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Rethink: Covid-19 puts urban realm in the design spotlight

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Pippa Goldfinger

Public space was one of the first aspects of life to assert its importance during lockdown. How can we maintain and enhance its availability and value now?

As we emerge blinking into the new living-with-Covid world it’s evident that the economic carnage wrought will require a longer recovery time than the dread disease that has caused it. Councils reliant on income from tourism and business rates are having to re-prioritize budgets, city centres are empty and public transport is a no-go service for many. And yet there are glimmers of hope: for years the writing has been on the wall for retail-only town centres, city-leaders have been pondering the political fall-out of limiting car use and public health professionals have been warning of the combined evils of poor air quality and an inactive population. Now the push-pull effect of fear of public transport and the requirement of space for social distancing has seen streets given over to cyclists, pedestrians and more recently (with planning laws relaxed) areas that cafés, bars and restaurants can occupy.

A global pandemic has forced through this worldwide experiment in tactical urbanism and shown how much nicer our cities and towns can be when liberated from the demands of the car (moving and stationary) but will these changes stick or will post-pandemic agoraphobia lead us to abandon the city centres and retreat to an atomised car-dependent future in the suburbs? And what does this latest shock in a long line of horrible surprises mean for the long-vision-masterplan-approach potentially vulnerable to external biological, environmental and economic forces? We spoke to four architects to get their views on how the current crisis is affecting how we view the urban realm: Anna Liu of Tonkin LiuCarl Turner from Turner Works, Hilton Barnfield's James Barnfield and Juliet Bidgood of Design West and RIBA client advisor.

Anna Liu
Architect and director of Tonkin Liu

Public realm has become our lifeline during Covid-19.

People have felt the detrimental effects of social isolation and lack of access to outdoor spaces. You can see the joy on their faces when they are out in public spaces, catching other people’s eyes and smiling and exercising under trees. More than ever, public spaces are used for gatherings and activities.

Having always lamented how public spaces in the UK are under-used, compared with spaces in Asia which are effectively outdoor living rooms, outdoor tearooms and outdoor gyms for all ages, I have seen how this has changed in the UK during the lockdown.

As architects we should design beautiful, non-generic spaces that celebrate trees and planting, birds and bees, and the local community. We should try to tap into the rituals of the local community, how people move through a space and use it, and use this knowledge to shape the spaces and create future opportunities. We should also value the ecological role a public realm has in the larger city.

At Tonkin Liu we use a methodology called Asking Looking Playing Making, which helps us to interrogate the brief, place, and people, and to drill down into values rather than listing priorities. Time and again this methodology yields very place-specific insights that enable us to create place-specific concepts.

Every community has idiosyncrasies that should be identified early on, to inform the character of the design. Therein lies the social capital for the community. At Great Yarmouth, as part of an RIBA Future Place project with the council, Tonkin Liu will carry out an analysis of the seafront and propose inclusive improvements to the public realm celebrating local culture, heritage, and innovation. Here we learned many things from our research and our public consultation workshop. We learned that the town has a strong lineage of performing arts, with the amazing Hippodrome near the seafront that hosts circus performances. We learned about the strong contemporary art communities, and the fantastic Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust.

Greening Great Yarmouth Case Study, Greening Symbols, RIBA Future Places, 2020.
Greening Great Yarmouth Case Study, Greening Symbols, RIBA Future Places, 2020. Credit: Tonkin Liu

The Trust has preserved more than 20 buildings that are important heritage assets, has revived community training in survey and construction, and even works internationally. Students from Taiwan and Bulgaria have learned to conserve derelict farmhouses, working hands-on, and coming to Great Yarmouth for further experiences. This type of social capital should be built on, to strengthen sense of community identity and pride of place.

Inhibiting the design and function of good public spaces are two extremes: intolerance and over-programming.

Intolerance lead to too many rules. People who feel like it is ‘their park’, for instance, can be intolerant of outdoor activities that they do not do themselves and feel entitled to ban them. Signs like ’no ball games, no bikes to railings, no dogs’ are symptomatic of intolerances. If you make all these rules you will end up with a pristine but lifeless and soulless public space.

Over-programming leads to too many planned, large scale events that are detrimental to the planting and to the local community. Grass takes a long time to recover from having big marquees put on top of it and lots of people traffic. The local community can also feel unwelcome during these events.

There should be a balance of spontaneous activities planned locally – wedding gatherings, exercise classes, and larger scale gatherings perhaps once or twice a year that puts the public realm ‘on the map’ and attracts people from further afield.


Credit: Turner Works

Carl Turner
Architect and founding director of Turner Works

One of the certainties of life is that things change. Really, they do. Turner Works has been reimagining how high streets might work in the future (now actually – next week, next month – not years ahead).

The recent pandemic has brought this thinking to the fore, but we already believed the DNA of most high streets and much new development to be deeply flawed, with often huge investment going into the assets (buildings and civic realm) with little focus on people. This approach to development pushes out local people by pushing up prices. At Turner Works our mission is to seed an environment to pull in and support local people and help unlock the potential of places. Our tactic has been the development of meanwhile (or relatively short term) uses.

This might seem inherently short sighted and no way to plan for the future, but we have found that thinking about the short term actually removes many barriers and objections to development as it defuses entrenched opposition, especially if the specific focus is the support of the local community.

We cut our teeth designing Pop Brixton and Peckham Levels. These are both projects that re-think the way the public and private sectors can work together to create a supportive local ecosystem of affordable workspace, event and performance spaces, and food, drink and retail environments combined with public space. The projects also necessitated the establishment of an organisational structure to nourish and support the new tenants. The key is curation; the careful selection and support of not just the businesses, but the events and the community aspects, all working in tandem with what exists in an area, so complementing and not competing.

  • Ideas mapped out for SuperWeston.
    Ideas mapped out for SuperWeston. Credit: Turner Works
  • Agile uses in the micro-plan for SuperWeston.
    Agile uses in the micro-plan for SuperWeston. Credit: Turner Works

Turner Works has now developed this thinking at Ashford in Kent, working with the council to reimagine a collection of near derelict buildings opposite the station. The ambition here was not only to create a successful incubator space for creative industry but to change the perception of what Ashford is all about. Plenty of big development was already happening in the town, but there was not much entry level space creation. Our job was to stem the flow of creatives into London and provide an alternative (night time) destination for the younger crowd in Ashford – rather than have them jump on a Eurostar train to Westfield in Stratford, or King’s Cross. We also established an organisation to look after the project for five years until it gets going. Strangely, after struggling to let space for the first few months, the pandemic seems to have jolted people into making serious changes in their lives and we have now let nearly all the space. The site has reopened cautiously, and with a large open-air yard at the heart of the scheme and a large translucent shed (the Hothouse) we now have the perfect space for post Covid hang out. Business is on the up!

These projects create a stepping-stone economy where someone can move from a market stall into a small food kiosk or retail unit at minimal uplift in cost. Or move from their bedroom study into a co-work desk or small studio space. We want people to grow and move and to keep the pipeline of space open and flowing, in contrast to a normal high street were businesses typically take 10 to 25 year leases. We want affordable space to be available in the future.

Enlightened councils and developers are now working with Turner Works exploring this approach at scale up and down the country. In Weston-super-Mare, with several masterplans in the drawer never likely to be implemented, we have been working on the antidote; a micro plan. This incremental approach of layering many small things can have a profound effect on places and can be achieved quickly without breaking the bank. It nurtures local enterprise but it does take a lot of management and support. You can’t build it then walk away.

In Weston, we haven’t had to change the micro plan much post Covid as we were already imagining a new type of high street, one inspired by festivals and street markets; active rather than passive public space. We have included a drive-in cinema on the roof of the car park. The guys who run the shopping centre are already getting on with it. Instant results. Micro plan up and running.

Credit: Hilton Barnfield Architects

James Barnfield
Director, architect and passivhaus designer at Hilton Barnfield

Covid-19 has brought into public consciousness a conversation that has often been confined to spatial design professionals (and thoughtful city mayors) – effective land use – not solely for land value, but for social value.

While Covid-19 now requires us all to practice social distancing, it has also encouraged us to get to know our neighbours better, and to better use (and recognise the value of) the shared and public space available to us. Whether it's the park, the street, the corner or the front step, this is space to breathe and interact. We are social beings and, in the present Covid environment (post-Covid seems increasingly distant), it’s human interaction that we crave.

Hilton Barnfield Architects in collaboration with David Hawes is working with Exeter City Council and Homes England to develop a toolkit for the RIBA-supported Future Placemaking in Exeter. This focuses on liveable environments and human-centric design, facilitated through higher, ‘gentle’ density developments. It originated in the RIBA’s Future Place competition; a programme emphasising the collaborative expertise of local authorities and architects.

Hilton Barnfield ideas for going local in Exeter.
Hilton Barnfield ideas for going local in Exeter. Credit: Hilton Barnfield Architects

The toolkit is developed through the identification of a series of drivers of change; a distillation of all that has influenced Exeter in becoming the city it is – where it is located, and how its communities function – into a series of themes which frame the projection of a view of the future city, born of its distinctive identity and function. This toolkit methodology seeks to achieve a series of shifts in the approach to placemaking, from a vocabulary of ‘growth and quantity’ to ‘quality and thriving economies and communities’, from ‘site and policy areas’ to ‘regional, economic and landscape positioning’.

While this work began before the pandemic, Covid-19 is now demanding that all communities look critically at their immediate environments and the use of space.

As cities and towns transition to an unavoidable net zero carbon future, the neighbourhoods and districts which people identify with and function within will adapt. While major cities face well-documented challenges, land scarcity (and thus value) encourages development (often brownfield) that – through good design – often facilitates improved public realm. Smaller cities and towns, however, have been typically vulnerable to sprawl. Covid-19 has opened many eyes to the effective use of space and, in particular, the role of our streets.

The response to the challenges of Covid-19 should demand, therefore, a re-appropriation of existing land use, away from continued road-building, car parking and sprawl, toward human-centric, effective land-use with habitable and civic environments (at numerous scales). Not only can this deliver improved public spaces, it can also encourage us all to be more mindful of resource depletion, given the other pandemic that we must remain focused on, the climate.

Juliet Bidgood
Juliet Bidgood Credit: Carl Middleton

Juliet Bidgood
Founder, Juliet Bidgood Architecture + Urbanism and RIBA client adviser and chair of Design West

By the end of the summer last year almost all local authorities had declared a climate emergency, many of them bringing the target for zero carbon forward by 20 years to 2030. Our local authority, North Somerset Council, is one of them, and as a rapidly growing though largely rural and coastal authority dependent on commuting to Bristol this is challenging. The target of 2030 recognises, like Architects Declare and the RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, that the next decade is vital, putting all policies and projects that are being conceived now at a point of critical change. The Covid-19 pandemic has tipped us into rapid recognition that we can act on Climate Change, we can adapt and we can (largely) agree on how to do this.

Working with Design West for the West of England Combined Authority I am researching the content of a Placemaking Charter for the sub region that will include North Somerset. As part of the research we have been speaking to officers and members in the four partner authorities (including Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire). We asked what challenges highlighted by the Covid 19 pandemic can inform the Charter. How could we capture the quality of life and environmental improvements accelerated by lockdown? We heard about the shift in perceptions of the value of our outdoor environments, of nature and of the value of our own time – perhaps time ordinarily spent travelling. People told us about the need for accessible walking and cycling routes for all and for adaptable, good quality homes and connected communities. There was also an understanding of the role of place in enabling background health and the need to learn from more diverse community representatives.

North Somerset is preparing to lead by example by embedding health and inclusion in policies and proactively working to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. In July this year, speaking from Zoom in the Council Chamber, Cllr Bridget Petty and Nicky Webb, the climate emergency project manager, launched their Climate Emergency Strategic Action Plan. The plan includes: all new homes as zero carbon, the delivery of nature recovery and rewilding, and driving a modal shift away from the private car. Its targets are measured against an evaluation of its current carbon emissions as an organisation and as an area authority. What might once have seemed fanciful seemed real, with the space for ‘working towards picturing a different future’ having been hard won through the pandemic.

During lockdown, as a design review panel chair, I also saw two design reviews in North Somerset. The first was for 54 Passivhaus homes, including 30% affordable homes proposed by the council as client. The project was already taking an exemplary approach to biodiversity net gain, generating a rich mix of shared gardens and landscapes. The panel highlighted how the design of boundary treatments of public, semi public and private spaces was critical to success. Speaking from their own homes in lockdown, members asked the team to provide more opportunity to work from home or in shared workspaces and to share vehicles and amenities.

As the Placemaking Charter develops it will be interesting to develop how it can normalise a robust level of ambition for all projects. Another question raised in our engagement so far is: what is good enough since not every project can be exemplary? Covid-19 seems to have shifted the bar for where that good enough can be.

Pippa Goldfinger is head of programme at the Architecture Centre

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