Staging Urban

Cannon Ivers is the author of a new book exploring the activation and curation of public spaces. Here, he explains why these need to be priorities for designers and planners

“Community-led placemaking can provide the creative spark needed to bring a place to life, kindling conversation and gathering momentum to build cohesion, identity and belonging.”

Cannon Ivers, LDA Design Director and author of Staging Urban Landscapes

In 2007, something memorable happened in central London. For two days, Trafalgar Square was covered with a 2,000sqft lawn. Overnight this formal, rather prescriptive civic space was transformed into a popular village green, a place for picnics and play.

The year 2007 was also a watershed for the wider built environment. It was the first time that more people lived in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will be urban-based.

I am interested in the connection between these two. One cruel irony from exponential urban growth is that towns and cities are such isolating places. Loneliness is now linked to heart disease and stroke, and increasingly recognised as a worse killer even than obesity.

Yet even while public realm is being seen as our best hope for strong communities and health and wellbeing, the densification of our towns and cities puts such space at a greater premium and under pressure. In the future, our squares, streets, parks and plazas will need to start working even harder

Greening Trafalgar Square. Photo by Cannon Ivers

More is more, not less is more

The urban spaces that mean most to us are the sociable and lively ones, pulling the crowds for events with meaning or activities with broad appeal. Sometimes a place is effortlessly given atmosphere and activated by the drama of its infrastructure. That happens when Millennium Bridge in Gateshead tilts, for example, or Tower Bridge lifts, and everyone crowds expectantly at the water’s edge.

For others, programming public space requires built-in flexibility. On a practical level, flexibility means integrating ‘plug and play’ infrastructure to enable smooth change-overs from one use to another. In Rotterdam’s Binnenrotte Square, there are market stall anchor points, and traffic kerbs fold away.

But flexibility carries its own risk. When spaces are designed with a ‘less is more’ approach to accommodate major events, then in ‘resting mode’ they can become empty and monotonous expanses.

Regular light touch programming helps here. A book fair or a plant fair dramatically changes the character of a street or a square. They slow the place down and intensify it.

Book Fair under Waterloo Bridge (left): simple things can change the way we use a space, slowing us down, helping us to connect. Right, Acqua alta – the flooding of Piazza San Marco inspired the Bordeaux Water Mirror and hundreds of other piazza water features. 

Another popular way to inject character into a place is through water. This is hardly new, of course – the Romans loved fountains, as did Moorish and Middle Eastern designers in the Middle Ages. Across the world, water in public spaces brings visual delight and playfulness, white noise and cools the air. Now it also serves as a clever aid to programming. One day small children can be dashing through choreographed water jets in an urban square, squealing with delight. The next day, with the jets turned off, the square becomes the perfect place for a full-on festival.

The joy of water, Cathedral Square, Peterborough. Credit Claire Borley Photography / LDA Design

‘Landscape as art’ in the 1980s and 1990s produced some incredible designs, but we are less interested now in the aesthetic arrangement of space.  We can see that in the simple fact that the precedent images of place used by designers featured no people, and now we only want images that demonstrate how people might use a space.

That is not to say that change and variety in public spaces cannot still be dramatic and interactive. The art installation and climate breakdown statement Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing involved 24 blocks of ice from Greenland slowly melting outside London’s Tate Modern (pictured below). Spaces can perennially change too, with vibrant seasonal planting to make it feel different throughout the year.

Watch them go. Art with an urgent message, Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. Credit LDA Design

Our public spaces need to work much harder if they are to meet the needs of a diverse and growing population. With shared space so precious, flexibility has to be key to ensure we make far more of what we have.  

Driven by curiosity

Given that our public spaces need to continue to meet the demands of urban growth and serve local communities better, we need to recognise landscape as the catalyst for change. It is not just a backdrop, or the trees and the grass. It is where we meet.

In the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte observed that people attract people. Placemaking is driven by curiosity, and that is most quickly fired up by seeing what other people are up to.

My new book, Staging Urban Landscapes, demonstrates how public realm can become the lynchpin of public life.  It explores places around the world that are ahead of the game, and which lean into the seasons to create all-year-round usage. Researching it was a chance to analyse the public spaces which have in effect turned themselves into platforms for experimentation, with surprising meanwhile uses and public art. It was fascinating too to discover the number of unused buildings and neglected spaces that are also being used to bring people together, through staging events and classes.

Shared spaces help us to get to know each other better and feel happier as a result, and they amount to our best hope for creating stronger communities. But I do think that designers and planners need to focus ever harder on activation and flexible design.  We could all be making far more of what we have.

Staging Urban Landscapes: The Activation and Curation of Flexible Public Spaces by  B. Cannon Ivers. Published by Birkhäuser, 2018

Cannon Ivers is a director at LDA Design and project lead for  StrandAldwych.

Images featured here are taken from ‘Staging Urban Landscapes’

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