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Communities And The Public Realm: Places For People

April 21, 2008

If anything belongs to ‘the people’, it is surely the streets where we live and work. Streets are usually owned by the public authorities who exist to serve our interests.
But where are the civic procedures to reflect this common ownership in renewing or developing the public realm? And who and where are the ‘communities’ which must be consulted?

I recently contributed to a masterclass on community engagement in development of the public realm.

The scope for discussion was wide. ‘Public realm‘ can be streets, highways, open spaces, parks, brownfield sites and even waterways and ponds. Where does one start? And who is entitled to have a say?

Origins and ideas
Public realm works often start from a plan by the authorities to renew or regenerate an area of deprivation or poor housing, or perhaps because a new system of roads and highways is about to be constructed.

Sometimes, however, the initiative comes from a group of interested or concerned ‘community stakeholders’ – perhaps people who live or work in the area, or people who have a concern for the environment (in whatever guise) or, for instance, conservation and heritage.

Where are the place-makers?
All these are legitimate origins, but they are different. What happens next however tends to be more monochrome, more ‘standard issue’.

The idea of place-making seems over time to have been mislaid.

Legitimacy and control
If a proposal to improve the public realm is integral to a wider regeneration programme, the way ahead is clear: community consultation is the next step.

But who is held to comprise ‘the community’ will often be determined largely by those formally ‘in charge’ of the overall developments, rather than by that community (or communities?) itself.

Physical ownership or social stakehold?
The temptation to take the easy route, to see the public realm as simply physical space, is great. If it’s that, the relevant authorities can just get on with it, consulting along the way about how members of the public would like their pavements, bins or street lamps to look. (See e.g. an example of ‘another’ Liverpool, looking at another way to consider ‘place making’ and ‘liveability’.…)

But this is an dreadful waste of an opportunity for engagement between civic officials and those who pay them. How much better to work towards wide involvement of the people who live and work on those streets, even if this does take more time and effort.

‘Community’ voices
Communities do not comprise just one sort of person – there are many voices which must be heard – but if we want people to come together for the common good, developing a shared sense of place is an excellent starting point.

We need then to begin by recognising whilst physical location is a given, the variety of people and interests which comprise meaningful stakehold is large.

New skills for new challenges
Involving the general public as stakeholders in their localities is still an emerging art.

Those who currently have the knowledge and experience to implement improvements to the public realm are perhaps unlikely, without stepping outside their formal roles, or perhaps further training, to be the best people also to engage communities to the extent which is required.

‘Translating’ knowledge and skills
Here, yet again, is an instance of the need for ‘translation’ in delivery between professional knowledge and the skills required to reach deep into often – though not always – disadvantaged communities.

The public realm is exactly what it says it is – the place where, ideally, we all encounter each other, safely, comfortably and constructively.

Getting everyone involved
Perhaps the move towards Local / Multi Area Agreements (LAAs and MLAs) and regular Your Community Matters-style events will help to encourage meaningful engagement for the future.

Whatever, the challenge is to make the public realm everywhere a place where everyone really can feel they are a part of the action.

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