Open Briefing Document – Public Space


The ‘green spaces’ flickr tag

During Week 1 of the Festival of York Central we have focussed on Open Space and its role in the city, whether in residential or commercial areas, and whether green space or hard landscape. We’ve gathered information through social media and through a range of events:-

  1. Green Space and York Central – A Look At Your City walk
  2. York Central – Streets Reimagined walk with Finlay McNab
  3. York Central workshop – Liveable Streets with Finlay McNab of Streets Reimagined
  4. The Secret Life of York’s Urban Spaces – a workshop informed by a walk with key participants
  5. My Favourite Public Spaces – workshop sessions with pupils of Barnabas and Poppleton Road primary schools
  6. Pulling Together the Week’s Conversations – public workshop (with The Life Sized City film show)

In addition, tagging of comments from previous events have allowed us to put responses from the week’s events in a broader context of overall comment, questions, etc.

Here are the main issues and comments:-

The key role of public space

Public space should not simply be the space left between buildings – there is reference in the Life Sized City film to “public space being the main tool for urban change” and people overwhelmingly noted its importance. It was suggested that the planning of the site should start with the public space (and accommodation within it of foot and cycle movement), and that layout of the roads should then be subsequent and subservient to this. York’s adopted hierarchy of movement priority was referenced.

Public space has to accommodate a wide variety of uses and also a wide variety of meanings, and to serve both practical and symbolic purposes. It needs to accommodate movement (on foot, on bikes and in vehicles, and both direct and indirect), it needs to accommodate gathering (social in varied-size groups, places for meeting, and places for politics and protest) and it needs to accommodate a variety of practical activities such as eating and drinking, recreation and physical activity for health.

Creating connections

A key issue with public space was the role of public space in creating connections. People had looked at existing spaces in York and elsewhere and noted the value of putting “the best things around the edges”. It was suggested that public space might be created at the edges of York Central as a way of connecting with surrounding communities and bringing something new to them. Public space was seen as somewhere that encouraged activity, and this activity might build links between old and new communities. The bigger picture was also mentioned – if public space was going to bring movement into the site, where would it come from – the corridor extending to the British Sugar site and the Park & Ride beyond was mentioned.

Liveable streets

At a smaller scale, the design of liveable streets was investigated and discussed. The impact of parking on streets was felt to be critical – looking at existing streets suggested that even where they were quiet or free from through traffic, and well-overlooked, they didn’t encourage play as car owners were concerned about their cars. Where car-free spaces were created these also needed care in design – overlooking by windows (which in theory encourages use) results in “no ball games” signs, and spaces can remain dead.

Making public space legible

The “Legibility” of public space (at all scales) was discussed. People felt that public space should in some way make clear what it can be used for. This should not rule out flexibility, but spaces which were designed to accommodate every potential use were felt to be unlikely to work well for any of them. The Green Spaces walk identified a number of spaces which were adopted and used by local people and these tended to be clear in their purpose (food growing / meeting / climbing / wild play).

The same principle of legibility applied at smaller scale in respect of movement. The Urban Spaces walk looked at a number of locations where different types of user interacted (for example cyclists and distracted pedestrians, or mixtures of cyclists and pedestrians on intersecting routes). Legibility was felt important, whether by clear design and shaping of space to suit clear spatial distribution of uses, or by “signposting” using surface colour and texture, or a combination. It was also considered important to allow for conflict to be managed – when cues are ignored there needs to be sufficient spare space to allow people to work around any problems which are created.

The potential of edges and enterances

Entrances, “gateways”, and edges

People also noted that the principle of legibility should be applied to entrances and connecting spaces – “gateways”. Entrances needed to be special and have identity, and should ideally also be “enticing” – should encourage exploration and provide surprises.

This same interest in the role of buildings at the edges of spaces was felt to apply in general too – spaces are largely “created by what’s along their sides”. Discussion on liveable streets and reference to examples elsewhere flagged up the importance of edges as places where people can feel comfortable and will often linger or meet, and this highlighted the importance both of the interface between buildings and space and the provision of humane environment to allow people to be comfortable there (seating, shade, etc).

The scale of open spaces and community “ownership”

The scale of spaces was discussed repeatedly and at length. It was felt that a variety of scales of spaces was needed, and the Museum Gardens was cited as a good example of where this works well (large grassed space in front of the museum along with a variety of smaller, more varied spaces (the ruins, the storytelling space, benches surrounded by planting etc). The value of landscaping and tree planting in shaping space was noted and appreciated (although questions were asked about maintenance – “who will look after it?”).

The role of scale in the likelihood of use and activity, and indeed community ownership, was discussed. Smaller spaces – almost like outdoor rooms – can encourage small-scale but important activity. The unique character of York was discussed and felt to be in large part due to what happens here rather than just the city as container. Small spaces allow variety of use and enclosure provides microclimate which extends seasonal activities.

Shelter, cover and civic life

An extension of this discussion noted that not all public space should be simple outdoor space. There is a spectrum from outdoor to sheltered to covered to indoor, all of which can be public (as opposed to commercial). As with our work in Castle Gateway, many people (and especially young people) voiced a need for public space that they can use and occupy at any time and in any season. Examples were shared of the role in “furniture” in public realm – places to perch or sit which didn’t require spending, even if it was close to places which did.

This issue was considered important – it is vital to create spaces where both individuals and communities can function – the difference was noted between simply dwelling somewhere and being a citizen – and “citizenship happens in public spaces”. “This is where we do our giving” was an eloquent view on it. It was felt important that – whatever the use of public space by visitors / tourists – the new public realm should work for people already living and working in York.

Elevation and views

Alongside variety of scale, variety of elevation was discussed and felt important. Creating places where you can “stretch your eyes” was felt to be vital and should be considered alongside the issue of views and key buildings. The potential to use landscaping (it was noted that remediation will require large-scale earth-moving in any case) was discussed but also the idea that public space does not all have to be at ground level. Many recent buildings have given back public realm at higher elevations (sky gardens in the Walkie-Talkie in London for example) and both green / accessible roofs and public access to intermediate stories of taller buildings was felt to be a principle to form part of the requirements for (at least a proportion of) buildings.

Zoning and mix of uses

Although not strictly part of the discussion of public space, the general principle of zoning was discussed. There was dismay over the apparent segregation of work and home, and the missed opportunities to create public space that mediates between the two. The zone between public and private was seen as full of rich possibilities – shopfronts, front gardens and forecourts, places which shape the accessibility of buildings and the visibility of their indoor activities. The Reading Café in Rowntree Park was seen as a good example (learning and social use within a park setting). The vertical mix of uses within surrounding buildings was also considered and it was noted that a richer mix (flats above offices above shops for example) drove more rich uses of public space.

Safety for adults and children

There was extensive discussion of the other factors which have a bearing on use by specific or broader groups. Lighting was an issue considered vital – it needed to make places feel safe after dark and also be energy-efficient and avoid light pollution. The relationship between lighting, safety and frequency of use was discussed – a virtuous circle where places feel safe enough to encourage frequent use and hence improve casual surveillance with more “eyes on the street”. The proximity of roads to green space was discussed; it was noted that one of the reasons the Museum Gardens work so well is that they are contained – children can roam in safety.

The work with children in the local schools also brought up clear messages. Children are increasingly constrained (asking about favourite outdoor places brought as many blank looks as responses) and favourite places were often very specific and sometimes remote (zoos, riding schools, campsites, beaches) or very local (a traffic-free street outside home, or a garage court where car movements were infrequent enough to allow football). When asked whether the need to cross a busy road would prevent them being allowed to use a park (however attractive in itself) the children fell silent and looked thoughtful; “We can take that as a “yes” then”, said their teacher. 

Vital ingredients – trees, water, playfulness

Lastly, various “ingredients” were discussed at various points which seemed almost universally popular. Urban trees are important and were identified as key elements in existing urban landscapes (in King’s Square and Parliament Street, although their impact on paving in Parliament Street was noted). The creation of small “wild places” where planting and trees overwhelm built environment and allow wildlife into the city were considered important. Green walls, roof gardens also. The role of water too – a way of softening the city, bringing cool in summer, in addition to offering practical solutions to drainage. And playfulness…

The fountains in Granary Square, Kings Cross, cropped up in almost every meeting at some point, and led on to interesting discussions about how “artfulness” can make urban spaces humane. Using water, light and sound was discussed. Sound installations can make a tunnel appealing, and the sound of the trains was noted as one of York Central’s distinctive features (described as “almost poetic” by one resident). We should play with – as well as in – our new public spaces.