Who should design our public spaces?

A documentary highlighting contrasting approaches to public space design has provoked mixed reactions in the industry, writes Gavin McEwan.

Parklife's design for The Green, part of Channel 4's Castleford documentary - photo: Channel 4
Parklife's design for The Green, part of Channel 4's Castleford documentary - photo: Channel 4

In green space design "community engagement" has become almost a mantra. So it came as a bit of a shock to hear landscape architect Martha Schwartz say on Channel 4's Big Town Plan last month: "It's impossible to come out with anything of excellence if you have 100 people holding on to the same pencil, trying to draw out a design. The artist and the designer - they are the experts. Just because everyone has an opinion, it doesn't mean it's a good or an informed opinion."

The programme compared approaches to green space design in the town of Castleford, West Yorkshire.

On the one hand was Schwartz's grand conceptual design for Fryston Green, created with the Building Design Partnership for the regeneration body English Partnerships, and intended to lure developers into building on the open land beyond. English Partnerships area director Rob Pearson describes Fryston Green as "a stunning example of quality design which will set standards for the wider regeneration and development".

On the other hand was a community-driven design to regenerate a neglected public park, led by landscape architecture practice Parklife. Last week, Parklife managing director Phil Heaton told HW: "We should listen and translate communities' needs into designs, rather than impose designs that we think they need."

He added that, in contrast, Schwartz did not appear to care whether the community liked her £1m design.

The Government's advisory body CABE Space has provided advice on the long-term management of the Parklife project and has also developed tools for community consultation to help meet the Government's aim of involving people more in improving their local area.

But CABE's head of public-space management and best practice, Nicole Collomb, says that consultation has its limits. "While it's a good thing that members of the public are involved, there's no reason why they should have the skills to resolve the design issues," she explains.

"They are not trained in public space design, so won't produce quality public space on their own. They need a lot of support."

Conversely, simply presenting design options to a community and asking, "Which one do you like?" misses out on what else might be possible for a site, she says.

"The designer should raise aspirations and explore the possibilities of a site before they even talk about specific design proposals, so the whole community can agree what they really want. The real issue is, can the community then act as an informed client?

"That can mean looking at other sites (see box, p26) or, failing that, slide shows of other similar public spaces, to help the designer establish what they do and don't like, so they don't end up with something the community doesn't really want."

On what counts as an appropriate level of community involvement, she says: "It's not cut and dried - it depends on context. The underpass in the programme had no residential community nearby. The designers simply created a strong design for it."

Architect DSDHA's underpass, beneath Castleford's memorably named Tickle Cock Bridge, was unveiled in July.

Principal landscape architect for Farrer Huxley and CABE Space enabler Noel Farrer agrees that landscapers find themselves in a unique situation.

"Community consultation is a skill that public realm designers have to have," he says. "People don't expect detailed public consultation when an engineer designs a bridge - it's not something the public would know about. Designers can feel jealous of the (engineers') freedom to design that isn't watered down by consultation.

"But public spaces and landscapes are very different. As a subject it is very accessible and people feel passionately about what is right and wrong in it."

A community that takes ownership of its public spaces is likely to be more cohesive and in better shape that one that does not, he adds. "It's about people being together, which is at the heart of civil life.

"High-quality consultation means really listening to people and embracing their needs and aspirations - that should be treated as part of the design brief. But it shouldn't diminish the quality of the design. It should still have design integrity, robustness, beauty and a sense of place. It shouldn't be the community that actually designs it."

Successful consultation is about asking the right sorts of questions, he explains. "For a play area, you shouldn't be asking, 'Do you want swings, a climbing frame and a roundabout?' It's more a case of, 'What kind of play do you enjoy?'"

Such an approach inevitably throws up a diversity of desires and aspirations, he says. "Landscape architecture is completely different from garden design. Private gardens are private, built for the private client, while landscape architecture addresses the need to understand the whole of the community for which the scheme is being built."

He describes Schwartz's design as a "missed opportunity" by not having met the needs of the community - even if only to provide a place for them to play cards. But he welcomes the way the documentary has raised landscape design's profile. "Landscape affects every walk of life and if this has triggered a reawakening, raised people's awareness, that's great."

Parks consultant Stewart Harding is a self-confessed fan of traditional park design and, as such, is ambivalent about "community engagement", which has played a negligible role, historically.

"It was quite top-down, with designers aiming to elevate the aesthetic appreciation of the masses," he says. "But although they were beautiful, they were not making huge statements."

He contrasts this with some "egotistical" modern designs. "We have known how to do parks and what people want from them for about 200 years - it's not very complicated," he says.

"If you put everything back the way it was supposed to be, you have a good park. We know this because we've done thousands of them. People are not radical in what they want in a park."

Among these he suggests: "Paths that lead you where you want to go, somewhere to sit, flowers, an expanse of grass, nice views if possible, somewhere for the kids to play, maybe some water to play in or walk by, somewhere to get a cup of tea or have a pee, and a staffed parks office. Ideally, you would locate the last three of those in the same building."

While this may sound like an inventory of a traditional park, they did not always feature, he explains. "Some of these things are subtle changes in response to fashions and trends. Old parks always changed.

"Bandstands were a late Victorian invention. Bowling greens only came about in the Edwardian period, lakes and tennis courts in the 1920s, playgrounds generally later still. More recently you have skate parks, cycle tracks and nature conservation areas."

Notably, these were not the ideas of individual designers, but responses to wider trends and pressures. And many such features are, or could still be, popular if investment was put in to maintain them, he adds.

"We have restored major Victorian parks that now have over one million visitors a year. Who is fed up with old designs? They're anything but old hat."

FIELD STUDY VISITS

CABE Space and regeneration charity The Glass-House have organised three visits in October to recently redesigned public spaces, to help community groups learn first-hand how to negotiate the design process and to produce quality green space of their own.

The three sites, in London, Cornwall and Salford, were featured as case studies in CABE Space's publication It's Our Space, a guide for community groups on improving public space.

"Groups can see what worked and what didn't," says CABE's Nicole Collomb, "and learn from others' mistakes."

Attendance is free and groups can also apply for a travel bursary.

- For details call 020 7940 4583 or visit www.theglasshouse.org.uk.


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