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The unruly subject of urban neighbourhoods

by Cath Layton | @publica_office

How can we ensure that our cities are fit for purpose? That they meet the needs of current and future generations and enrich our civic life?

In Lucy Musgrave’s talk for UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and the British Library, listeners were taken back to the London of the 1980s — a nearly unrecognisable place where property in central London was cheap, the city’s population was falling and the Southbank wasn’t deemed safe. Lucy took us on a fast-paced run through the effects of an era which saw rapid economic growth, an explosion in the global real estate market and the commodification of our cities.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

“the decline of spaces for young people contributes to the fact that London is an increasingly hostile place to be a teenager”

This period saw a loss of public trust in politics in the city, as decision-making grew increasingly abstracted from the neighbourhoods that they would affect. This hits at a local and personal level. The impact of austerity on our civic life has meant the erosion of our ‘friendly spaces’, space which Lucy described as increasingly important in ‘the age of the online echo chamber’ arguing that ‘digital space provides us with a dynamic overload’ and that we ‘can’t cope with this paradox of having so much and having so little.’ The human impact of this loss is enormous, and the decline of spaces for young people contributes to the fact that London is an increasingly hostile place to be a teenager.

It is impossible for the built environment to keep up with the rapid rate of change leading to a growing gap between what we can create and what we need. In London, for example, 66,000 homes per year are required to satisfy the demand. Understanding these changes can enable us to plan with flexibility to prepare for the unprecedented and create something lasting. As Lucy said, “to extract value you need a wider appreciation of what already exists, and what already exists is the lived experience of a city, and to understand this is key”.

“in the unruly subject of urban neighbourhoods, there is also room for optimism”

This reminder that public services are being sold off, and of the rift between supply and demand in our civic provision could have left the audience feeling a loss of faith in the public sector. Yet, Lucy persuaded us that in the unruly subject of urban neighbourhoods, there is also room for optimism.

Following the 2008 crash, the private sector took a moment of pause and began to reconsider. There were pockets of the corporate world that began to recognise that profit making had to be complemented by other forms of meaning and value; to stand for something in order to try and attract and motivate talent. This signals the beginning of a change in the private sector and represents an enormous opportunity for civic leaders to better respond to the needs of Londoners. Lucy argued that we have a strong hand: landowners increasingly see themselves as custodians of the places that we share and are trying to re-instil a sense of life into places that careless building has made monotonous and lacking in soul.

With open and inclusive debate, it would be possible to craft an approach to the city that would offer improved wellbeing for all. We can look to practitioners from before our time, many of whom have been forgotten by history: Irene Barclay, the UK’s first female qualified surveyor who argued the importance of social networks in the St Pancras Housing Trust; Octavia Hill who had a great vision of the symbolic value in the collective experience which fed into her grand project, the National Trust; Marjorie Allen who advocated for the restorative power of play in the 40s and 50s; and Ruth Glass at UCL, who led the centre for urban studies from the 1950s onwards.

We can learn from international success stories such as Medellín, a place renowned as a hotbed of violence and criminality, that has been transformed into a safe, educated and productive society through what Mayor, Sergio Fajardo called ‘social urbanism’. Or, to New Orleans where one of the responses to the catastrophic flooding disaster in 2005 was to set up an independent organisation to collate and share data from a range of government, business and community perspectives as an accessible resource to inform decision-making and help confront challenges such as corruption in civic leadership, affordable housing and planning blight.

Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

London has built on its most successful policies, and with a progressive Mayor, City Hall increasingly affirms the importance of good design for good growth. We should support ambitious initiatives such as the Roads Task Force in 2013 and new measures in the draft London Plan to protect live music venues in London. We also have resources like the River Thames, the largest public space in London, which in comparison to other global river cities, is un-celebrated and underused.

At a time when we seem to be faced with many political distractions, at home and abroad, one might expect that the public debate on development, planning and the public sector would be somewhat overshadowed. This is far from the case; there is an appetite for public and private sectors to collaborate in thinking holistically, and a recognition of the duty of care that each of us owes to the city.

Lucy Musgrave is the Director of Publica, a London-based urban design and public realm practice. Publica’s multi-disciplinary team includes specialists in urban design, planning, policy, research, graphic design and communications. The practice is recognised for their objective, evidence-based guidance and sought after for their creative, multi-disciplinary approach to urban change.

Tickets for the series are still available for some events. Attendance is free but advance booking is required.

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel