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30 November 2021

Public realm is emerging as the new ‘anchor’ in placemaking

This article first appeared in EG.
By Claire Hepher-Davies, Development Manager - Public Realm

A new consumer is emerging from the pandemic – one who works more flexibly, is more aware of their environment, prioritises their health and wellbeing, and is curious to discover new and exciting experiences.

All of this, combined with our deepening recognition of the vital importance of sustainability and digital innovation, has huge implications for our cities, which will need to evolve quickly to meet the changing needs of their visitors, and create new and compelling reasons for people to return. Similarly, optimising the local environment has become even more important for those living in central locations with limited access to green space. 

This shift brings with it exciting opportunities to diversify and innovate, with the public realm emerging as a new ‘anchor’ in our placemaking.

When I started my career in town planning, over a decade ago, public realm was often an afterthought, with little analysis of how to attract people to a space or how it might be used. Today, partly as a result of the pandemic, we have a much deeper understanding of the psychology of public spaces, and how they can impact wellbeing – with growing recognition of the need for urban design to have people at its heart.

By looking at our public spaces differently – as a destination in their own right – we can flip the balance in our retail environments, attracting people with not only the right retail and restaurant mix, but also with the allure of interesting and sustainable places, lunch breaks in a green setting, or public art to photograph and share on social media.

The last couple of years in particular have shown the benefits of a fresh mind set, with our public spaces becoming increasingly adaptable and responsive to the changing needs of people. The great ‘al-fresco experiment’ driven by the pandemic has demonstrated how quickly streets and pavements can be adapted to create an exciting new destination, unleashing huge new potential, with many locations continuing to test new ways of using outside space into the winter.

At The Crown Estate, we’ve taken this a step further by working in partnership with Westminster City Council to reduce four lanes of traffic to two and introduce 5,000 sq metres of additional pavement space on Regent Street, alongside new cycle routes, accessible seating, 330 new planters, and trees for the first time. 

This trial project was delivered in just eight months and not only helped create space for social distancing, but also enabled people to slow down, dwell and experience this international destination in a more pleasant and relaxed way. Public consultation is ongoing to capture feedback so we can continue to iterate and evolve the scheme, as we trial, test and improve on our ideas, learning lessons from the community and visitors at every stage.

This more dynamic approach to the public realm relies on a deeper understanding what different groups of people want and how this may change - from the draw of green space and cleaner air, to the importance of accessibility, pedestrian flow and seating. Nor should the power of ‘fun’ be underestimated - pockets of joy as you experience a place - spotting birds nesting in the newly planted trees on Regent Street and discovering artwork by up-and-coming artists among the planters. It is only by embracing a range of views and perspectives that we can create a public realm that is attractive and inclusive for all.

The pandemic has accelerated trends in our already changing city centres. Now is the time to continue trialling, experimenting and innovating in our public spaces, to keep pace with the needs of communities, a changing retail market and the post-pandemic consumer.

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