It might sound like the start of a terrible industry joke, but it’s not. The answer to this question is, of course, the public realm. It is the often forgotten glue that holds cities together, linking the existing to the new, residential into commercial and people to place.
While adding to the public realm might still be considered a burden for some developers, most of the private sector now recognises the value it creates. Public realms can be well designed and integrated appropriately in the developments they surround, creating spaces which people enjoy and are drawn to, encouraging enterprise and opportunity. This, in turn, creates demand for more buildings.
For those that purport to be creating buildings that contribute to, and help foster, a sense of community, the public realm is the most vital consideration. It is the first point at which residents and the public will interact with a new building or area, and their experience - be it positive or negative - will have a lasting impression on what they think about the place and the wider neighbourhood. Through the ‘space in between’, developers can add to, or completely remake, the character of an area. They can attribute renewed meanings to the buildings that spring out from the public realm.
People’s favourite cities are those with the most enjoyable public realm. Pedestrians tend to naturally focus on what is closest to them at eye-level. The height of buildings, however, is less of a concern. Provided their immediate edges interact well with the space, does height really matter? The impact of tall buildings in terms of wind and shade effects is not the main interest for people living in urban environments.
The public places of our cities, while having organically contributed to urban life for millennia, are set to evolve. They are becoming central to emerging technologies in the property and urban planning space. Technologies such as the Internet of Things (which emphasises the interconnectivity of internet enabled technologies) are starting to permeate the public realm, with street lamps knowing when to turn on and off, and bins alerting the local councils once they are full.
As cities up the fight against climate change, it is the public realm that will be relied upon to provide carbon-thirsty flora and ponds, as well as beautifully designed streets that turn car bans from a burden into a pleasure.
Developers can use public realms to reinvent buildings and their role within placemaking. Having a public space that is playful and engaging, can enhance building design, creating a complimentary relationship between buildings and space. When it comes to regeneration, for example, many projects don’t necessarily need the buildings restored or renewed, it’s actually the regeneration of the public realm that is required. At a time of increasing urbanisation and densification, the public realm has to rise to the challenge of meeting a wide range of demands, from pedestrian movements and access, to the smooth and streamlined delivery of goods and services to buildings.
Injecting a healthy dollop of playfulness into the public realm can dramatically change the character of a place and feel of an area. At Assael, we have just launched a new landscape architecture division, Assael Exteriors, to ensure that we think, not just about the buildings we create, but the public realm threading these buildings together.
Félicie Krikler, director at Assael Architecture