It’s not an accident that we attach the adjective ‘democratic’ to either describe actual public spaces, or to mark our aspirations for them. Indeed, there’s a flotilla of warm words – ‘shared’, ‘communal’, ‘inclusive’, ‘accessible’ – that together act as a collective nod towards the features and atmosphere we believe a truly public, ‘public space’ should evoke.
In the background, no doubt, lurk images and ideas drawn from the Agora of classical Greece and the Athenian City-State, though its democracy was, by our proclaimed modern democratic standards, somewhat lacking in reach, in inclusivity. Basically, if you were an Athenian bloke you were in the club; if not, then not.
It is however useful to notice that whilst by our ‘modern’ standards fifth century BCE Athenian democracy does not pass muster, its limitations were an overt, explicit, ‘in-your-face’ articulation of the very fabric of the political, social and economic structure of that society. By way of contrast, visiting and sitting around in what can broadly be described as ‘public spaces’, I’m struck by just how difficult it is to create democratic spaces, how difficult it is to counter the forces and influences that limit fulfilment of our democratic and inclusive aspirations. These can include, often in potent negative mix: forms of land ownership; demographics; socio-economic class; race, age and gender; forms of decision-making; confused objectives; inappropriate design; mad, thought-neutering timescales; and the allure of fad and fashion .
What might be the features of a democratically oriented public square? Here I’m talking about those squares and spaces that ‘work’ because people of all ages and backgrounds use them, feel comfortable there, are apt to linger – want to linger – to congregate, not as a mass, but alone or in clusters of family and friends. They are places where the unplanned, informal, theatre of the street finds life, people watching being a key pastime and one of the highest forms of entertainment and instruction available to us. And the people that I want to see, and be seen by, are those with an undisputed right of presence; that is, certainly within inner London, that great admixture, that muddled jumble comprising people of all ages, people from across class, across race, female and male, both.
A democratically oriented public square should ‘speak for itself’, should wear its welcome on its sleeve, its qualities apprehended immediately by, well, anyone.
Spaces with qualities such as those described above, are distinct from places where congregation and waiting are prompted or required by some external function, for example, the space in front of the new, and rather splendid, Kings Cross Station.
Kings Cross Station Forecourt
Here hard surfaces and expanses of space serve well one of its key, primary functions: hanging about for a train. It’s interregnum space; space for in-between time, where what counts for people is what happened before and what will happen afterwards. One does not in general tarry here, one waits, but waits to depart.
The Kings Cross Station development is part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme undertaken by the developers Argent. A major part of that scheme is the ‘public’ Granary Square. It has been hailed, in some quarters at least, as a first class, much welcomed development.
‘… the best thing about Argent’s King’s Cross is the amazing Granary Square, London’s finest new public space.’ Rory Olcayto in AJ (Architects Journal)
I’ve been there a number of times, and I find it hard to take such a benign view. To me, it looks and feels like a string of what seem now to be stock ideas, all finding unhappy conjunction in this vast – around 8,000m² – space. The look and feel is hard, stone is a key component. There are three sets of fountains, the jets dancing in variable configurations. Come the dark, an embedded light show adds charm to the waters’ play .
Yet three sets of fountain seem a needless extravagance and, since they are flush to the ground, they add to that sense of being in the midst of a barely differentiated vastness. It’s great, of course, that kids inevitably play in them. But that’s more of less it so far as kids are concerned, or indeed for adults. The square offers little in the way of other ‘affordances’, potentially playable, or otherwise.
Greening the city
Forget the trend towards the greening of spaces, for the only green here is a ‘bosque of 24 lime trees’ (bosque = cluster of trees or shrubs. I had to look it up), clipped, erect sentinels guarding nothing in particular.
Permanent seating is minimal and, as one has come to expect, comprises backless stone benches.
There is no intimacy to the space. Sure, within the square some tables and chairs are put out, but in the wider context, this just looks like a gesture, and a fairly unconvincing one at that. There is no shade, no protection from sun, rain or wind. The square cries out for green, for the softening balm of tree, shrub and plant; for the creation of intimate, conversational spaces.
The publicity for Granary Square places emphasis on it as a venue for events and festivals. No doubt true, and one can easily see that vast, undifferentiated space provides a potentially great staging area, though perhaps not such great viewing of a performance if you’re at the back of the crowd. But planned, structured events are rarely day-to-day features. They are, in general, resource intensive eruptions of activity, which once complete leave only the space as it was before, as it will be after.
The space looks as though key design brief criteria included: ease of surveillance; ease of control; ease of maintenance; and, as Amanda Burden, an American Urban Planner, says more generally about some public spaces, designed to act as ‘plinths’ for architects’ creations.
And certainly the buildings stand out proud against the flat uniformity of the square. (I was silently musing to myself that one could imagine an army drilling in this square when, quite by coincidence, a Landscape Architect friend of mine admitted he ‘heard’ the sound of marching boots in the sound pattern generated by the fountains’ water jets.)
Perhaps I m reading too much class-based symbolism into this: there are two large – one, in my view, rather good – restaurants housed in one of the buildings on the square. There is outside restaurant seating for both.
But the seating does not spill out into the generality of the square. Both restaurant boundaries are clearly delineated by barriers; one side, you’re in; one side, you’re out. One side you pay; the other side – you can sit on a hard bench for free.
The odd thing is, the square looks as though it is designed not to encourage hanging around by a cross sections of society. Whether the ownership arrangements have anything to do with this, I do not know, but as Rory Olcayto points out:
‘Granary Square, like the rest of Argent’s King’s Cross, isn’t really public. In fact, Camden Council had to negotiate a legal agreement to secure full public access to it. It’s a private space that we’ve been granted access to. Fingers crossed the owners never change their mind’
I cannot be sure, I have conducted no survey, but I would be surprised if, in terms of informal, day-to-day use, the square will attract and hold the attention or the affections of ordinary Camden residents or those who are at the poorer end of the economic scale. Rather, the square will most regularly be populated by the office workers from the surrounding buildings, and the 4,000 or so art students of Central Saint Martins’. And good luck to them. But, as Oliver Wainwright suggests in Building Design, the square is ‘…in desperate need of a pacemaker’. Granary Square as inclusive, as democratic, as a place to linger – at the very least, the jury is still out.
I’m going now to Hackney. Care to come?
As is probably fairly well known, the London Borough of Hackney, certainly key areas of it, have been subject to a fairly rapid process of significant transformation, socially, economically, demographically.
Through my childhood, adolescence and twenties I knew one aspect of the area’s life reasonably well: the garment or shmata trade. Shoreditch, Dalston, Whitechapel were peppered with button and cotton wholesalers, home-based garment makers on piece work, small clothing factories with sewing machines awhirling, the heavy duty irons emitting clouds of steam; and rows of trousers, jackets, dresses at various stage of completion.
Gone now, but memorialised by Snug and Outdoors in their 1998, 5m high outdoor sculpture, ‘Threads’, in Sclater Street, Shoreditch, a piece I came across by chance and which I found gently moving. That chance being provided by Andrew Stuck on one of his always entertaining and interesting Rethinking Cities curated walks.
In place of the garment industry, flowing into the area, we find modern, up-to-the-moment hip. That means practically every aspect of this new wave of life tends to be designated ‘creative’. There’s theatre, there’s jazz, there’s furniture makers, designers of many shades, and there’s coffee bars and restaurants popping up seemingly on every street, every corner. This is the place to be – if you can afford it. Problem is, many can’t.
Still, it’s good to see that some aspects of a previous life endure. Ridley Road market (dating from the 1880s) is as vibrant as ever, and seems – for the moment at least – immune to incursions from ‘alternative’ purveyors of produce, cooked or raw. This is market as the term ‘market’ was commonly understood: noisy, bustling, bargains – perhaps sometimes somewhat notional – always available.
Moving on: Dalston Eastern Curve Garden and Gillett Square
Here’s a demographic fact about Hackney drawn from the 2011 census:
‘Hackney is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country – just over 40% of its people are non-White. Black groups make up the largest component of the minority communities, accounting for almost a quarter of Hackney’s people, followed by the white other group, which can include East and West Europeans, North and South Americans, white Africans and Antipodeans.’
If one is considering the nature of ‘public’, ‘democratic’ space then that statistic should surely act as a critical reference point.
Here are some pictures of Ridley Road market which I think evoke a rough, yet broadly accurate reflection of the demographic detailed above.
By any standards this is a beautiful space and certainly on the days I visited, well used . The degree to which the space may be under threat can be gleaned from an article by Mark Wilding in the Dalstonist.
But my focus in this article is not on questions of development, land ownership, and the structured-in, systemic precariousness of projects such as this one – similar to pop-ups of various sorts – that are, ultimately, susceptible to the pressure of market forces and narrow conceptions of how housing need might be met. My focus is on squares and spaces for public use. What counts, then, for this piece is that the Eastern Curve Garden is, as its sign proclaims, open to all.
Although it has a cafe, there is no obligation to buy anything. I can confirm this, (a) because I asked and (b) I have sat there perfectly at ease, purchasing nothing with no sense that I had been identified as a cheapskate, nor designated a free-loading interloper.
Open to all. But what comprises this all? Once again, I think the next set of pictures offer a fairly accurate representation of the demographic of use. It also confirms that this is a beautiful, tranquil place and quite remarkable given that only a few yards away Dalston’s day-to-day life seethes unabated.
What cannot be avoided is the observation that the demographic of use here seems significantly adrift from the general demographic of Hackney in general, and the Kingsland Road/Dalston area in particular. Here are some photographic representations of the demographic, and of course, the place itself.
It may not, in the words of Greg Dyke about the BBC, be ‘hideously’ white , suffice to say that usage is predominately white. For some, it may be that the demographic contrast between the East Curve Garden and Hackney generally has no particular significance, that it is not necessary to reflect on it and what it might mean. In shorthand, that position can be represented as ‘No problem . Move on’. This seems to me to be an unsustainable position to hold.
Having said this, it is of the first importance that these observation are not construed as criticism of either the owners or the users (including me) of the Garden. This is not the occasion to simplify complex phenomena nor to heap general societal failings on to a particular project.
Turning now to the place itself. Well, what can one say that can usefully add to what the pictures present and the place says for itself?
Those readers interested in children, play and the importance of bringing the ‘natural’ back into the lives of children, will, I guess, think the Garden a rather splendid place, as do I. We see some loose parts in the pictures. Bliss.
But, as above, we need to notice absences, the children who are not there and whose access to ‘natural’ spaces is limited or nonexistent, not least for economic reasons. These children and teenagers are unlikely to benefit to any significant extent – if at all – from the welcome and often impressive initiatives being undertaken by, for example, the National Trust and Forestry Commission. A reminder, perhaps, if reminder is required, that the limitations of the city need to be responded to by the city.
If you care to accompany me, I’m retracing my steps back towards and past Ridley Road market, plus a few more yards and then left off Kingsland Road to Gillett Square. Total distance/time from the Eastern Curve Garden: approximately 200 yards; four/five minutes’ walk at most.
I have visited and sat in Gillette Square quite a number of times. The more I sat there the more I was puzzled by it. In terms of the demographics of use, my initial, rather crude and simplifying take on it was that whereas Eastern Curve Garden was broadly populated by white people, Gillette Square was primarily populated by black people. And I thought I would be able to present in this piece a simple binary contrast between the two spaces and then go on to ponder a bit about what this might mean. But I now don’t think it’s quite like that, though there is a demographic contrast between the two places, and it is in many ways quite stark, it’s not simply about race or ethnicity.
Many of the remarks made about Granary Square, fit this area as well. One characterisation could be that it is Granary Square writ small. Once again we have an expanse of flat, hard surface relieved, if that’s the right word, by a set – they look like a ‘set’ – of four trees trapped within a raised plinth type structure.
There is seating, but not ‘linger here, stay awhile, rest yourself, chat a bit’ sort of seating. Rather, the seating is limited, hard, and with tiresome predictability, backless, though a number of leisure drinkers find their rest here.
There is little sense of intimacy or sociability in the flat expanse of the square, though at the edges, where some chairs and tables have been put out by the booth-cafe, there is, in effect, a nascent cafe society. Interesting, too, that potted plants form part of the booth’s ensemble. Perhaps the fact that they were put there is trying to tell us something.
I am not sure whether Gillett Square was conceived as potential performance space, or whether this is a back formulation, i.e. a post hoc justification for building a flat, featureless square that, once again, appears governed by design criteria revolving around ease of surveillance and ease of maintenance. Whatever is the case, the idea that a space such as Gillett Square can nurture a life of its own on the back of events and spectacle seem to me fundamentally misconceived. As suggested above in respect of Granary Square, in general events are resource intensive eruptions of activity, which once complete leave the space as it was before, and as it will be after. To rely on such activities is simply a form of expensive life support that is, ultimately, unsustainable.
And so it appears to have turned out. In an attempt to enliven the square, and to be of some interest to kids, there is a shipping container full of what could be called temporary affordances, designed by Snug and Outdoors. I do not comment on the kit as such, but for it to be used, adults are required to put out the various pieces. Currently, as I understand it, there is no funding to do this, and local volunteers who run or own some of the businesses – those in the booth-like stalls seen in some of the pictures – and others do what they can. Similarly, there is also a table tennis table put out, once again as and when volunteers are able. But this is thought unsustainable, and in any case limits the occasions when the equipment can be used.
Returning for a moment to the demographics of use, as admitted earlier, my initial, take on this was too crude and simplistic to represent the reality of the square. I realised that whilst the square appeared to be used predominately by a black population, the square was of a more varied demographic – people visiting the booth-cafe, sitting around, as I did; others meeting and lingering for a bit at the plinth-tree area (almost any feature that breaks the hard monotony of the wide, hard-surfaced square invites congregation) or simply walking or riding through.
And there’s the rub. For the most part people pass through the square, and not by a heavy footfall at that. So here’s the puzzle, or contradiction. On the one hand Gillette Square seems to be saying, ‘I will be flat, hard, featureless and unwelcoming’; and, on the other, ‘Come here, linger awhile, use the table tennis table, play on the Snug and Outdoors kit, sit eat and drink at the cafe tables’.
But it ends up neither one nor the other. On the one hand, it wants people to hang around, to linger. On the other, it appears rather nervous that people might actually do so. However, it occurs to me, that notwithstanding the obvious merits of the Eastern Curve Garden, it could be Gillett Square that has buried within it – buried deep and much obscured at present – the potential to become a democratic space; that is, one populated by the walkers, talkers and shoppers of Kingsland Road, Dalston and Ridley Road market.
Neither the remarks about Granary Square, nor about Gillette Square, are intended to suggest that public squares must always be green, that hard surfaces are always wrong. Such a position would be absurd. But it is to suggest that we have too often been victim to forms of thinking about public space that have somehow avoided imaginatively empathising with the realities of people’s dispositions and, for want of a different word, ‘natural’ inclinations. Perhaps it’s simply about the order in which things are done. If that imaginative engagement happens at all, I suspect it too often happens at the end of the design and planning process when such considerations are effectively boxed-in by earlier decisions answering to different criteria. I suppose all I really mean is: ‘People First’ if we want to put the public back into public squares and places.
A different Athens
The limitations of Athenian democracy were stark and explicit. One knew whether one was in, or one was out. Whatever excellences we wish to ascribe to our modern democracy, it appears, at least in the examples given here, that our ability to fully realise the ideal of democratic space is more limited than we may care to believe. As suggested at the outset, the forces and influences preventing such a realisation are many and varied. But beyond that, or perhaps more accurately, prior to that, we need to notice and be explicit about the limitations we both create and encounter. Too often these are air-brushed out of consideration: we do not acknowledge what and who’s not there. Thereby the already absent are made to disappear twicefold.
1] Amanda Burden, Urban Planner and former chief New York city planner under the Bloomberg administration