In the public realm

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

Public spaces – those locations that sit between the buildings in which we work and live – have often been forgotten as the urban landscape has grown up around us. From Oxford Circus in London to the Almada Docks in Portugal, what is being done to improve our day-to-day urban experience?

The British census of 1851 recorded half of the population of the country as living in towns, the first society in human history to do so. Today, for the first time ever, half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2030, that is expected to hit 60 per cent.

As the urban population grows, the competing demands of business, transport, the environment and infrastructure must all be addressed. Road users want improved traffic flow and minimal disruption, while everyone demands well-maintained surfaces.

At the same time, individual road users are becoming increasingly aware of how they are affected by public spaces. Across Europe, pedestrians and cyclists are putting pressure on city planners to account for their needs.

But what do you do when dealing with a landmark urban thoroughfare, or a disused space that has tremendous commercial potential? How do you balance the needs of numerous stakeholders in an urban landscape that is quickly running out of room?

Cross purposes

“The space between buildings is incredibly important. It is the lifeblood of the city,” says Matthew Tribe, director of urban and public realm design at Atkins. “If you don’t get the public realm in a city right, then the city can fail. At the same time, cities are created by thousands, if not millions, of designers. You can create a great plan, but if you don’t have the right land use for different activities then these public spaces can just become canyons for traffic – windswept, inhospitable and unpleasant.

“That idea’s been turned on its head in recent years and the idea of liveable, walkable cities has come to the fore. From an Atkins point of view, every time we approach a regeneration or masterplan within the built environment, the public realm is considered by the whole team from the start.”

Take the crossing system at London’s Oxford Circus. The crossroads where the capital’s flagship shopping thoroughfares, Oxford Street and Regent Street, meet is notorious for its heavy traffic and pedestrian congestion. As a consequence, it is avoided by many Londoners, who prefer to use back routes or avoid going to the area at all.

Atkins’ Chris Greenwood, Elspeth Duxbury and Peter Heath have been working on ways to reduce congestion and turn the area into somewhere that might attract rather than repel visitors.

Greenwood says, “The Crown Estate (the organisation that manages the property belonging to the reigning monarch in the UK) was our original client. It had a long-term commitment to investing in the public realm as part of a wider strategy to improve the quality of London’s West End as a shopping destination. When we presented our ideas to the Crown Estate and other stakeholders like Westminster City Council and Transport for London, it was clear that a step change in the quality of the environment for pedestrians could be achieved at Oxford Circus to help raise the overall shopping experience.”

“Oxford Circus presents a number of serious problems for pedestrians,” Duxbury explains. As a founder-director of Intelligent Space, the specialist consultancy that was acquired by Atkins in 2007 (see boxed text on the previous page), Duxbury understands how pedestrians behave.

“The huge volume of visitors means there’s simply not enough space to walk, which puts people off. It also leads to safety issues, because many people walk outside the guard-rail and that’s very dangerous,” she says.Atkins has worked with local planning authorities to come up with a solution. “There are differences in policy and attitudes from one city to another,” Duxbury says. “For example, people look at risk differently. In Germany, if you have a crossing and the red man is showing, people will wait for the green man to appear before crossing the road. In London, people will cross when it’s perceived as safe, regardless of the light.”

Atkins’ proposed solution to the Oxford Circus paradox proved relatively simple.

“We plan to use a scramble crossing,” explains Duxbury. “It’s a simple way to solve the problem of heavy pedestrian foot traffic. While it is used all over the world, there are none yet in the UK.”

The scramble crossing was popularised in the famous diagonal crossing in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. It involves non-foot traffic being stopped simultaneously by red lights. Pedestrians are then able to go in whichever direction they choose, rather than having to cross in a set fashion. The solution is elegant in its simplicity and successfully takes into account the needs of motor traffic and the pedestrians that are so vital in keeping the shops in business.

It has the added benefit of shifting the focus from cars to people, which can change the tenor of a public space completely and influence the building surrounding a space.

“Towns and cities can do things incrementally in a way that adds up to a better quality of life for all,” says Jonathan Davis, director of knowledge and skills with the UK Government’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). “Projects like these can make towns and cities more resilient and efficient, and help reduce carbon or other greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to the inevitable impact of climate change.

“Those towns and cities that are able to understand this and that can connect it with their strategies have a very good chance of bringing citizens with them on this journey. It moves them towards a new kind of future, based on sustainable development goals.”

Space to share

“There’s now a greater understanding among planners and designers of the need to prioritise active travel, but there’s a gap between policy and practice,” says Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets. This UK-based charity campaigns for better streets and public spaces for people on foot.

Living Streets’ push for a more integrated approach to public spaces borrows heavily from the “shared space” concept, pioneered in The Netherlands. Aiming to redraw the lines that govern most public space engineering, shared space involves largely removing road markings and traffic controls, and integrating foot and non-foot traffic. Trials have produced remarkable results, with a considerable fall in the number of accidents.

For its part, Living Streets believes “the shared space concept offers a lot of rich ground, which can be used more widely when planning streets and urban areas.”

Of course, any large-scale public space project will always have its opponents. Innovative solutions might be offered, but they don’t always win political backing.

According to Armstrong, this is nothing new. “That’s the classic tension inherent in the public realm,” he says. “Someone needs to have the confidence to say that, while there may be a short-term cost in congestion around one area, the long-term benefits outweigh it. Furthermore, when public realm improvements take place and roads are re-allocated for pedestrian use, there’s often no long-term increase in congestion because people tend to naturally change their behaviour accordingly.”

“People often ask, what does the public space of tomorrow look like?” adds CABE’s Davis. “I think it’s actually quite easy to imagine. In cities like Chester or Copenhagen, for example, where pedestrians have been given priority over cars, you can hear bells ringing, the birds singing, and you’re not constantly running from pavement to pavement to get away from the traffic.

“Encouraging alternative ways to move around the city – quieter public transport, bicycles or low emissions vehicles – allows you to adjust your buildings. You can get back to a sense of something basic and sensible. Good public spaces are even better when they can adapt to new information or circumstances.”

Smarter space

Traditionally, planning public spaces in European cities involved keeping people off the roads and behind barriers. This “pedestrian safety” approach made drivers’ lives easier, but turned many cities into thoroughfares, with little consideration for people who weren’t in cars.

“The public realm service offered by Atkins seeks to unpick that effect,” says Matthew Tribe, director of urban and public realm design at Atkins. “What is then done with the spaces that are made available is down to the landscape, urban and public realm designers to resolve. These ideas are fed back into a strategic plan where all disciplines are included, with the public realm at the heart of the consideration.

“I’ve seen many plans that looked great on paper but ultimately didn’t work when people were added to the equation,” Tribe adds. “The designers and planners have failed to understand how people use the spaces. This is where the expertise of the Atkins Intelligent Space team comes in: they measure, model and predict how people will move within public spaces.”

In 2007, Atkins acquired Intelligent Space, an independent consultancy that gathers and analyses pedestrian movement data for the transport, healthcare and urban development sectors. Since then, Atkins Intelligent Space has become a vital ingredient in the organisation’s public realm expertise. It combines masterplanning with transport, architecture and pedestrian modelling expertise.

Most importantly, it focuses attention back on the people living and working in urban environments. It puts a human face on the urban landscape, something that can sometimes be lost amidst blueprints and computer models.

“This is an incredibly valuable and niche tool,” says Tribe. “If planners don’t understand or fail to anticipate how people will move through a space, it can undo what might have been a great design solution and render it unusable.

“Working together, we know we can unlock this dominant car-based approach within cities and come up with a combination of high quality public realm design and efficient and accessible movement systems.”

Clear to dock

Developments on the scale of Haussmann’s restoration of Paris in the 19th century may be a rarity these days, but that doesn’t mean that large-scale changes to public spaces are a thing of the past.

For example, the regeneration of the 150-hectare Almada Docks in Lisbon, Portugal, one of Europe’s largest brownfield sites, represented both a challenge and an opportunity for the Almada municipality. Atkins was brought in to develop a masterplan based on sustainable urban design principles.

“The Almada Docks masterplan was based around the idea of high density living and a comprehensive public transport system, which allowed us to almost eliminate cars at ground level,” says Atkins’ Matthew Tribe. “We’ve used the structures of the docks to place almost all car parking underground, via a proposed motorway tunnel link. This brings all car traffic into the docks on a subterranean level and then people walk up to ground level. By taking that approach to vehicle management, it allows us to create interesting and more vibrant public spaces.

“With the Almada Docks, it was a clean slate. We balanced the mix of land use in order to create streets that would be active and animated for long periods of the day or night. These uses include cultural, educational, commerce, retail, leisure and so on. We removed or limited traffic where possible, ensured that people could still move around the spaces well and with ease via trams, rail, walking or cycling, and created an intricate mix so that the whole of the public realm in the Almada Docks would come alive,” says Tribe.

Squaring the Chinese circle

China’s urban landscape is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. This has placed serious pressure on the country’s authorities to ensure they control development of public spaces and embed best practice throughout the process.

According to Mark Harrison, Atkins’ technical director of urban planning in China, the Chinese boom adds further complications above and beyond the usual challenges when developing urban public spaces.

“Contrary to what many people think, China isn’t a culturally homogenous country,” he says. “People’s lifestyles vary enormously according to the locality. As a consequence, cultural identity is a major challenge in the public realm. When you’re creating large new areas of urban living, sometimes there isn’t a strong existing identity in the area you’re working in. We need to work with planners to ensure that comes through.

“As a consequence, some of the approaches we’re using, especially relating to public space, are unique to China,” he says. “The prevalence of group activities – for example early morning Tai Chi – places unique demands on the public realm compared with those of the West.

“The other issue is climate: the orientation of buildings tends to be dictated by climate, which can restrict positioning and layout in the public realm.Atkins has a number of ongoing projects all over China, including over 500 masterplans. The organisation has also worked on a number of models, from liveable garden cities to high-density business districts based on public transport. For the latter, we looked at 3D pedestrian systems, which involved integrating transport networks underground with all the connections they need to serve the city.

“Given China’s rapid urban growth, the need to apply innovative solutions to the public realm is very important, especially in high-density areas.”

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