New London Architecture

Redesigning our public realm: we can’t forget about heritage value

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Peter Heath

Peter Heath

Public Realm Design Director, Atkins

Amid the sadness that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis, there have also been some significant design lessons for the public, design professionals and politicians in appreciating the value of our temporarily lost and adapted urban lifestyles and landscapes. 

Where previously crowded and vehicle dominated places have been necessarily restricted, the public has instead been heading to their local streets, squares and parks where social distancing measures have been implemented. These changes in public realm use and spatial guidance combined with fewer vehicle movements and slower speeds on roads, have had a knock-on effect, with desirable improvements in air quality, noise reduction and increased road safety. 

Looking to the recovery and regeneration now needed, it is essential that the recently gained observations are integrated into existing best practice for public realm design. 

To do this, we need to be considering sensitivity to places; being mindful of their heritage and cultural value in partnership with the functional role they play in maintaining and stimulating our economy, health, wellbeing, safety and vitality. 

There is a similarity to the issues raised by street design to deter and prevent terrorism. This has seen more unobtrusive options replace the temporary, often garish, concrete and metal black and yellow blockers that take up space and have been considered unattractive in layout and form, particularly when in heritage settings and landscapes. Although practical, these have been progressively replaced with considered product designs, that have a local sense of place. In parallel, the current social distancing measures on historic and modern streets have included temporary, plastic green and red barriers, red and white bollards and the use of black and yellow paints and tapes. These security measures are now being reconsidered for their design-life costs, and replaced with the use of materials and forms more appropriate to blending in with their location.

Bourne Valley Wharf © Benedict Luxmoore
The strategic aims of any streetscape intervention should include minimising unnecessary clutter. For our current design changes, this has meant looking to more durable and attractive designs, employing the likes of stone cladding of architectural walls, planters, benches and contemporary forms including art installations, stainless steel bollards and purpose-designed gates and gateways to discreetly embed social distancing measures within our public realm. 

The temporary measures for social distancing, so far, have understandably overlooked the normal investment in the reduction of existing and now increased temporary street clutter. Physically obstructive street furniture of the past such as guard railing along the edge of carriageways, once seen as a safety measure - like the current temporary footway widening with barriers - also prevented safe road crossing. Now, the immediate need is to free up space for essential walking and cycling. Cheap furnishings, signage and road paint or other markings are being liberally used for reopening and recovery. But our city centres, towns, high streets and parks and gardens are also risking a new form of clutter with their presence, which is visually intrusive to the settings of fine heritage buildings, memorials, artworks, townscapes and landscapes. 

The future will see our public realms continue to evolve, as we see a prioritisation of walking and cycling as modes of travel and an increased focus on access to public green landscapes and spaces for gathering. As we work to embed this “new” normal into the way our public spaces are designed, we must seize the opportunity to do so in a way that honours the existing landscape – retrofitting these improved design solutions into our existing public realm. That, I believe, is the future of placemaking. 


Peter Heath

Peter Heath

Public Realm Design Director, Atkins


Placemaking

#NLAPlacemaking


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