public realm: the social and civic life of our town centres

In order to adapt Town Centres, we need to rediscover their role at heart of communities as primarily social spaces. Seven years on from her review of high streets, Mary Portas says “high streets can survive the growth in online shopping if they makes their businesses more social and focus on people’s experience”. The public realm is an important interface in this transition. Well managed and organised public realm can improve people’s experience making routes into and through Town Centres legible, easy and enjoyable to use. A review of public space can also identify historically important spaces that have been subdued over time and establish new routes based on leisure, service and civic activities. Taming the vehicle dominance of key spaces can also create new opportunities.

Our study of Brentwood Town Centre with Cottrell and Vermeulen Architects developed the client’s themes of; identity and character, resilience and sustainability and access and flow in a series of initial diagrams. We explored how as well as movement generated by parking – movement related to schools could be worked with to support safer and healthier patterns of travel. Incredible Edible Todmorden have developed a successful visitor experience based on a route around a network of community growing projects where visitors can interact with the contemporary social ecology of the town. Stamford and Keswick both revived their market function with elegant and robust public realm improvements that set off the activity of the market and historic buildings.

Understanding the history of a place can be an important foundation for public realm improvement. Landscape Projects Bath Pattern Book (2012) is based on careful observation of its character in use by Gehl Architects. The pattern book identifies different historic street typologies, describing their role in relation to building frontages, their differing scale from street to mews, their surface materials and edges – identifying room for adaptation. The study reviews where the city’s rich history can be evidenced and better interpreted, it also documents the space for performance, the quality of existing lighting and the public art legacy. Based on this analysis a movement strategy was developed to improve existing routes and extend the town centre public realm towards new areas of development.

Further reference / hyperlinks:

http://www.bathnes.gov.uk/services/planning-and-building-control/major-projects/public-realm-and-movement/preparatory-projects

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