The business case for investment in public realm is powerful. Heart of London Business Alliance’s pre-Covid economic analysis shows investment in strategic place shaping can increase GVA by over 40%. Monitoring of the Baker Street public realm project indicates it achieved a 128% uplift in daytime footfall – an increase in customers any West End business would welcome. Public and private investment in a new programme of public spaces would kick start and reap rewards for both London and the wider economy.
Recently, major new public realm projects have been revealed for Barcelona, Paris and New York. City governments are becoming increasingly ambitious and working in partnership to deliver substantial investment to improve city life and tackle the climate emergency. World cities are also investing in transforming the urban realm, creating new parks, closing streets to traffic, widening pavements and adding substantial greening to kick start recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Over the past two decades London has successfully delivered its own ‘Grand Projects’, including spaces to showcase London for the 2012 Games; and Trafalgar Square being the largest civic intervention in public space as part of the Mayor's 100 Public Spaces Project.
Coupled with investment in Exhibition Road, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street, Burlington Gardens, Hanover Square, Piccadilly and Baker Street, the Elizabeth line public realm schemes, Tideway tunnel riverside spaces, central London’s public realm has undergone substantial beneficial transformation.
However, with fewer schemes now on the drawing board or fully funded, (that might not progress), does London risk slipping behind its international competitors just at the time when it needs to compete even harder to attract back visitors and inward investors? Many of the international city projects have benefitted from substantial investment from state funds and have been championed directly by their Governor and Mayor.
London’s public realm needs a three strand approach: an overarching plan to create Great New Spaces, investment and a Champion for Public Spaces.
With the recovery and plans to build a new normal taking shape, it is time to dust off the numerous well thought through strategic plans and concept designs, devised by local authorities, estates and BIDS, to draw up a new programme of Great Spaces for London.
Projects such as Oxford Street and the Strand Aldwych gyratory project are starting to take shape. The latter will create six thousand square metres of new pedestrian space.
London needs to bring forward new projects such as re-thinking Park Lane just as Paris has the Champs Élysées. Transformation of Charing Cross Road, reconnecting severed spaces, such as Parliament Square and linking Marble Arch to Oxford Street, and re-imagining Piccadilly Circus, could all put London centre stage again. This requires local champions and potentially a Public Realm Champion for London.
Cat is an experienced urban planner and placemaker, highly skilled in the delivery of mixed use, arts, culture, leisure, and public space projects.