regenerated public spaces in London, given the pressures that the global property market brings to bear on London as an international city.
The research reports on a major multi-year study called the Capital Spaces project, which used a variety of methods including mapping public spaces across London, on-site case studies examining the characteristics and uses of 14 public spaces, complemented by surveys of their users.
"[D]espite initial impressions, the doom-laden critiques of public space are typically far from the mark… In fact, the sorts of large-sale homogenisation, privatisation, securitisation, commercialisation, sanitisation, and exclusionary and formula-driven approaches to public space that are so criticised in the literature prove to be largely illusory in London, at least as regards the often over-inflated claims regarding their impact on the creation, regeneration and user experience of public space."
The findings challenge idealistic views of public space and the over-generalised and pessimistic conclusions found in some previous research. Instead, this research takes a positive and pragmatic approach to public space, one that recognises the diversity of public spaces and their multiple roles, owners and types of users.
This research was published in the Journal of Urbanism and is available here.
Implications for policy and practice
The research suggests that we need to recognise how good public spaces evolve over time, and so we need a balanced approach that recognises that they can be 'positively invaded' by other uses. Good public spaces, among other things, evolve in their uses, are diverse (but not intentionally exclusionary), delineated (but not segregated), social, free to access (whether publicly or privately owned), engaging, comfortable and meaningful.
There are opportunities for the renewal of public spaces from private-sector innovation in urban design-led (or at least urban design-aware) development, and also the increasing political and public sector interest in public spaces, accompanied by some investment despite the pressure on public finances.
"Great article: a really important piece of work challenging some of the received wisdom about how spaces have becoming privatised …[W]ell theorised, good empirically and came to sound judgements based on the evidence. [A]lso a good read."