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Environment / Climate change

The movement to democratise London’s public spaces

The way that London’s developers and designers create public spaces is starting to change. A new movement involving a relatively small group of people, many of them women, believe the city’s urban spaces could be designed to support their local communities a lot better than they are now.

They’re challenging the way that projects in the public realm are briefed, procured and planned.

“How do we make cities and who are the voices that are being heard about what gets built? In the planning and architectural communities, there is a new wave of trying to open up that conversation,” says Alicia Pivaro, an urbanist and design teacher.

The innocuously-titled Neighbourhood Forums, introduced by David Cameron’s Localism Act in 2011, are supporting this diversity agenda. They enable communities to develop plans for their locality that are formally recognised in the planning process.

In Camden, the Camley Street Neighbourhood Plan, which covers the area north of Kings Cross station, has voiced community concerns and influenced council plans. In south London, VitalOKR, a grassroots group of people living and working near the Old Kent Road, is trying to influence Southwark Council’s planning agenda.

Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds fronted a rebellion against Lendlease’s plans to redevelop Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, South London, back in 2014—although that was more rogue effort than Forum. “They couldn’t stop the huge Lendlease project, but they definitely saved a lot of trees on the site and shaped the agenda to ensure greener spaces and community growing spaces. But it wasn’t the ideal process,” says Pivaro.


Much of the energy has gone into figuring out how to incorporate diverse voices at an early enough stage to influence the brief. The aim is to head off the corporate architectural styles that so often results from top-down development by councils and developers.

Deborah Saunt of DSDHA, the practice behind Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, says: “You have to go out and talk to people and push away your preconceptions. A lot of architects and designers find it very, very hard to let down their guard and to empathise with the range of often contradictory opinions.”

The Vauxhall project included the experiences of the LGBT community, night-clubbers, families with young children, sixth formers from the local school and professionals working nearby. “You have to be open to input and not to say ‘oh my God, this is too complicated’. If you want to democratise public space you have to respect all of those opinions,” says Saunt.

In Islington, the Central Street masterplan was shaped by a parkour workshop for 13- to 15-year-olds organised by designers We Made That. “We wanted to understand how young people could interact with the space in a way that wasn’t just walking down the street. It looked grey and concrete-y, but seeing it through their eyes we realised it could be incredibly playful,” says Holly Lewis, co-founding partner.

Built-ID, start-up technology firm, is recruiting new voices to property consultations by promoting digital surveys on Facebook and Instagram. “It leads to a more diverse consultation of a wider cross-section of society and not just people who have the time and inclination to go to exhibition meetings,” says founder Savannah de Savary. The firm translates adverts into Urdu and Arabic to connect to hard-to-reach groups and is much better at garnering views from busy working people compared to traditional exhibitions. It’s poised to go live on a consultation about Petticoat Lane Market redevelopment on behalf of the City of London and Tower Hamlets.

City Hall’s decision to embed social value and diversity into its procurement process has nudged diversity higher up the agenda for developers and designers. The measure can now tip the balance on winning or losing a project.

Saunt says: “They’re asking things like, ‘Who’s working in your practice?’ I’ve heard that some people are saying, ‘What do you mean?’ They can no longer just talk about how the project will increase diversity. No, no—it’s, ‘What are you doing personally and as an organisation to make life better for other people who want to participate in the project and in your profession?’ There’s nothing like that relationship between pressure and profit, and being asked those kind of ethical questions at the point of competition, to really help sharpen the mind.”
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