The Liveable City and Organic Public Space

Earlier this week, our Town Planning Consultants attended a seminar entitled "Who Owns the Liveable City?"

The talk explored the concepts of ownership when applied to public and private spaces, and examined the privatisation of urban land and services – specifically the unease surrounding questions of accountability and profit motivations.

Tuesday's talk was held as part of the programme of seminars and exhibitions intended to allow delegates from Copenhagen (Europe's Green Capital 2014) to exchange knowledge, skills and innovative ideas with those from Bristol (named Europe's Green Capital 2015). 

New Masters Programme At UWE

Delving into the ideology of public versus private, and the effects of physical and non-physical boundaries, David Littlefield introduced the session as a backdrop to the possible launch of a new masters programme at UWE. Intended to generate discussion and organically prompt the formation of thought networks, the new programme sounds like an exciting and desirable opportunity for those studying within Planning and Architecture, and I eagerly anticipate its introduction into the courses.


What was particularly intriguing within this introduction was the idea of re-appropriation. Littlefield explained that countries like Copenhagen have successfully adapted public spaces to increase their suitability for use within the daily lives of the general public. It's a definitive stride away from the traditional reactions to the public realm, and seems like an excellent approach to public space making.

This concept of moulding public spaces to suit daily expectations fed smoothly into the second speaker, Chris Bliss' introduction of the Liverpool One regeneration scheme – breaking the traditional model and looking at the shopping mall as an extension of public and social space. He described his intention to create a place where people met and used the area to live and to grow.

The Liveable City - Thatcher Associates

"Magic Dust"

However, whilst the speaker from Grosvenor believed that public spaces originated from intentional, purposeful design, Riccardo Marini (Director of Gehl Architects) contended that in order to be successful, public spaces had to happen organically.

His stance was that successful place making necessitates the presence of "magic dust". Intentional designs often seem to be lacking, and Marini's contention is that they lack this "X-Factor" this "Magic Dust" – an often indefinable quality that differentiates organic spaces and those created as a result of briefs, budgets, and designers bound by financial and commercial obligations.

One of the key points from this discussion was the introduction of Gehl's 8/80 theory. Fundamentally, this theory dictates that if your 8 year old daughter and your 80 year old grandfather can't walk safely along the same route you take every day, then the place in which they live has failed them. This theory forms the backbone of Gehl's designs, and they endeavour to create spaces centred on the human.

The 8/80 theory was later corroborated by Sarah Martin, who maintained that from a Town Planning perspective, the designs and requirements of the user should form a full circle. She encouraged planners to consider children as the future users of the spaces and towns they create, in order to ensure their designs were truly centred on users.

Pathways And Ownership

Marini added that 33% of the built environment is comprised of pathways, and that these connecting spaces are the key to truly successful design. His contention was that, as humans, we need boundaries, but attitudes towards these boundaries vary depending on their location. Within the UK our boundaries are not purely safety or property driven – they are more flexible, forming the permeable fabric of our environment.

The session then touched on the concept of ownership. Designer Thomas Leerberg discussed his belief that everyone should grow their own ownership. Whilst clients will always take private approaches to public space, ownership is not a static facet of design. He questioned how our cities would look if no-one owned the buildings they are comprised of and argued that those who benefit from designs are those who can take control of the space – creating their own version of public ownership.

This idea of ownership was echoed by Jaimie Furley (Director of Turley Planning), who explained that the assumed ownership of both land and space was essential when it came to managing large regeneration projects.

Summarising the seminar, Mike Devereux probed the definition of public space, posing the question of ownership within liveable spaces. His central tenet was that the public spaces within the UK are controlled by time, and thus no liveable space can be anything other than dynamic.

A fascinating approach to the uncertainty which surrounds the creation and ownership of public areas, the entire seminar was filled with fresh perspectives and new ideas on the old questions of ownership and privatisation.