Latest Public Sector News

01.02.13

Reinventing the public realm

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2013

Virtually all towns and cities in the country would like their public space to do more to boost the local economy, improve the visitor experience for residents and better integrate transport options. For cities like Bath, there is the added dimension of heritage and tourism to consider, and it has embarked on a radical plan to overhaul the way its city centre looks like over the next two decades. PSE talks to Rhodri Samuel, who heads up the public realm works as the regeneration manager for development and major projects.

In the 18th century, Bath was one of the fi nest examples of public space in the world,” says Rhodri Samuel from Bath & North East Somerset Council.

The city was the pioneer of the idea of ‘parading’: people in their fi nery, keen to be seen, visiting the gardens and public spaces as part of the social circuit. Bath, the entire city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as a ‘masterpiece of human creative genius’, primarily for that 18th century urban design and architectural achievement. So when looking to reinvent the public space in the city centre over the coming decades, the council knew it had a lot to live up to.

Samuel explained: “We felt we were dealing with something quite remarkable and special, and that what we do in the centre of Bath needs to be progressive in taking the city forward, but respectful of its status.”

Its strategy is incredibly comprehensive, being about very much more than just infrastructure. An example is the ‘Pattern Book’, currently being developed, which brings together a landscape strategy, lighting, light and darkness, a public art plan, and also a ‘technical manual’ for realising public space street schemes in the city.

Samuel said: “The pattern book is looking at the entire city centre area from the perspective of public life, understanding the evolution of the public realm and the authenticity of what’s there, looking at lighting, transport, public art: it will set some very clear guidelines for not just the council but for all developers and other designers working in Bath, which are not meant to stifl e the creativity of designers, but to achieve coherence through the different projects we bring forward.”

Finding the way

The city also has a new ‘City Information System’, aimed at giving complete coherence to all mapping and information, from those found on the streets (see image above and overleaf) to those used in digital maps. Funding came from the EU Civitas programme and some other regional programmes.

But the system is not just a “series of products”, Samuel said. “It’s been conceived as a soft and hard information system; there are suites of products, from digital maps, to the handheld maps that have been circulated in Bath for quite some time now. We’ve created a royaltyfree map for the city. It’s unique and an asset for the city.

“Bath hosts about 4-5 million visitors every year; a lot of the feedback we’ve had, following interviews and research in the early stages of the project, showed that many people aren’t really penetrating the city beyond the main shopping spine and the main cluster of heritage attractions around the Roman baths and the Abbey.

“We’re very keen to encourage more people to walk in Bath, to encourage people to explore the wider area and take in some of the amazing sights.

“So the system has been designed from the pedestrian perspective. Each map is ‘headsup’: what you see in front of you on the map is what’s actually ahead of you. Every single map is orientated to that particular point.

“If you move around the other side, you’re looking in the other direction.

“It’s intuitive, accepting that Bath has a range of visitors from different countries, so we’ve tried to make it really accessible. It’s about revealing all the attractions Bath has, with 18 or so buildings 3D-modelled on the map as well. Even if someone’s in Bath for an hour, it’ll let them see the extent of what’s on offer if they come back in the future.”

Transport information

Using the same graphic and typeface, the city is also running a pilot project to roll-out the same basic idea to transport information.

Samuel said: “Some of that is inspired by best practice, like TfL: corridor diagrams, for example, and a more intuitive network diagram. That was piloted through the EU Civitas project, and we’re working with our transport colleagues to take that forward on a wider scale at the moment.

“The big thing from the strategy’s perspective is coherence.

“We want a coherent approach to information, as best as it’s possible to control it, from the information you might get at a park and ride site when you arrive, to the information you might see on the street, to the map you hold in your hand.

Pedestrianisation

Although the public realm strategy is of necessity tied up with the upcoming transport strategy for the city, that relationship is still developing.

But Samuel said: “It’s a shared priority to make the core of the centre of Bath a pedestrian priority area.

“That’s going to involve creating certain streets that are pedestrianised, controlling access at key points in the day, to unlock public life in a way you can’t at the moment.”

Making the city centre a more attractive and accessible place for pedestrians has also involved ‘decluttering’: removing unnecessary or inappropriate street furniture.

“We’ve had two ‘mini-culls’,” Samuel joked – one in 2012 and one ongoing. “It’s going to be a gradual, ongoing process.

“We don’t want to add new products to the public realm and add more clutter: we’re trying, when we’re putting things in, to take extraneous stuff away.”

Evidence and the economy

Bath is not an isolated haven somehow unaffected by the financial and economic imperatives shaking the country, so of course the costs of the changes are a concern.

But it is hoped that investing in the public realm will produce vast benefi ts in terms of the local economy.

Samuel cited examples from around the UK and around the globe of investment in the public realm, if done properly, creating longer dwell times in city centres and increasing percolation and penetration of pedestrians around a wider area.

It can also encourage more social interaction, with knock-on benefi ts for people’s health and wellbeing. Copenhagen is a particular beacon for this, he said, and he recommended the work of Jan Gehl, and Jane Jacobs in the USA, for everyone interested in public realm issues.

He said: “They are able to demonstrate that human beings are naturally sociable and public space is the best environment: it’s free as well, which is what I like about it!

“You don’t have to pay to get into the public realm, it’s there and provides that opportunity to interact with others. It clearly can boost economic life; at a time when retail is under signifi cant threat, and the high street is under signifi cant threat, there’s an added impetus to have great streets and spaces that encourage people to visit town centres, not just to shop but to have a wider, richer experience.”

Expanding the city centre

He noted the “significant” development sites coming forward on the periphery of the city centre and on the riverside, saying: “These will be one of the most signifi cant opportunities for Bath to expand its city centre for 200 to 300 years.

“It’s really important that new development is glued into the city centre. It’s all about coherence: creating a larger city centre area that drives the city’s economy but links these new places and the riverside as well into the heart of the city.”

The city has a Business Improvement District (BID), now in its second year, and has been working with retailers and other businesses on the new strategy. Having those partners and that engagement can also prove helpful when looking for sources of funding and grants.

It has also been working with a range of experts in urban design (see panel), including some of the leaders in their fi elds, and also getting input from the people of Bath themselves.

“There’s a lot of intellectual capital in the city,” Samuel said. “We’re trying to extract that, and people’s design expertise, and put it into the projects we’re doing.

“At the very outset of the project we worked with a design facilitator to come up with a set of design values – trying to extract what those stakeholders and their organisations feel is so precious about the city, and how we can connect to that, and move forward with highquality, contemporary solutions.”

Timeline

The plans for the transformation remain longterm – the original strategy was set over 20 years, compared to the 60 it took in the 18th century.

Talking about progress so far, Samuel said: “We’ve managed, with support from Bath’s transport package funding, to get High Street under way over this last fi nancial year, and with support from the council, Northumberland Place.

“At the moment, we are pursuing funding options for one if not two schemes next year.

“We’re trying to be as inventive as possible and ideally, if we can get the funding, one signifi cant scheme a year would be our objective.”

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