Re-evaluating Public Space

Throughout the boom years, the redevelopment of urban public space in Dublin took on a very particular image. Through the influence of cities such as Barcelona, this included wide-scale physical improvements to the pedestrian environment of the city (eg, Meeting House Square, Wolfetone Square, The Boardwalk and O’Connell Street). There was also a direct association with investing in public space and the attraction of further investment into an area. This was highlighted in the example of Smithfield, where the regeneration of the public space, which was part of the Historic Area Rejuvenation Project (HARP), was followed by the development of the west side of the square. There are a number of aspects to the redevelopment of Smithfield. First, it was to act as a focal-point in the area, with a mix of residential, commercial, and cultural functions, such as the Lighthouse cinema. Secondly, it was to be a central events space for the city, which, for example, has included Smithfield on Ice and the celebrations of the Chinese New Year. Other events have included the already established horse fair, and, more recently, a market (there is a lot more to be said on these topics which I do not have space to go into here). Outside its use for events, the everyday use of Smithfield is influenced by both the surrounding land-use and a wide variety of other uses which occur in public spaces. More particularly, however, at ground level it was envisioned that commercial uses would directly influence the use of the public space.

Wolfe Tone Square. Photo by Philip Lawton 2010

Smithfield Square. Photo by Philip Lawton, 2010

While activities such as retailing, bars, coffee shops and restaurants can, and often do, animate a public area, there are also possible down-sides to their being a central element of land-use surrounding a public space. The first of these is the degree to which private uses can dominate public space. The evolution of Temple Bar Square in recent years provides an illustrative example of this tendency, with the increase in tables and chairs from surrounding cafes and restaurants becoming the  prevelant function of the public space. This is not to say that all public spaces have become dominated by such functions. To say so would be to exaggerate the situation. However, the second down-side to the reliance on commercial functions in the development of public space, which is currently illustrated by the vacant units in Smithfield, is that private investment may not materialise over a prolonged period of time.

Temple Bar Square, 2007. Photo by Philip Lawton

Paddy Power Bookmakers amongst vacant units on Smithfield Square, 2010. Photo by Philip Lawton

With direct reference to the above factors, it is currently possible to take the time to think of alternative ways in which new urban public spaces can be developed within urban areas in the future (Here I am referring to small-scale spaces as opposed to larger parks). To this end, the redevelopment of Peckham Square in South London from the 1990s up until today presents a useful case-study. In the context of the regeneration of the area, Southwark Council invested in the construction of a public square which was surrounded by public buildings: Peckham Arch, Peckham Pulse leisure centre and Peckham Library (Currently, an arts centre called Peckham Space is being added to the square). Through research that I carried out on Peckham Square in 2005 (Including interviews with planners and architects as well as users of the square), the benefits of having such a space became apparent. The bringing together of the library, which also acts as a ‘one stop shop’ for information on Southwark Council, the multi-functional arch, and the leisure centre form a central point for people living in Peckham. The space provides an informal area to meet others between home and the shopping district, as well as providing an area for hosting locally organised activities, such as festivals. Thus, Peckham Square can be seen as a focal point in community life in Peckham.

Peckham Square, London, 2005. Photo by Philip Lawton

Peckham Square, London during the 'I Love Peckham' festival, 2005. Photo by Philip Lawton

This is not an attempt to look at public space through rose-tinted glasses, as it is in these spaces that conflicts of interests between different groups and individuals often emerge. It is however, important to think of ways in which we can develop public spaces in the coming years in a way that is primarily orientated towards public functions and uses. While surrounding land-use does not, nor should it, wholly dictate the use of a public space, it is evident that there is a clear relationship between the two. The example of Peckham Square illustrates how this relationship can reinforce a sense of belonging and public ownership amongst different groups and individuals. Perhaps in the long-term the development of public spaces on this basis could be one form of social benefit to emerge from a small portion of the land that comes under the control of NAMA.

Philip Lawton