Public spaces are London’s living rooms. They are where Londoners walk, congregate, eat, socialise, meditate, celebrate – the activities are endless. Or are they? In recent years the multiple uses of public spaces have created more tension between public space landowners and the public.
As Londoners, we feel that public spaces – whether they are privately or publicly owned – should be open and accessible to all. This principle has been enshrined in consecutive versions of The London Plan, and the current Mayor has committed to launching a Public London Charter of rights and responsibilities for users, owners, and managers of public spaces, to ensure that everyone understands the rules and restrictions of public access and use of these spaces.
To inform the development of the Charter, Centre for London conducted a review analysing 10 public spaces in the city created since 2000, focusing on how public spaces are managed by local authorities, private developers, charities and community groups.
Through our research at these 10 sites, three main findings emerged:
Some public spaces in London are over-regulated, and not always in a transparent way.
Although we found that public spaces were easy to access, some landowners took a much less permissive approach than others. We came across landowners taking very strict interpretations of the law on rough sleeping and begging in public spaces, as well as deciding bans on commercial photography and behaviours such as smoking and street drinking. Several of these restrictions are made informally by landowners and were not clearly communicated to users of the spaces, perhaps out of fear of a public backlash.
Some public spaces are highly guarded, giving many users a perception of safety, but appearing unwelcoming to others.
Some of London’s recent public spaces have visible security setups to enforce the various regulations set above. We saw examples of CCTV use and the presence of 24hr security personnel. Many landowners we interviewed take a “whole estate approach” – whereby their security staff monitor both public spaces and private property. In those guarded public spaces, we found that many users were confused over whether they were in a public or a private spaces. Some voiced their concern: “I feel safe but unsafe at the same time, it feels like I’ve done something wrong”.
The commercialization of public spaces comes at the cost of accessibility and affordability.
In order to upkeep the costs of enforcement, maintenance, and enlivenment, some of the public spaces we looked at were being used for commercial activity. In some cases, this revenue is used for free events and attractions with the purpose of reaching out to local communities, though we also came across temporary closures of public spaces to the public for private events.
With these three findings in mind, how can the Mayor ensure that the future of London’s spaces will continue to be more “public-feeling” and open to all?
Based on our research, we recommend that the approach to London’s public spaces becomes more “permissive by default” – and that restrictions are only implemented for the safety of users, and that they do not deter users from engaging with the space. If additional restrictions are needed due to the nature of the spaces or the intensity of its use – these should be available for the public to see and comment on, at a public consultation.
We also recommend softer security setups – for instance creating more opportunities for natural surveillance and community stewardship – rather than reliance on permanent security presence. And we suggest that commercial events are not implemented at the expense of accessibility and affordability for public space users.
These principles would help ensure that all London’s future public spaces feel “public” and create a more consistent approach to the management of public spaces by different types of landowners. We hope that the Mayor will be writing these principles into his Public London Charter and that both and existing and new public spaces built in the city adhere to them to help improve the quality of London’s public realm.