Public Space & the “15 minute city”

Early on, at the start of the current crisis, I wrote a blog about the importance of public space.  Even before that, in Feb while we were still hearing about this weird outbreak in China, I wrote about Parklets.

These things come together in a terrific article in the Guardian that asked four architecture firms to share their visions of what cities should do, now, to better design everything from offices to streets to transport.  From Cycle Superhighways to Garden Streets.  Unfortunately, these plans often don’t take account the views of the entrenched car driver or business owner that might be impacted.  This reminded me of the work we did at ATCM looking at pedestrianisation.  It was hard to find anyone in favour before pedestrianisation was put in place, but equally hard to find anyone who would change back afterwards!

I recall taking the ATCM’s Key Cities Group to a study tour of The Hague in the Netherlands.  We saw the results of a long, straight road that had had the traffic taken out.  The key takeaway for me wasn’t the design or landscaping. It was how they went about it.  All the businesses that would be impacted by the disruption caused by the works were given two choices:

  1. Stay open and we will work around you.  It will take 3 months to complete the works.
  2. Close for 4 weeks and we’ll work around the clock to get everything completed and re-opened.

I was surprised that a) the question was asked and b) they voted overwhelmingly in favour of option A to close and take a month off!  So, if we are going make these significant changes, we do need to find a way to take people with us.  With shopping habits changing, town centres need to evolve to ensure they build on their strengths to offer a viable and exciting alternative to internet shopping – an experience that is about more than the shopping. 

Successful public spaces are those that are designed and managed with the ultimate use and user in mind.  Users have an important role to play in structuring management activities. Local authorities and owner of private “public space” need to listen to the users – all of them. They can help set priorities and spot problems; they will give their opinion on the way public space is used and help pinpoint the problems that might arise in managing in the future.

I was lucky enough to go to New York for training with the Project for Public Space and used that experience to develop a Public Space Development Workshop.  I can’t come and run one for you, but if you want a copy of my brief please drop me a line at

In transforming the way we work, how and where we live, shop and socialise is being radically changed.  We have seen businesses in town and city centres have been forced to close due to new social distancing rules, more people working from home and the enforced closure of some businesses. 

There are some “winners” here, such as Amazon, the DIY sector and the big food retailers.  But all the evidence suggests that local districts centres are also doing better than expected.

It is essential that we identify the range of recovery actions, the planning / preparation needed.  What “success” looks like in the future.  In January 2020, weeks before Covid-19 hit, Mayor Anne Hidalgo unveiled her plan to transform Paris into a “15-minute city.” It would redistribute the city into a cluster of neighbourhoods where Parisians have access to everything they need within 15-minutes of travel by bike or foot from their home. The plan calls for streets closed to cars, intersections into pedestrian plazas, gardens in parking spots, and more. 

But back to Parklets, maybe as a good “first step”?  A project in Hackney, London offers some ideas on how a scheme might work.  The basic idea is that, within certain constraints, a grant is offered to a business to install and maintain a “Parklet” adjacent to  their premises for use by their customers.  Hackney Council says,

“Parklets should be designed to provide the widest possible benefit to the people who might use it. We would like to encourage creative approaches and would invite you to be as innovative as possible.”

The Hackney Guidance offers some useful insights,

In addition, the High Street Task Force have also issued guidance.

Keep talking, it’s the only way to take (most) people with you.

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