The Bartlett


Transcript: Space and the city

Does public space have a future?


space, public, public spaces, people, terms, bartlett, trees, christoph, important, lucy, concern, tube, thinking, london, squares, transport, interact, environment, design, build


Christoph Lindner, Lucy Natarajan, Maria Kamargianni, Leah Lovett

Christoph Lindner  00:08

Hello, and welcome to building better a podcast about the human spaces and urban landscapes that we build worldwide. In order to ask the question, how can we build better? My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm also the Dean here at UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore new ideas on some of the world's most important challenges, bringing together multidisciplinary perspectives and radical thinking from some of our world-leading experts.

Christoph Lindner  00:53

In this month's episode, I'm asking the question, "Does public space have a future?" and to tackle that question, I've brought together three Bartlett researchers and artists to explore how the creation and use of public space is changing. Today, I'm joined by Dr Maria Karmargianni, an Associate Professor of Transport and Energy in the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, and also the head of MaaSLab, an interdisciplinary research team that studies new mobility services and technologies and collaborates with partners across the private and public sector to help create low carbon Smart City travel infrastructure. I'm also joined by Dr. Lucy Natarajan, a Lecturer from the Bartlett School of Planning. Now Lucy's research centres on public participation in strategic urban planning with a current focus on spatial inequality, the everyday economy and clean air. She co-founded the Place Alliance, a movement promoting the Place Quality Agenda, and which provides research support to the UK 2017 Commission and the Suburban Task Force. My third guest this month is Dr. Leah Lovett, an artist and research fellow at the Bartlett Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis. Building on her experience of participatory and socially engaged art practices, she explores how digital technologies can be used to tell stories that empower people to engage with urban and green space. As part of this work, she collaborated with colleagues and arborists to create the listening wood project, which invited walkers on Hampstead Heath to interact with ancient and veteran trees via SMS. Over lock down Leah has been developing a number of co-creation projects with young people, youth organizations, and artists in East London.

Christoph Lindner  03:04

So a very warm welcome to all three of our guests. And I want to start the discussion today by just finding out a little bit about how each of you uses public space. And so my first question is this, and it's a little bit tricky as a question given the pandemic, but when was the last time you were in a public space? And what were you doing there? Leah?

Leah Lovett  03:26

Okay, so I'm really fortunate to live beside Epping Forest. I was walking, I think like a lot of people I've been really appreciative of the green and open spaces in London over lockdown and having the ability to walk and be around other people if not interacting directly with them.

Christoph Lindner  03:46

Lovely. So a green stroll in a wooded space. Fantastic. What about Lucy and Maria?

Lucy Natarajan  03:53

Well, I'm not sure if this is exactly what you were thinking about Christoph. But the last interaction I had of a public nature was actually online. And normally I would be meeting people in Bloomsbury to talk about air quality. But because of the lockdown and not living in Bloomsbury, I met them online. And I think that is interesting in thinking about public space that we will interact and have discussions with people very differently than we would normally do. And it's obviously an important angle of public space that it offers us this sociability and a stage really for public voice and interaction with others.

Christoph Lindner  04:37

Yeah, fascinating. So the possibility that digital space, zoom space is also a kind of public space. Maria?

Maria Kamargianni  04:46

And regarding the digital public place, I've been in several digital public spaces recently, but in terms of physical public space, we are quite lucky - we have a community garden and due to the fact that I have a baby, we go quite often there in the afternoon to enjoy the fresh air and to play with other kids. It's quite important. Yeah, our business can move to the digital world, but our social life, our family life needs this physical public spaces, green spaces in order to interact with our family members and with our kids.

Christoph Lindner  05:28

So it sounds like already we have two questions coming out of your examples, one being "What is public space?" and another being "Where is public space?". But listening to you I'm also struck by my own last experience of being in public space, which I would consider this morning taking my daughter to school on the tube and using public transport and very different to Leah, who I had this image of Leah walking through this beautiful landscape with trees and greenery and fresh air and solitude. And then I'm thinking of my experience underground, a little bit too crowded, not quite enough masks being worn and everybody looking at each other rather suspiciously and uncomfortably. It seems like there's a multitude of different kinds of public spaces that we're all trying to access right now during the pandemic. And I guess the question for me is, when we're in these kinds of spaces, how do we know that they are public spaces? So what do we mean by the word public?

Leah Lovett  06:20

I feel like I should correct a slight misnomer there of me walking in solitude because I also have two young children. So more like walks with regular whining... But just to pick up that question around what public space is, it's something that, whilst I was working on the listening wood project, and I was writing poems for SMS interaction, you know, I really got to know the 14 trees that I was working with quite intimately through the arborists, who are their custodians, and the oldest tree that I worked with is a 500 year old oak and it invited me into this kind of longitudinal, I guess, imaginary. When that oak was a sapling, London was a city several miles to the south, it was already an established adult tree, by the time the enclosure acts were being brought in. At some point, it may have been a boundary oak separating different spaces, it then belonged to a private garden at one point, and eventually, it was gifted to the City of London as a park space. So I suppose something that I've been thinking about is just how contested public spaces are, and they aren't stable. Any idea that we have of a public space being a single kind of stable thing is really challenged through that image of the oak tree, I think.

Christoph Lindner  07:30

I love this idea of public spaces being unstable. And I've just kind of wondering a little bit, what is bringing that instability? Is it us and the way that we manage or police or construct spaces? Is that the nature of a space being open to lots of different people for lots of different uses that makes it unstable? Or is there or is it something else entirely.

Lucy Natarajan  07:54

I think you struck a nerve with me there Christoph, as very much did Leah, the idea that necessarily public spaces are contested. And for me, it's sort of public spaces that I was mentioning, the one online where we are talking to people about clean air, what you find is that there's always going to be different points of view about priorities and uses of space. And the idea that these places are vibrant, is not the same as saying that everybody within those spaces sees vibrancy in the same way. And to me, a real concern I have at the minute is that you mentioned policing, and how we regulate public space, because the idea that a protest might not be disruptive, it goes against the very idea of a protest, which is one of the really important functions of public spaces that you can articulate political views publicly to others. And public space for me is very much where you meet the other. Yes, you go there with your family members, and you go there ostensibly to play sport and so on. But one of the wonderful productive things about public space is that you meet people you wouldn't meet otherwise, who are different from you. So vibrancy, to me, it contains conflict, and therefore public spaces we construct to get the understandings of it, but also the shape of it. The ones that work well, are the ones where we can create, recreate, change, and, and have conflicts with each other in a way that's productive, not aggressive.

Maria Kamargianni  09:23

I liked what you mentioned Christoph about the tube and the fact that the tube is also public space, because a lot of people meet there as well. Not for social purposes, but for traveling purposes. And when we say public space, usually our mind goes to the green areas open space, but indeed, these public transport areas are public areas. And this reminds me of a survey that we did few years ago in London about time allocation. And we found out that an average landowner spends about three days per month under the earth in the tube. And now this starts making me wondering that how can we improve this public space? How can we improve the quality, make it nicer? Cleaner?

Christoph Lindner  10:23

Yeah, absolutely. So that's a fascinating statistic that you know, Londoners, and I'm sure this is true of people who live in cities all around the world, spending few days a month of their time underground, or in buses, or, you know, in some way commuting and moving around the city. So we have different kinds of public spaces, we have open spaces like parks, or squares that maybe we are trained to recognize as open public spaces where different kinds of people can congregate, where we can bump into an interact with others, including strangers, and people who are different from us. And then we have public spaces, maybe like public transportation, which are much more functional, and they're a necessity, they're a way to do something or get somewhere. And I think the attitude in those spaces, is often very different, right? So in tubes and crowded buses, people may be not quite so interested in interacting with others and with strangers. And I guess what I'm wondering is, how do we know what a space is designed for? what creates the culture or the atmosphere of a space? Why don't people say hello to each other on the tube and chat? They don't? And they probably wouldn't want feel comfortable doing so. But why don't they? And maybe, you know, to flip that question a little bit. Why is it that if we're in a park or public space, and we stroll past someone else, we might be more inclined to be polite to say hello to interact in some kind of social way?

Leah Lovett  11:49

I don't know if this is a very helpful answer, because it may be contradicts what you've just suggested. But it brought to mind an anecdote unrelated to work. When I had a new baby, she was very distressed on the underground, she became very upset. I was surrounded by women on the tube and they just spontaneously started singing a nursery rhyme. And I think there was something about, like, that there are, there are situations in which spaces that we might not associate as being kind of communal or collective spaces can be transformed into that. I, also, my PhD research was on a theatre director called Augusto Boal. He would stage plays in underground spaces without announcing them as such as a way of sparking conversation. So I think we conform to certain behaviors on the tube. But when one of us breaks out of those codified social behaviors, it's possible for spaces even like the tube to become a kind of social space of productive interaction.

Christoph Lindner  12:47

Thank you for sharing that Leah. That's a beautiful, beautiful example. And it's great to know and to hear that these kinds of acts of spontaneous sociality and support can and do still happen.

Christoph Lindner  13:07

What about spaces like public squares, there are a lot of them in London, just as there are a lot of parks. It seems like during the lockdown of the last year, these public squares are being used more and more for a very particular kind of activity, which is political protest.

Lucy Natarajan  13:28

In terms of what works in the urban form to encourage vibrancy, well a lot of the literature talks about the ability for people to manipulate elements within an environment so take a square where all the seats are bolted to the ground, that won't work as well as a square where people could move chairs around. That's a classic urban design example of how you make spaces. So these adaptable spaces that are physically able to be reshaped by people as they use them encourage sociability. There's also a lot of evidence around actually green space and natural environment making us feel a stronger attachment with a place and a space so that will feel more comfortable there. There's a lot of work which is beyond my expertise around massing and form and heights of buildings and the details of those and how they can shape for example, the the actual environment in real terms, you know, how windy it is, how warm it is and stuff and how comfortable we feel physiologically in the space. There's a, you know, there is an Urban Design component. But I think overall, what I've read suggests that that will always be overlaid with a much stronger factor of social influence that just human beings the way we are, we tend to respond not only to buildings and environment, but to people and to the natural environment around us.

Maria Kamargianni  14:47

And from an Urban Design perspective. Usually, in most cities, the squares are the point where people meet altogether. There are four social activities, either these are riots or to celebrate something. And the transport system, the network is also designed like these to connect all the nodes, all the areas with this central point where people meet, that usually is a square.

Leah Lovett  15:23

Just thinking in terms of Trafalgar Square, I think it also plays a really important function as a sort of living room of the nation, it plays an important role in staging national identity, I think it's the kind of space that that invites attention. So maybe it becomes a strategic site of protest, because yeah, it's kind of strategic location near to the crown and the state makes it... invites certain kinds of performance. And I suppose that was what I was getting out with the anecdote. I think the way that we perform spaces is as important as the way that they are staged.

Christoph Lindner  15:58

Leah you have, I think, you seem to have a fairly optimistic view of what public space can do, and seem to be able to identify a lot of value in in the kinds of activities and performances that public spaces can allow. So I want to push back against that a little bit, just because I'm a more pessimistic person. And we might feel encouraged or safe or able to express ourselves and perform our politics or our identities in a public space. But I do wonder about the culture of surveillance that increasingly surrounds public spaces, CCTV, the monitoring of personal data via your phone, the capturing of your image, the mediatization of any large group event that happens in a public space, I wonder about this kind of apparatus of security and surveillance that increasingly organizes and controls public space? Does that not rub up uncomfortably against this more optimistic, utopian social vision of space?

Leah Lovett  17:01

Yes. And I think when I speak about performance, I should probably qualify that it's not necessarily just a kind of joyous, jubilant image that I have in mind. And nor do I think it's, it's not necessarily easy, it's not easy for people to do that, necessarily. Spaces like Trafalgar Square, are not equally accessible to all people all of the time. They're not, nor are spaces, like the tube for that matter. You know, if you're a woman traveling on a crowded tube, potentially, there's a different set of risks, though I use performance within a kind of frame of thinking about activism and how we enact rights of access. But that doesn't mean that they're easily won. And surveillance for sure, can be a way of regulating how bodies operate in those kind of spaces. So yes, I agree with you.

Christoph Lindner  17:47

So you brought up the question of safety in public space. And here in the UK, and around the world, there's a lot of thought being given right now to what happened to Sarah Everhard in London. And it's brought out a lot of discussion and sharing of experiences of people, especially women not feeling or being safe in public. And I kind of wonder about that side of public space, the idea of space being something that is potentially hostile, that can expose you to danger. And there's a lot of debate at the moment about how do we respond? How do we make public space safer for everyone? And right now, especially for women, do you have thoughts on that?

Maria Kamargianni  18:37

Probably, it's not the public space that we should blame, per se, or the way it is designed. But I think this is related to people and people's behavior. So we should probably cultivate respect to people and not only to agreement or any other population groups, but to everyone. And if we will start cultivating this nature of respect, then I think this will automatically transmitted to public space as well.

Lucy Natarajan  19:09

I think there's a lot in that. And I think my greatest fear is that we let the fear of risk control what we do, for example, special protected zones for women wouldn't that be horrific? What we want is a change in culture. So you feel safe everywhere. And that can only happen when everybody gets behind it. So it's not for women to change their behaviors. It's for society to understand or recognize and be ready for situations that may and hopefully may not occur, in my view. And I think that, as you say, Maria, then the built environment and the public space that are created are not in themselves responsible parties, but it's the people moving within them and perhaps to how our governance cultures operate. I mean, how much say do we have over the design of the built environment and what immunities of their presence is equally important to our sense of belonging in a place as the cultural performance of it so there's some great work by my colleague Yasminah Beebeejaun who also works in Planning who's looking at the value of bringing women into planning and design stages to make sure that things that might not be thought about by people who may not have those experiences are taking account in the designing of those spaces

Christoph Lindner  20:24

I think that's really important so Lucy you're advocating for more involvement of women's voices women's experience in the design of cities why isn't that already happening what what why aren't we already well down that road and already valuing and incorporating the voices and experiences not just a women but of all people who have a place and live in cities?

Lucy Natarajan  20:50

Look we're moving from a very top down model towards models of grass roots and more insurgent forms of planning and that sort of shift takes time because you're changing institutions and I'm not being an apologist, O'm just saying it does take time but also that the answer is not simply to put the power in different people's hands. We're talking about a culture shift, so for example simply responsibilising smaller and smaller layers and tiers of government has not changed the problem of threats and risks. What you need to do is change the culture more broadly across society as well as involving different people at different scales, have different communities and different experiences, there's also a challenge in terms of bringing in people who have perhaps not been involved in the processes that exist for the production of space so there's always a concern that it might become an invited space of governance that people who are being brought in or simply brought in as tokens and not really heard so there's, there's a shift in not only the thinking on both sides those who been working a top down way need to shift or bottom up but those who have been outside of the governance networks that produce spaces are also on a steep learning curve at times and are working as well very hard to change the processes so there's a lot of work to be done and it's kind of, in my view, accounts for the reasons we're not already seeing much more of this sort of diversity of voices within the production space that we would like to see that we have moved deal recently and i think there's much more awareness of the need for it which is wonderful

Leah Lovett  22:33

Lucy i agree with you. I think we all have a responsibility in terms of where we direct our attention and the stories that we choose to listen to and the voices that we choose to hear I've been doing work recently with young people in Newham and sharing the Memory Map Toolkit which is created by a colleague of mine Duncan Hay in CASA and through sharing knowledge and resources the young people created their own youth map of the borough and that's ended up becoming a really kind of useful resource. Maybe also kind of bringing it back to the trees, if I may, when I went into that project I thought I was going to be gathering stories of people connected to the trees and the more time I spent with the trees and with the arborists the more O realized that the trees had their own stories to tell. There's a Leaning Pine on Hampstead Heath that was brought back to the UK as a seed from Ravana by an industrialist called Turner who was on a grand tour and that tree turned into a pine that was sketched by Constable and it's got this incredible heritage value. But in my research, I discovered that soon after he took the seed there were there were massive forest fires that destroyed many of its close relatives in Ravana and it occurred to me that maybe we could think of the trees using the industrialist as a kind of propagation factor and kind of what happens when you turn that story around what happens when you think of that trophy of empire using this gentleman on his grand tour to convey him across the water like when you choose to listen to the story differently it allows you to see spaces differently too.

Christoph Lindner  24:13

So you're listening to Building Better, the Bartlett Podcast, a podcast brought to you by the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. If there's a question about life and research at the Bartlett you would like us to answer email us at bartlett[dot]coms@ucl.ac.uk or you can tweet @bartlettucl. In today's episode we're asking "Does public space have a future?" so it makes me wonder about the phenomenon of pseudo-public space, so spaces that may present themselves as being open to the public designed for the public but are in reality private or privatised or the reverse, you know, private spaces that actually function well as gathering spaces for the public and I'm wondering in your experience how have you come across pseudo-public spaces and do you find them as a confusing as I do.

Lucy Natarajan  25:19

I think certainly there's a real concern about the privatization of public space in a way that, for example, surveillance cameras and rules about who can do what in this space is inhibiting the real value that you can have from public space. Private spaces that work well as public space are potentially more rare aren't they? Although we can think perhaps in our own institution and the way that we open up the spaces that we own as a university to the wider public and that might be more positive model. I wonder as well and this is slightly tangental to the pseudo-public space angle, about a sort of macro view of public space because we've so far we've really focused on parks, squares, roads, transport and so on we might include libraries and the Internet in that as well but there's something else isn't there and I think speaking as a planner there's a sort of network and public space that's really important how these spaces operate together to give a wider ecosystem whether it's a transport system or a natural environment system and that that too is something that anybody living in a local place will know how it functions and then the local place whether it works well or not where the pinch points are and why you shouldn't concrete over a particular part because it's not just in and of itself but because it's part of a wider system of not just amenity but how the place functions and how people move around within it  and people's understanding what we would call a legibility of the place in terms of how it works and what what it does for the community and i think that's another interesting angle for me

Christoph Lindner  26:57

So let me let me share an example where I got the legibility of space wrong and had a kind of embarrassing experience here in london. So last summer, when the lockdown eased enough for us to be able to move around a bit and do some light shopping and so on, I went with a couple of teenagers on the London Overground, so public transport, over to some shopping mall in West London and you come out of the space and you kind of get seamlessly sucked into the commercial space of the shopping mall. I remember walking in and wondering "but what's the boundary, how do you know when you've left the public space of transport and the street and properly and fully entered the commercial space of the shopping mall?" but what happened in there that was slightly embarrassing is, I felt uneasy about all the crowds that were there and I actually took a photo of them to send to my partner because " wanted to say "whoa look at all these people out here there's not enough social distancing". And when I took out my phone and took a picture of it, a security guard came up and said "you are not allowed to take pictures" and I said "why not this is public space?" and he said "no it isn't" and I went home and I looked it up on the kind of terms and conditions of the of the website of the mall and it says absolutely photography is not permitted on this private space. I was very confused, I did not read the space well and I had quite an uncomfortable exchange with that security guard but what's going on there? What are the real dynamics at work do you think?

Leah Lovett  28:15

I've had similar experiences, Christoph, in terms of, yeah, where you're allowed to photograph and the rights of photography which exist on a public highway versus those that don't exist in a shopping center and then the sense also that you are particularly photographed within a shopping center so there's a kind of an imbalance there in terms of who gets to kind of do the capturing of the images. It's really challenging if you're making public artwork. I think they're kind of limitations on spaces that fall under that kind of private or pseudo-public banner.

Christoph Lindner  28:49

Would you say that there's a growing need particularly as we come out of the pandemic to... and I use this word trying to be really loaded in the way that I use it, to reclaim public space? Is the notion that public space has come more and more under the control of groups or systems that are not interested in the well being of the public and that the public as a diverse broad group of citizens needs to somehow re occupy and reclaim the space of these spaces? Lucy you're nodding...

Lucy Natarajan  29:27

I very much agree with that from work with the Surburban Task Force. It's very apparent that particularly in London and the South East, there's such enormous growth pressures. Growth in terms of economy and building and population growth that the concern for the valuing and the protection of public space may be not given the attention it's deserving. So for example the way in which the pavement can be taken over by cars as people convert gardens into parking spaces, but don't really park just on the garden space as it was. That's one example, we added in that, obviously, we're considering the transport links as part of this bigger network of public spaces really important to its proper functioning. And there's, there's also the concern just in really obvious terms around massing of buildings, whether we go up, if we need to build more units, or whether we go outwards and keep it lower right? So there's almost a tension there between two groups in society, one concerned about the skyline and the heights of buildings, and another concerned with the use in and around the building. And the way that if you don't build upwards, you are necessarily asking that the plot is given over more to build density rather than just density of population.

Christoph Lindner  30:58

And Maria?

Maria Kamargianni  31:00

Because in some cases, it's getting out of control, we want to have buildings, when this creates need for parking spaces, and public space is then quite limited. Focusing more on to the transport side, we can identify and design several alternatives than just owning my private car that it is parked in my garden or in a parking lot for 23 hours in a day and I just use this for one hour. We can, and with all this support that we have currently, from technology, we can design new concepts within the shared economy spirit to to make more public space for all of us in our cities.

Christoph Lindner  31:50

So we've been talking about whether public space has a future and listening to our guests. What I've learned is that yes, it does, but it's going to be a contested future, what's at stake for us?

Lucy Natarajan  32:06

Thinking about what's at stake in making sure that we still agitate for and promote and protect public space and expand it as well, perhaps I see it within the same broad area of concerns as I do other things like local economy. So the way that we want to protect the place quality to protect the community that we live in, we need it. But I also have a concern around the inequality of provision of public space. So there are some beautiful public spaces. And they're very free and fair and fun and friendly, using the terms of the Place Alliance there to describe what is Good Place Quality. But they're not everywhere. And if we're not careful, if we don't have a really strategic overview where the pressures where the growth pressures are falling, and having conversation and policy about protecting and promoting these sorts of spaces, then they may be forgotten within all the other wider concerns that are part of the discussion about development, like productivity, economic growth in GDP terms, for example, and other important things. But public space maybe doesn't have the level of attention that it needs within the decision making arena.

Leah Lovett  33:23

Yeah, I'd agree what what is at stake in public spaces is, like, justice. Justice is at stake. It's where we articulate our needs. And I'd say that's true for humans, but also more than human participants, you know, and as we think towards a Just Transition, towards a sort of Green Economy and a Green Future, I think, yeah, I've tried to sort of indicate that in speaking about the trees, but I think there's, there's ways that we can foreground stories that are told in ways that require us to listen a little bit harder.

Christoph Lindner  33:55

I think that is a fabulous note on which to wrap up our conversation. But, before I let you go, we always like to ask our guests to look more broadly at the future of the built environment. And just to share with us one thing that you think needs to change so that we can build better.

Lucy Natarajan  34:15

I'm sure that you anticipate that I will say this... we need to listen more to communities and have them involved in the process of building from the start throughout and beyond not trying to pigeonhole them into one part of the development process. But to keep talking to communities as things change, everybody was taken a little bit by surprise, perhaps they shouldn't have been, but they were taken by surprise as to how much life has changed in less than 18 months or so. And therefore, we can't just involve people at the very early stages of planning because things change we have to pivot to continue to listen to communities as we do so.

Maria Kamargianni  34:57

I totally agree with Lucy about involving citizens from the very early beginning of designing public spaces and the built environment. And I also think it's really important to respect the nature when we build, when we design our cities.

Leah Lovett  35:18

And I would say we can't we can't build better unless we can imagine better. So the way we imagine and who we imagine with and being able to think of ourselves out of existing paradigms and narratives

Christoph Lindner  35:32

Well thank you to my guest today You have been listening to building better the Bartlett podcast

Christoph Lindner  35:43

This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett communications team and edited by Cerys Bradley.

Christoph Lindner  35:53

It featured music from Blue Dot sessions with additional sounds recorded by Paul Bavister.

Christoph Lindner  36:00

I was joined today by Dr Maria Kamargianni, Dr Lucy Natarajan and Dr Leah Lovett.

Christoph Lindner  36:08

If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or you can visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter and follow us @BartlettUCL. This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's global faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. We'll see you next month.

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