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London is open - well, most of the time
7 July 2021
Public open space has long been recognised as a key part of place-making and will play a vital role in London’s recovery from the pandemic. It can help to undo some of the harm caused by the lockdowns: loneliness and isolation; physical and mental health issues; stilted education and social skills development — especially for children.
A lovely example is the discovery of Argent’s Kings Cross water jets by some friends of mine recently. Such a simple but effective use of public space brought so much joy and excitement to this young family on those hot June days.
Getting it right is an art
Place-making is successful if the spaces are enjoyable and interesting enough to attract users. We’re all well aware of poor quality open space and how this can exacerbate rather than aid mental and physical health issues. So how can the planning system help?
Design requirements – designing for people and experiences, not the number of buildings or amount of floorspace.
Planning policies – promoting better use of space, not necessarily more of it. The new London Plan includes a strong focus on public realm, setting out policies to ensure that it is safe, accessible, inclusive, attractive and easy to maintain.
Political support — The Mayor of London has committed to develop a Public London Charter to set out the rights and responsibilities for public space users, owners and managers. The Charter aims to provide a basis for the delivery and management of public spaces in new development.
Your place or mine?
Opening up land to the public comes with great responsibility and constraint. Many may be unaware of the legal ramifications of allowing public access. Lawyers often advise landowners to put legal protections in place, such as limiting opening hours, signage, closure for maintenance and private events.
These measures are sometimes criticised by the public, but often provide protection for others in the community such as local residents and businesses by limiting anti-social behaviour and crime. Take Primrose Hill for example, which is now being closed daily due to community complaints.
Planning agreements are unusually the best place to record the public-private rights and responsibilities for open space as they allow more detailed terms and cannot be changed as easily as planning conditions. The key is striking the right balance between publicly-accessible, quality open space and private ownership rights. Thankfully, our capital boasts many examples of where this works. Long may that continue.
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