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What future for public realm?

July 8, 2016

It is universally understood that the quality of public realm determines the liveability of cities and towns. Accessible to all, public realm is the connective tissue of urban design, linking the individual elements of our built environment. Public realm comprises the everyday spaces where we often work, think, play, meet and socialise.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on June 22nd, John Landis, Professor of Planning at the University of Pennsylvania who’s been attached to Sydney University for the last six months, wrote about the quality of Glebe’s public realm “The big and little interconnected parks and reserves, the green byways, the small pedestrian alleys….all of these combine to make a neighbourhood that is comfortably liveable“.

Then he adds “Today’s large development projects are mostly lacking in such amenities. Unfortunately, in their rush to maximise the velocity of new development, the NSW government and many local councils are giving short shrift to public realm”.

We encounter diminishment of public realm daily. It’s a pretty phrase, but more often said than enacted. It’s as if no-one really cares about public realm beyond the abstraction and the requisite box-tick. I wonder if that’s because so few of us have experienced the lived benefits of good public realm.

I’m writing this from my home in Braidwood, in the southern tablelands of NSW, where, in a rural parallel to inner-city Glebe, our town’s public realm composes its cultural identity and defines our relationship to this place and one another.

Like many of the places in the world where we can feel most comfortable, Braidwood has evolved relatively slowly, at a human pace and scale in step with the culture that thrives here. Open spaces and laneways reveal themselves between the buildings, which individually reflect their functional purpose and the character of their creators.

Life is lived in the street here. The whole town is treated as public realm. It’s a common joke that a five minute walk to the supermarket often takes an hour on account of all the social exchange that take place along the way. People walk in and out of each other’s shops for chats and coffees, the café’s spill onto the street as does the hall on market day, the line between public and private space is permeable.

When I’m home in Braidwood, I wonder how to apply the lessons of this place to my work bringing creativity to contemporary urban development. In our modern approach to development, human scale can be lost in the quest for size and our techno-mechanistic ability to deliver it. And a human pace of development is not considered in any way desirable; instead modern project constraints require that buildings rise from the ground at breakneck speed. So developments created for literally thousands of people to live and work within that would traditionally have evolved over decades and centuries emerge almost overnight.

When entire contemporary built environments spring from the ground fully formed, seeking maximum return on investment, public realm loses out. It’s public – so it can’t be sold or leased. But recently, the NSW State Government made an interesting decision that offers hope. The government rejected all thirteen private sector proposals for the redevelopment of Rozelle’s historic White Bay Power Station in Sydney. Instead they plan to break the site down into smaller parcels and run a staged development process with different developers taking individual pieces of the project. Let’s hope this means that the texture and distinctive characters of individual approaches to each part of the site make it a place instead of a race, and allow public realm to flourish.

This mosaic approach to development creates an opportunity to define edge zones of public realm where the parcels allotted to individual developers meet. And, just as in nature where edge zones between ecosystems act as crucibles of fertility, these urban edge zones should be places in which we encourage diverse and less predictable things to happen. In these fertile and unpredictable public spaces, Undesign (the idea of places shaped more by their users than by external design professionals) can be given primacy; encouraging people to take ownership of the places they share, without the preponderate hand of the designer determining every bush, pebble and bench.

We won’t build another Glebe, or another Braidwood, and nor should we. Those places got started in the early nineteenth century and have evolved, little by little since. As a community of Australians, the requirements of our built environment are different now, and so are the methods available to us for creating them. But as humans, our needs haven’t changed so much; we still need space to share, to meet and talk, to play and to enjoy each other’s company. And we want to be able to play a role ourselves in bringing that public realm into being, so that instead of demonstrating the intention of a third party design professional, it reflects and supports the culture of our own community.

– Mark McClelland