There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And there’s no such thing as a value-free action, though we may not acknowledge this in practice. Then there’s the problem that a particular action can go either way: counter or fulfil the values we claim. Useful, though, to know what our values are before embarking on action; how one may conflict with another; that yours might conflict with mine. Values and attitudes are related, though often they need to be reconciled.
Were we to discuss them, we might find that we have shared values; that the process of finding this out opens up possibility, and also matures us as we come jointly to appreciate the complexity of translating values into action. Values do not direct, they only illuminate potential lines of action.
Odd, then, that when we ‘consult’ we focus most usually on people’s likes and dislikes, things they want or don’t want. Not a value in sight. Though sometimes there is a nod in their direction.
One of the findings of the Scottish Centre for Social Research survey ‘Public attitudes towards young people and youth crime in Scotland’ suggests that those adults with least contact with young people are more likely to have negative views of the young. Interestingly, these negative perceptions are not necessarily held by older adults (65 and over), as perhaps we have come to assume. Deprivation is an even stronger predictor of negative attitudes towards young people. Thus we have this dismal equation: adults living in deprived urban areas having relatively little social contact with local young people are most likely to hold negative views about them.
Step in regeneration schemes, housing renewal and the like. And consult. Not examine, explore, challenge, debate or learn; and do not stray into dangerous, uncharted territory and attempt to tease out beliefs, values, dreams. Keep it simple, just consult. Tell us what you think, perhaps mediated through the latest user friendly technique – nothing too taxing, but good fun to be had by all.
Given the dismal equation, plus a pinch of consultation, it is no surprise that the value children and young people being seen and heard in shared public space is not examined and therefore what might follow from this is left unexplored. When proposed, we have seen it generate a momentum towards what Cabe Space, among others, has called ‘Place Making’. But this requires that children and young people are firmly located from the start within a shared public realm, not simply to be corralled in age-bounded facilities, whether playground or youth shelter, useful though these may sometimes be.
Communal outdoor spaces within social housing and mixed tenure estates
An abridged version of a report to the Guinness Trust
This brief paper discusses shared, outdoor communal space withinhousing and mixed tenure estates.
The immediate prompt for this paper is the now completed PLAYLIdevelopment of the ball court and play space at the Guinness TrustStamford Hill Estate. That development was jointly funded by the Guinness Partnership charitable fund and by the Learning Trust, Hacthrough government’s Play Pathfinder programme.
This paper’s strategic intent is to promote and support the potentineighbourliness of residential estates and the quality of residents’ experience of the outdoors. This encompasses, but is not limited taddressing design issues.
We hope that in describing a PLAYLINK project, drawing out both itlimitations and its benefits, this paper will help illuminate a wider fipossibility.
The Stamford Hill Estate play space and ball court development was made possible by the collaboration between Officers of the Guinness Trust and the Learning Trust, and the construction company Richardsons.
PLAYLINK wish to thank:
All staff who assisted in this project and in particular: Philip Sharpe, Rolston Dennis, Howard Skepple.
Spencer Marshall Craig Saxton Huseyin Kaynakci
The residents - adults, teenagers and children – and youth workers and other Guinness staff who attended the engagement sessions in the community hall. And of course the resident’s who kindly made great food to serve at those events. Their efforts were very much appreciated.
This paper is a form of invitation: an invitation to reflect on how play and recreation opportunities are catered for in social and mixed housing developments. The paper is in two parts: Part One offers a brief outline of the Stamford estate scheme; Part two looks briefly at some of the wider issues that affect design decisions.
Stamford Hill Estate project: brief background
The previous government’s Play Pathfinder and Playbuilder programme aimed to create 3,500 new or refurbished play spaces across England. In Hackney, the programme was in the hands of The Learning Trust, Hackney. PLAYLINK was commissioned under that programme to undertake four Hackney projects in 2009/10 (following two completed in 2008/09), one of which was the Guinness Trust’s Stamford Hill Estate.
Initial aspiration: a whole neighbourhood approach
PLAYLINK’s initial aspiration had been to take a ‘whole neighbourhood’ approach, and to look at the various pockets of outdoor space on the estate and how they might form part of an integrated approach to the out-of-doors, for the benefit of all residents.
However, in the event, this aspiration was not to be met. This was mainly due to the inherent inadequacies of the then government’s capital play programme which set an unrealistic timetable for all involved in the programme. The effect of this, in many schemes around the country, was a sense of manufactured urgency, a dash for an arbitrarily determined finishing line. In such circumstances creating a measured and thoughtful approach to the whole estate was not going to be possible. The second level of aspiration was that the ‘footprint’ of the Stamford Hill Estate scheme should encompass both play and ball games area, and that the frontage of the community hall should be included (In the event, funds were not sufficient to improve the frontage of the community centre). We wanted to create an attractive shared social space. Taken as a whole, this might be described as a ‘village green’ approach.
Stamford Hill Estates, play area. Before
The scheme – refurbished ball court, expanded play area – has been judged a successful one by the client and residents. It is certainly aesthetically pleasing, significantly more so than the original play area. It also has more play value with the introduction of elements that offer challenge and allow for some flexibility in use: for example, sand; a simple wooden tepee that forms a frame for children to add to and amend; the mound offers height and different ways of engaging with it; generally ‘greening’ and softening the area.
It is reported that adults – parents and grandparents of younger children in particular – are spending more time in the play area partly because their children are more engaged by the features on offer, and because it is a pleasant place to be. This meets one of PLAYLINK’s key wider objectives: to create the context for informal socialising – making the outdoors of the estate a pleasant place. The project has been described as ‘small but significant’, and that seems about right.
From PLAYLINK’s perspective, there are extensive opportunities for securing better value for money for schemes of this type. Take for example just one element, manufactured, fixed-play equipment – it tends to be relatively expensive. In many cases disproportionately expensive to any benefit secured. Much can be done – and money saved - by creating bespoke pieces, designed in sympathy with individual locations and contributing to a ‘sense of place’. There are also possible benefits to be drawn in terms of securing local employment and creating training opportunities.
This paper now turns to consider the outdoors more widely. It does this in the context of PLAYLINK’s beliefs, experience and aspirations.
Stamford Hill. Play area. After
The wider context
‘Children and teenagers being seen and heard in shared public spaces is the hallmark of a society at ease with itself’ PLAYLINK policy.
We believe that the local outdoors – residential estates, streets, parks and open spaces – has the potential to fulfil the vital function of nurturing informal sociability across the generations.
‘When outdoors nothing stands between us and the world…When we meet other people in this outdoor world, we are more likely to meet them as free agents and autonomous individuals than we do in the graded and contractual world of institutional or commercial life…The park and the street give us our freedom, and the buildings, too frequently, take it away’.
Sadly, however, too often the outdoors is experienced as a fearful, unfriendly space. Spaces where the overriding call is for ‘security’, to be conjured by the technology of surveillance and a web of prohibitions which, in PLAYLINK’s view, together can exacerbate the illness they purport to cure. We stand, therefore, for an opposing paradigm: a presumption in favour of a culture of permission. This value-based stance is linked to and informs an approach to outdoor space and its use that is set out below.
There has been the tendency to conceptualise outdoor space and its use by mechanistically fusing the category ‘age’ with that of ‘function’. In short, the conventional idea is that children need designated play areas; teenagers need Multi Use Games Areas (MUGA) or their equivalent; adults need communal gardens and allotments. There is of course some truth in this. However, when this approach is deployed as a rigid template, the effect can be limiting and in practice weaken the possibility of nurturing a sense of social ease across the generations.
There is an alternative view, one that cuts across the traditional perspective. This view understands outdoor space as potential and actual venues for a range of encounters. Here outdoor space facilitates and encourages mixed use and informal sociability. The term ‘village green’ acts as a sort of shorthand for the understanding that shared, playable public and communal spaces can be created such that play opportunities – and therefore children and teenagers - are not as a matter of course hemmed into bounded, designated areas.
Below we deal with some of the practical implications of this approach.
Play and informal recreational provision
Traditionally, the informing assumptions governing estates’ provision for play and informal recreation has been that it should:
The net effect of this approach is the mass production of unattractive spaces that, by signs and symbols, both implicit and overt, de-legitimise the presence of children and youngsters within their wider neighbourhoods. This is not good for children, teenagers, or adults or for enhancing the possibilities of social cohesion.
In contrast, alternative objectives might usefully be to:
Typically, ball courts are tarmaced caged areas – fenced to a height of 3m or so – with goal posts and/or basketball ring. Almost without exception these areas are unattractive. They are also a source of noise as the ball regularly hits the fencing that too often rattles in response.
Example of ball court: partial low fence
Ball courts, certainly in residential settings, not infrequently give the impression of having been parachuted into an area with no thought given to their visual or sound impact or relationship to the immediate surroundings. Ball court provision is locked into a series of assumptions, for example, that they:
Example of ball court: no fence
PLAYLINK’s experience is that ball courts can be approached in a more imaginative way. It’s true, of course, that they are likely to have high visual, and to a degree sound, impact. But this simply underscores the need to put a bit of effort into mitigating their negative features. For example:
it is not to be assumed that all sides of a ball court need to be at full height. Having a lower fence on at least one side immediately changes the court’s visual impact and takes a significant step toward making the area feel part of its surroundings
Maintenance and health and safety
The feasibility of developing a broader-based approach to communal, shared space on estates is sometimes called into question because of two areas of concern. One is ‘maintenance’, the other is ‘health and safety’. The two categories too often become inter-woven such that maintenance questions become also health and safety issues, and vice versa. There is of course some overlap, but the general point that this paper seeks to establish is that, in principle, neither maintenance concerns nor those of health and safety, need impede progress towards developing different approaches as outlined in this paper.
Although not without difficulty, PLAYLINK has developed schemes that include, for example, varied mowing regimes according to the requirements of a particular area; sand in unfenced settings; sand with water; tree swings. One can see, even from this limited list, how maintenance and health and safety issues might coalesce to render any one of these features beyond the possibility of implementation. Our point here is that much more is possible than is often imagined. Saying this is not to minimise the challenges, but to suggest that they can be overcome with thoughtfulness and commitment.
Lord Young of Grantham’s report, ‘Common Sense, Common Safety’, made a number of recommendations that have been accepted by Government. In respect of play and leisure activities the report says:
Extract from section on Children’s play areas
A further area of concern is the impact of health and safety on children’s play areas. In legal terms, play provision is guided by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. There is a widely held belief within the play sector that misinterpretations of the Act are leading to the creation of uninspiring play spaces that do not enable children to experience risk. Such play is vital for a child’s development and should not be sacrificed to the cause of overzealous and
disproportionate risk assessments. This is a further example of how legislation primarily conceived to be applied in a hazardous environment is being brought into an environment for which it is unsuited with damaging consequences. I believe that with regard to children’s play we should shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk–benefit assessment, where potential positive impacts are weighed against potential risk. These ideas inform the play programme developed by the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport and I would like to see them developed more widely. Furthermore we should consider reviewing the Health and Safety at Work etc Act to separate out play and leisure from workplace contexts.
This extract underscores a point that PLAYLINK, with others, has been making for some time: that there is no impediment in law to developing a more creative practice in respect of play and shared outdoor, communal space.
This paper began by describing itself as a form of invitation. An invitation to reflect on the approach taken in the play area and ball court development on residential estates; to consider its scope and its limitations; and, most significantly, to consider how a ‘whole neighbourhood’ perspective can contribute to a sense of social ease.
PLAYLINK is eager to make further progress in revivifying shared communal space within social housing estates. To achieve this, PLAYLINK works across the board fulfilling consultancy, advisory, policy development and designer roles.
PLAYLINK clients include:
Argent; A2Dominion Housing; Barrow upon Furness Borough Council; Bath and NE Somerset Council;
Black Country Consortium; Bournemouth Council; Bradford City Council; Brighton & Hove Council;
Bristol City Council; Bury Council; Carterton Town Council; Chelmsford Borough Council; Cheshire
County Council; Coventry City Council; Cumbria County Council; Dudley Council; East Sussex Council;
Forestry Commission; Glamis Community Nursery; Groundwork, N. London; Guinness Trust;
Hounslow Heath Infants School; Places for People; Hull City Council; IPPA, Irish Republic; Lancashire
County Council; Learning Trust, Hackney; LB Camden; LB Greenwich; LB Hillingdon; LB Hounslow; LB
Islington; LB Redbridge; LB Richmond upon Thames; LB Tower Hamlets; Learning Trust, Hackney;
Liverpool City Council; Manchester City Council; Mindstretchers; National Trust; Oxford City Council;
Oxfordshire County Council; Peterborough Council; PlayBoard, N. Ireland; Play Wales; Plymouth
Council; Poole Council; Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames; St Edmundsbury Council; Sefton
Council; South Gloucestershire Council; South Somerset District Council; Southampton City Council;
West Ardnamurchan Community Council, Scotland; West Play; Wokingham Borough Council;
Worthing Borough Council; Wolverhampton City Council.
PLAYLINK: brief outline of activities
Consultancy and advice.
Work areas include: policy and strategy development; space assessment; feasibility studies; masterplanning; analysing and addressing difficulties.
PLAYLINK’s designers and landscape architects design shared public and child friendly space in a range of settings: residential estates; parks; urban mixed developments.
Bernard Spiegal has articles published by various journals. In addition PLAYLINK web-publishes articles by a range of people who have something interesting to say. These can be found at: www.playlink.org.uk
It’s not an accident that we attach the adjective ‘democratic’ to either describe actual public spaces, or to mark our aspirations for them. Indeed, there’s a flotilla of warm words – ‘shared’, ‘communal’, ‘inclusive’, ‘accessible’ – that together act as a collective nod towards the features and atmosphere we believe a truly public, ‘public space’ should evoke.
In the background, no doubt, lurk images and ideas drawn from the Agora of classical Greece and the Athenian City-State, though its democracy was, by our proclaimed modern democratic standards, somewhat lacking in reach, in inclusivity. Basically, if you were an Athenian bloke you were in the club; if not, then not.
It is however useful to notice that whilst by our ‘modern’ standards fifth century BCE Athenian democracy does not pass muster, its limitations were an overt, explicit, ‘in-your-face’ articulation of the very fabric of the political, social and economic structure of that society. By way of contrast, visiting and sitting around in what can broadly be described as ‘public spaces’, I’m struck by just how difficult it is to create democratic spaces, how difficult it is to counter the forces and influences that limit fulfilment of our democratic and inclusive aspirations. These can include, often in potent negative mix: forms of land ownership; demographics; socio-economic class; race, age and gender; forms of decision-making; confused objectives; inappropriate design; mad, thought-neutering timescales; and the allure of fad and fashion.
What might be the features of a democratically oriented public square? Here I’m talking about those squares and spaces that ‘work’ because people of all ages and backgrounds use them, feel comfortable there, are apt to linger – want to linger – to congregate, not as a mass, but alone or in clusters of family and friends. They are places where the unplanned, informal, theatre of the street finds life, people watching being a key pastime and one of the highest forms of entertainment and instruction available to us. And the people that I want to see, and be seen by, are those with an undisputed right of presence; that is, certainly within inner London, that great admixture, that muddled jumble comprising people of all ages, people from across class, across race, female and male, both.
A democratically oriented public square should ‘speak for itself’, should wear its welcome on its sleeve, its qualities apprehended immediately by, well, anyone.
Spaces with qualities such as those described above, are distinct from places where congregation and waiting are prompted or required by some external function, for example, the space in front of the new, and rather splendid, Kings Cross Station.
Here hard surfaces and expanses of space serve well one of its key, primary functions: hanging about for a train. It’s interregnum space; space for in-between time, where what counts for people is what happened before and what will happen afterwards. One does not in general tarry here, one waits, but waits to depart.
The Kings Cross Station development is part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme undertaken by the developers Argent. A major part of that scheme is the ‘public’ Granary Square. It has been hailed, in some quarters at least, as a first class, much welcomed development.
‘… the best thing about Argent’s King’s Cross is the amazing Granary Square, London’s finest new public space.’ Rory Olcayto in AJ (Architects Journal)
I’ve been there a number of times, and I find it hard to take such a benign view. To me, it looks and feels like a string of what seem now to be stock ideas, all finding unhappy conjunction in this vast – around 8,000m² – space. The look and feel is hard, stone is a key component. There are three sets of fountains, the jets dancing in variable configurations. Come the dark, an embedded light show adds charm to the waters’ play.
Yet three sets of fountain seem a needless extravagance and, since they are flush to the ground, they add to that sense of being in the midst of a barely differentiated vastness. It’s great, of course, that kids inevitably play in them. But that’s more of less it so far as kids are concerned, or indeed for adults. The square offers little in the way of other ‘affordances’, potentially playable, or otherwise.
Greening the city
Forget the trend towards the greening of spaces, for the only green here is a ‘bosque of 24 lime trees’ (bosque = cluster of trees or shrubs. I had to look it up), clipped, erect sentinels guarding nothing in particular.
Permanent seating is minimal and, as one has come to expect, comprises backless stone benches.
There is no intimacy to the space. Sure, within the square some tables and chairs are put out, but in the wider context, this just looks like a gesture, and a fairly unconvincing one at that. There is no shade, no protection from sun, rain or wind. The square cries out for green, for the softening balm of tree, shrub and plant; for the creation of intimate, conversational spaces.
The publicity for Granary Square places emphasis on it as a venue for events and festivals. No doubt true, and one can easily see that vast, undifferentiated space provides a potentially great staging area, though perhaps not such great viewing of a performance if you’re at the back of the crowd. But planned, structured events are rarely day-to-day features. They are, in general, resource intensive eruptions of activity, which once complete leave only the space as it was before, as it will be after.
The space looks as though key design brief criteria included: ease of surveillance; ease of control; ease of maintenance; and, as Amanda Burden, an American Urban Planner, says more generally about some public spaces, designed to act as ‘plinths’ for architects’ creations.
And certainly the buildings stand out proud against the flat uniformity of the square. (I was silently musing to myself that one could imagine an army drilling in this square when, quite by coincidence, a Landscape Architect friend of mine admitted he ‘heard’ the sound of marching boots in the sound pattern generated by the fountains’ water jets.)
Perhaps I m reading too much class-based symbolism into this: there are two large – one, in my view, rather good – restaurants housed in one of the buildings on the square. There is outside restaurant seating for both.
But the seating does not spill out into the generality of the square. Both restaurant boundaries are clearly delineated by barriers; one side, you’re in; one side, you’re out. One side you pay; the other side – you can sit on a hard bench for free.
The odd thing is, the square looks as though it is designed not to encourage hanging around by a cross sections of society. Whether the ownership arrangements have anything to do with this, I do not know, but as Rory Olcayto points out:
‘Granary Square, like the rest of Argent’s King’s Cross, isn’t really public. In fact, Camden Council had to negotiate a legal agreement to secure full public access to it. It’s a private space that we’ve been granted access to. Fingers crossed the owners never change their mind’
I cannot be sure, I have conducted no survey, but I would be surprised if, in terms of informal, day-to-day use, the square will attract and hold the attention or the affections of ordinary Camden residents or those who are at the poorer end of the economic scale. Rather, the square will most regularly be populated by the office workers from the surrounding buildings, and the 4,000 or so art students of Central Saint Martins’. And good luck to them. But, as Oliver Wainwright suggests in Building Design, the square is ‘…in desperate need of a pacemaker’. Granary Square as inclusive, as democratic, as a place to linger – at the very least, the jury is still out.
I’m going now to Hackney. Care to come?
As is probably fairly well known, the London Borough of Hackney, certainly key areas of it, have been subject to a fairly rapid process of significant transformation, socially, economically, demographically.
Through my childhood, adolescence and twenties I knew one aspect of the area’s life reasonably well: the garment or shmata trade. Shoreditch, Dalston, Whitechapel were peppered with button and cotton wholesalers, home-based garment makers on piece work, small clothing factories with sewing machines awhirling, the heavy duty irons emitting clouds of steam; and rows of trousers, jackets, dresses at various stage of completion.
Gone now, but memorialised by Snug and Outdoors in their 1998, 5m high outdoor wcthreads2sculpture, ‘Threads’, in Sclater Street, Shoreditch, a piece I came across by chance and which I found gently moving. That chance being provided by Andrew Stuck on one of his always entertaining and interesting Rethinking Cities curated walks.
In place of the garment industry, flowing into the area, we find modern, up-to-the-moment hip. That means practically every aspect of this new wave of life tends to be designated ‘creative’. There’s theatre, there’s jazz, there’s furniture makers, designers of many shades, and there’s coffee bars and restaurants popping up seemingly on every street, every corner. This is the place to be – if you can afford it. Problem is, many can’t.
Still, it’s good to see that some aspects of a previous life endure. Ridley Road market (dating from the 1880s) is as vibrant as ever, and seems – for the moment at least – immune to incursions from ‘alternative’ purveyors of produce, cooked or raw. This is market as the term ‘market’ was commonly understood: noisy, bustling, bargains – perhaps sometimes somewhat notional – always available.
Moving on: Dalston Eastern Curve Garden and Gillett Square
Here’s a demographic fact about Hackney drawn from the 2011 census:
‘Hackney is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country – just over 40% of its people are non-White. Black groups make up the largest component of the minority communities, accounting for almost a quarter of Hackney’s people, followed by the white other group, which can include East and West Europeans, North and South Americans, white Africans and Antipodeans.’
If one is considering the nature of ‘public’, ‘democratic’ space then that statistic should surely act as a critical reference point.
Here are some pictures of Ridley Road market which I think evoke a rough, yet broadly accurate reflection of the demographic detailed above.
Leave Ridley Road market and walk down Kingsland Road towards Dalston Junction, turn left and there is the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Some 100/150 yards or a 3/4 minute walk from the market.
By any standards this is a beautiful space and certainly on the days I visited, well used . The degree to which the space may be under threat can be gleaned from an article by Mark Wilding in the Dalston.
But my focus in this article is not on questions of development, land ownership, and the structured-in, systemic precariousness of projects such as this one – similar to pop-ups of various sorts – that are, ultimately, susceptible to the pressure of market forces and narrow conceptions of how housing need might be met. My focus is on squares and spaces for public use. What counts, then, for this piece is that the Eastern Curve Garden is, as its sign proclaims, open to all.
Although it has a cafe, there is no obligation to buy anything. I can confirm this, (a) because I asked and (b) I have sat there perfectly at ease, purchasing nothing with no sense that I had been identified as a cheapskate, nor designated a free-loading interloper.
Open to all. But what comprises this all? Once again, I think the next set of pictures offer a fairly accurate representation of the demographic of use. It also confirms that this is a beautiful, tranquil place and quite remarkable given that only a few yards away Dalston’s day-to-day life seethes unabated.
What cannot be avoided is the observation that the demographic of use here seems significantly adrift from the general demographic of Hackney in general, and the Kingsland Road/DalstoCIMG5476n area in particular. Here are some photographic representations of the demographic, and of course, the place itself.
It may not, in the words of Greg Dyke about the BBC, be ‘hideously’ white , suffice to say that usage is predominately white. For some, it may be that the demographic contrast between the East Curve Garden and Hackney generally has no particular significance, that it is not necessary to reflect on it and what it might mean. In shorthand, that position can be represented as ‘No problem . Move on’. This seems to me to be an unsustainable position to hold.
Having said this, it is of the first importance that these observation are not construed as criticism of either the owners or the users (including me) of the Garden. This is not the occasion to simplify complex phenomena nor to heap general societal failings on to a particular project.
Turning now to the place itself. Well, what can one say that can usefully add to what the pictures present and the place says for itself?
Those readers interested in children, play and the importance of bringing the ‘natural’ back into the lives of children, will, I guess, think the Garden a rather splendid place, as do I. We see some loose parts in the pictures. Bliss.
But, as above, we need to notice absences, the children who are not there and whose access to ‘natural’ spaces is limited or nonexistent, not least for economic reasons. These children and teenagers are unlikely to benefit to any significant extent – if at all – from the welcome and often impressive initiatives being undertaken by, for example, the National Trust and Forestry Commission. A reminder, perhaps, if reminder is required, that the limitations of the city need to be responded to by the city.
If you care to accompany me, I’m retracing my steps back towards and past Ridley Road market, plus a few more yards and then left off Kingsland Road to Gillett Square. Total distance/time from the Eastern Curve Garden: approximately 200 yards; four/five minutes’ walk at most.
I have visited and sat in Gillette Square quite a number of times. The more I sat there the more I was puzzled by it. In terms of the demographics of use, my initial, rather crude and simplifying take on it was that whereas Eastern Curve Garden was broadly populated by white people, Gillette Square was primarily populated by black people. And I thought I would be able to present in this piece a simple binary contrast between the two spaces and then go on to ponder a bit about what this might mean. But I now don’t think it’s quite like that, though there is a demographic contrast between the two places, and it is in many ways quite stark, it’s not simply about race or ethnicity.
Many of the remarks made about Granary Square, fit this area as well. One characterisation could be that it is Granary Square writ small. Once again we have an expanse of flat, hard surface relieved, if that’s the right word, by a set – they look like a ‘set’ – of four trees trapped within a raised plinth type structure.
There is seating, but not ‘linger here, stay awhile, rest yourself, chat a bit’ sort of seating. Rather, the seating is limited, hard, and with tiresome predictability, backless, though a number of leisure drinkers find their rest here.
There is little sense of intimacy or sociability in the flat expanse of the square, though at the edges, where some chairs and tables have been put out by the booth-cafe, there is, in effect, a nascent cafe society. Interesting, too, that potted plants form part of the booth’s ensemble. Perhaps the fact that they were put there is trying to tell us something.
I am not sure whether Gillett Square was conceived as potential performance space, or whether this is a back formulation, i.e. a post hoc justification for building a flat, featureless square that, once again, appears governed by design criteria revolving around ease of surveillance and ease of maintenance. Whatever is the case, the idea that a space such as Gillett Square can nurture a life of its own on the back of events and spectacle seem to me fundamentally misconceived. As suggested above in respect of Granary Square, in general events are resource intensive eruptions of activity, which once complete leave the space as it was before, and as it will be after. To rely on such activities is simply a form of expensive life support that is, ultimately, unsustainable.
And so it appears to have turned out. In an attempt to enliven the square, and to be of some interest to kids, there is a shipping container full of what could be called temporary affordances, designed by Snug and Outdoors. I do not comment on the kit as such, but for it to be used, adults are required to put out the various pieces. Currently, as I understand it, there is no funding to do this, and local volunteers who run or own some of the businesses – those in the booth-like stalls seen in some of the pictures – and others do what they can. Similarly, there is also a table tennis table put out, once again as and when volunteers are able. But this is thought unsustainable, and in any case limits the occasions when the equipment can be used.
Returning for a moment to the demographics of use, as admitted earlier, my initial, take on this was too crude and simplistic to represent the reality of the square. I realised that whilst the square appeared to be used predominately by a black population, the square was of a more varied demographic – people visiting the booth-cafe, sitting around, as I did; others meeting and lingering for a bit at the plinth-tree area (almost any feature that breaks the hard monotony of the wide, hard-surfaced square invites congregation) or simply walking or riding through.
And there’s the rub. For the most part people pass through the square, and not by a heavy footfall at that. So here’s the puzzle, or contradiction. On the one hand Gillette Square seems to be saying, ‘I will be flat, hard, featureless and unwelcoming’; and, on the other, ‘Come here, linger awhile, use the table tennis table, play on the Snug and Outdoors kit, sit eat and drink at the cafe tables’.
But it ends up neither one nor the other. On the one hand, it wants people to hang around, to linger. On the other, it appears rather nervous that people might actually do so. However, it occurs to me, that notwithstanding the obvious merits of the Eastern Curve Garden, it could be Gillett Square that has buried within it – buried deep and much obscured at present – the potential to become a democratic space; that is, one populated by the walkers, talkers and shoppers of Kingsland Road, Dalston and Ridley Road market.
Neither the remarks about Granary Square, nor about Gillette Square, are intended to suggest that public squares must always be green, that hard surfaces are always wrong. Such a position would be absurd. But it is to suggest that we have too often been victim to forms of thinking about public space that have somehow avoided imaginatively empathising with the realities of people’s dispositions and, for want of a different word, ‘natural’ inclinations. Perhaps it’s simply about the order in which things are done. If that imaginative engagement happens at all, I suspect it too often happens at the end of the design and planning process when such considerations are effectively boxed-in by earlier decisions answering to different criteria. I suppose all I really mean is: ‘People First’ if we want to put the public back into public squares and places.
A different Athens
The limitations of Athenian democracy were stark and explicit. One knew whether one was in, or one was out. Whatever excellences we wish to ascribe to our modern democracy, it appears, at least in the examples given here, that our ability to fully realise the ideal of democratic space is more limited than we may care to believe. As suggested at the outset, the forces and influences preventing such a realisation are many and varied. But beyond that, or perhaps more accurately, prior to that, we need to notice and be explicit about the limitations we both create and encounter. Too often these are air-brushed out of consideration: we do not acknowledge what and who’s not there. Thereby the already absent are made to disappear twicefold.
Amanda Burden, Urban Planner and former chief New York city planner under the Bloomberg administration