Saturday05 September 2015

Are the British any good at designing public space?

Sheffield’s Peace Gardens: an example of successful public space?
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They are under-advocated, under-funded and under-appreciated, argues Martha Schwartz; but Sarah Gaventas thinks this view is out of date and out of touch


Martha Schwartz - Principal, Martha Schwartz Partners
Martha Schwartz
Principal, Martha Schwartz Partners

The vigorous, highly enviable and admirable garden culture in Britain has disallowed an expanded vision of what constitutes a landscape. The term landscape is associated only with rural and natural scenery.

The specific aesthetic developed by the English, now understood as the “English garden”, has prevented other typologies of landscape that make up urban environments from being seen.

We view the landscape much as the Victorians viewed women: as either saints or whores. If an open space is green, it is considered a saint. If it is built, concreted or asphalted, it is a whore.

Utilitarian, functional hard spaces and corridors have simply dropped off the page. They are underadvocated, underfunded, and underappreciated, and their impoverishment has become what we expect to see in a city.

After the second world war, modernist architects embraced the Corbusian view of the building as the machine in the garden. Modern architecture took the romantic idea about landscape and inserted it into its own agenda in an insidious and detrimental way in terms of public realm landscape and the planning of cities.

Today, cities are growing at a rate never seen before. We will not be able to garden ourselves around serious environmental and social issues. We should be striving to develop architecturally innovative buildings — and the potentially striking, refreshing and beautiful spaces around and between them.

This is an edited version of Martha Schwartz’s Kew Gardens lecture, given last Monday.


Sarah Gaventa - Director, Cabe Space
Sarah Gaventa
Director, Cabe Space

Martha Schwartz’s views are out of touch intellectually and in terms of current practice in public realm. No one involved in this arena talks about spaces “left over” or “between buildings”. We’re talking about place-making.

There has been a huge step up in investment and in understanding the economic and social value of the public realm, particularly of hard spaces.

Take Sheffield Gold Route, a fantastic route across a shared space which encourages you to explore the city on foot. You come out of the station and know exactly where to go without the need for signs; it guides you into town, past some great public art, and leads you to the Peace Gardens. It was a £20 million investment from a committed local authority. How can she say the British don’t care?

All the local authority surveys show that people take pride in their public spaces. They understand that public spaces are as important as good schools and healthcare; that they support public health and quality of life, and provide pleasure. We need local authorities to understand it, too.

The best public places are always those where the community is involved. The corporate makeover doesn’t always work. The problem with some public space developments at the moment, especially retail, is that they use the same ubiquitous palette of materials.

Public space is high on the agenda. It’s having a moment. Schwartz’s talk sounds like a pitch for work.


Readers' comments (9)

  • Unfortunately I think Sarah misses the point in regards to commitment from local authorities. They are committed financially, but fail to get the level of design standard they invest in. Martha’s, saints or whores analogy is observant but crude at best, public spaces and our treatment of landscape are neither. At best I would say lazy and at worst gimmick laden and sold on graphic representation. This I believe is down to the design itself. Take London for instance, with exception to the wonderful parks of city, public spaces between offices pose themselves as mere after thoughts. Transitional spaces between entrances, they are at best full of passersby and at worst desolate. Observations on the ways in which people appropriate places are missing. Poor liminal conditions that fail to even study or grapse why people sit in places, what they like to do. This only highlights our disregard for the life between buildings as something that comes at the end of surround spaces with these mini-statement office hives. What we are left with is overdesigned, novel / patterning of public spaces, water features that make unwanted noise or fill full of dirt and waste, uncomfortably seating and worst of all undesirable spaces to sit and rest. What is missed is that public spaces can offer sanctuary or healing possibilities, rest or merely a space to people watch. They don't have to have eccentric wobbly surfaces, or brightly finished with odd and extravagant street furniture, but merely begin and end with the observation of the people they are for.

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  • I am afraid Ms Gaventa has mis-understood the gist of what I said at the lecture at Kew Gardens, perhaps because she did not attend and the quotes have been taken out of context. We are not on opposite sides of the discussion, as her response might suggest. As I have been and continue to be most involved and interested in public realm projects, and know well of CABE’s devotion to “place-making”. The point I was trying to make is that there is a lack of attention paid NOT to the beautiful gardens and parks and major public spaces of London, but to all the less signature, more ubiquitous public spaces that ARE, in fact, left-over and in-between pieces of urban landscape. These types of spaces are typically not reviewed by CABE. These observations were taken from merely walking the street where I live. Aside from the horribly run-down conditions around Old Street Roundabout, most apparent is the lack of care and attention and poor use-allocation of the “green-space” around council-housing. THIS was the focus of my critique- not the more high-profile spaces CABE is, fortunately, involved with. However, the degraded open spaces of this typology of housing affects both the people who live in and adjacent to these developments. Council-house wasted space, and its ill effects, is one of the most serious issues that affect the quality of urban life in London. Given the commitment to Public Housing the Mayor has made, it would be of tremendous use if the design community brought more critical thinking to both the Corbusian model of buildings standing alone in the green landscape, and the way we typically see the landscape as decoration. Both attitudes have greatly influenced this particularly unsuccessful model of city-building. We need to be much more critical of the LESS important spaces and how open space is really used in an urban environment. Huge expanses of open green lawn that produces a field of ambiguity have proven to be toxic spaces. This was the gist of my lecture at Kew Gardens. Martha Schwartz

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  • Whether or not Sarah Gaventa attended Martha Schwartz's lecture is a moot point. Based solely on what Ms Schwartz herself has written in her "No" piece, her views are out-dated and one-dimensional, and as James wrote, crude. Her rebuttal seems to read as though Corbusier-style spaces are still in the asdendancy. How to landscape existing council block green space is an appropriately low priority. Building more council houses, flats and estates must be top of the agenda. If we can build new social housing and incorporate compatible high quality landscaping without it cutting into the budget for more housing, fine, But I and many other disenfranchised city-dwellers will vote for housing first and we'll do the landscaping ourselves.

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  • In my experience, Martha Schwatz’s comments are both well observed and still valid. That said, there is a certain lack of context about them, which I feel rather undermines the article. While I don’t see Sarah Gaventa’s views as being necessarily opposed and certainly agree with much of what she says, I do feel they are a little optimistically naïve about current attitudes to the design of exterior space. Correct me if I’m wrong, Denna, but I felt there was an underlying implication in your comments that ‘landscaping’ is an afterthought and not worthy of significant funds or due consideration in the design process. If so, this is fairly typical of the trivialising of the design of exterior spaces, which is so common in the UK and seemed to be the main gist of Martha’s comments!

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  • I can see why Jonathan thinks I might consider landscaping not worthy of funding, but that isn't true. Ironically perhaps, I'm involved as an adviser on an urban landscape scheme at the moment, and the validity or importance of the scheme is not in question. But having worked in teams with council officers on urban regeneration schemes in several cities, I know it often does come down to a situation where landscaping is value engineered out of the equation. I'm not suggesting this is right, I'm simply stating that housing has to be the first priority.

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  • The UK definitely has talented designers capable of delivering interesting public space, in both the urban and non-urban realms. We also have a progressive support network from bodies like CABE, and others. Perhaps the UK is less good with public consultation, too bullish in raising public expectations before work starts, and overly prescriptive with top down ideas. Thus mistakes do get made and bad press created. Of more relevance to this debate are issues of client attitudes, funding constraints, planning issues, the obsession of placing highway needs before people, poor maintenance plans, and the increasing privatisation of the public realm. These are the issues that most constrain good design. Not poor designers.

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  • I didn’t seriously think that Denna was the enemy here, but her comments did prove a handy vehicle to make my point (apologies, Denna). I am generally pleased by the amount of attention and discussion that public realm is receiving, and think there have been a number of excellent points made here. However, I am concerned that in such difficult economic times, funds for public space could easily be written off as a costly, non-essential. While I agree that having a roof over your head is one of our most basic human rights, I don’t think that having safe, pleasant exterior environments is far behind. I also dislike the classifying of all exterior spaces as ‘landscaping’, which puts it in the same bracket as grass mowing, flower beds and general prettification. The issues are bigger than this; it is about ‘place making’ and whether we are looking at the regeneration of existing communities, or the creation of new ones, investment in public space (over and above purely, green space) will be vital to their long-term success. The issues associated are invariably complex and by their nature go beyond normal professional boundaries. The beauty of public space is that is belongs to everyone and potentially benefits everyone, but there are difficulties associated with this, as it often involves trying to accommodate opposing requirements into one scheme. Just see the current debate regarding shared space (or rather kerbs) and guide dogs.

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  • I certainly feel we have the talent and the desire to design good quality public space in the UK. The strength of elegant and practical solutions can be diluted by an over cautious or inexperienced client. Particularly when it comes to equipping the designers with the tools to adequately analyse the spaces they're designing for. Otherwise the results can risk being frivilous or pastiche. The highly commercial, mechanised design processes adopted by some UK consultancies does not help the cause for better design however.

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  • "Martha Schwartz’s views are out of touch intellectually", says Gaventa. Excuse me, but that is not a valid statement. Only some quango like CABE could come up with some crap like that. Her argument is either intellectually correct or not. An argument cannot be "out of touch" intellectually. It's that kind of backward thinking that leads to the current spate of let's-ban-everything, not because it's wrong, but because it's unpopular. A very retarded and dangerous route to follow for any civilisation. I can barely respond to anything else Sarah Gaventa wrote as it is simple public sector wishy washy defensive nonsense that doesn't actually have a point. So, all I can say is that most public spaces are hideous

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