This article originally appeared in Never Mind the Bollards – part of the new Public London exhibition by New London Architecture, running at The Building Centre in the heart of Bloomsbury until 11 July 2015.
Access to public realm continues to be both a design issue and a social one. It’s about equality: equal access to equally good landscape.
The current redevelopment of King’s Cross, by Townshend Artas-ua.info Architects, has seen the original cobbles re-laid to create an even surface suitable for wheelchair-users. In creating a space that fits the design standards we should expect of our public realm, the area’s particular heritage and character has been retained. It’s an example of good placemaking: an attitude towards maintaining public space that respects and responds to the original character of a place, and which services the needs of that place’s community today. And it shows how we need to think about our public realm. Scaling up from cobbles, London is a city whose historic, chaotic street plan has had to adapt to what’s required of it.
Right now, what’s required of it is a response to a growing population and climate change. A healthy public realm can improve air, water and soil quality, incorporating measures that help us adapt to, and where possible mitigate, climate change. Urban parks are on average 1°C cooler than built-up areas during the day. On a national scale, green infrastructure is the network of natural and semi-natural features, green spaces, rivers and lakes that intersperse and connect villages, towns and cities. In London, it’s what connects the many different identities — social and topological — that form the fabric of our public realm.
What makes Bloomsbury Bloomsbury is its network of squares and gardens. It’s an infrastructure that stands out in London as an example of where 21st-century landscape architects have worked — spanning the centuries in the modern spirit of placemaking — with the planners of these urban oases to restore original intentions for a place’s identity. In their restoration of Russell Square, which opened in 2001, landscape architects LUC used the original watercolour design plans to restore and conserve the gardens according to the early 19th-century design for the square while introducing facilities for the 21st-century user. In so doing they developed the area’s pre-existing green infrastructure, increasing biodiversity with new planting. With Alfred Place, opposite South Crescent, about to be greened, Bloomsbury’s commitment to GI is a legacy that continues to be built on.
A healthy public realm creates a healthy community and healthy individuals. Two years ago, responsibility for public health moved from the NHS in England to local authorities. Over the past 50 years, public spending on the NHS has risen from 3.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent of GDP. If spending continues on the same trajectory for the next 50 years, then by 2062 the UK could be spending up to a fifth of its GDP on the NHS alone. At a time when politicians are reviewing our spending on health, we can look to landscape for ways to prevent ill health before it has a chance to occur: overcoming obesity, reducing stress and improving air quality.
In England almost eight million people, just over 15 per cent of the population, live in the most deprived areas. Such areas, which are often linked with poorer health and reduced life expectancy, can be associated with limited access to good-quality green space. Interventions in the landscape can redress health inequalities and deliver cost-effective improvements in health and wellbeing.
In Bloomsbury, one such intervention took place in 2007, when Woburn and Gordon Squares, previously private gardens with limited public access, were re-opened as green spaces fully accessible to the general public. The missing link in the green chain of squares stretching up to King’s Cross was restored, a stone’s throw from the newly transformed post-industrial district where the cobbles have been re-laid. A few more links in a few more chains and we have a successful, healthy, joined-up public realm.