The drive to make London more liveableTowards a more social civic space

23 June 2015Shares

It’s easy to forget, and it is now almost unthinkable, that the pedestrianised northern terrace in front of The National Gallery was once dominated by cars. The recent NLA conference ‘Ten Years of Public Space’ reminded us to look backwards in order to look forwards, by showcasing the potential of space to change the culture of cities.

We are all too aware that the spaces between and around buildings are as important as the spaces within, however how do we create truly sociable places whilst still retaining the necessary connectivity and space for movement? Put more crudely how do we create spaces which two legs and four wheels - and even two wheels come to think of it - can all use successfully? 

William Whyte (author of ‘The social life of small urban space’) once said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people”. Statistics would agree - unsurprisingly it is estimated that 70% of people will live in cities by 2050. In light of this, use of space has to be ever more carefully considered and utilised effectively in order for places to be genuinely activated. If London truly aspires to be the ‘world’s most liveable and greenest place to live’ we need to think more seriously about place as well as movement, and to really retain London’s precious green spaces.

The re-development of Elephant & Castle, well-known as the site for London transport connections, marks the shift from an area in which you simply pass through to a liveable, green place - as exemplified by the newly named Elephant Park. Similarly Woolwich Square puts people at its heart, allowing buses to wrap around the square rather than penetrate through the space. 

Hackney Council’s ‘Play Streets’ policy enables residents to temporarily close roads to cars when children are out playing, in a similar way to the recent Open Streets event on Great Suffolk Street in Southwark. Both demonstrate an increasing desire within London neighbourhoods to reclaim civic space.

And ‘civic’ is the principal word. Rather than perceiving of public or private space, Argent’s Anna Strongman believes we should focus conversation instead around civic spaces; civic here referring to the places seemingly belonging to the city and its people rather than more literally the front porches of Civic Institutions. The priority must be to make the city permeable and less clinical, with more engaged spaces.

According to the governments ‘Friendly London Report’, London still has many underused and forgotten spaces, providing numerous opportunities to turn neglected areas into places for play, growing fruit and vegetables, and a respite from busyness of the city. In light of this, the Mayor has set aside £2 million for 100 ‘Pocket Parks’ by 2015, helping to create new green civic spaces like the Edible Bus Stop in Lambeth and Derbyshire Street Pocket Park in Bethnal Green.

It is now increasingly important to deliver ‘people projects’ where landscaping is high on the agenda, and truly usable landscapes at that. Instead of sterile squares, inclusive places which call for people to stay and socialise or play are critical. Granary Square at Kings Cross is the obvious example of this, with the Olympic Park at Stratford and Burgess Park in Southwark being others.

On a smaller scale, the giant chairs at Brixton’s Windrush Square are another example of spaces made more people-friendly. The video below highlights the impressive progress made to New York’s streets and squares in response to pedestrian overcrowding - ‘pedlock’ – and increased cycling.



Undeniably, a new urbanism with an appetite for utopian visions is being called for, which sees social and eco-friendly cities offering inclusive and collaborative spaces. Of course authentic place-making demands that there is no ‘one size fits all’ mentality, so a good dose of originality is, as ever, the key ingredient.


Author: Sarah Moor