Public spaces are a city’s living room, its lungs and a location for civic life. As London has grown over two millennia, the city has developed a rich network of open spaces – parks, squares, woodlands, alleyways, side streets, market places and forecourts. Public spaces might exist for the public benefit, but who owns them? And who decides the rules that govern them?
The capital has a mixture of ownership models. Many of the city’s parks were once operated by the London County Council, then by the Greater London Council and then, after its abolition, by individual London boroughs. Others have been built by private developers – as a planning obligation, as an integral element of their development and its commercial offer, or as both. This mixture of private and public ownership has, in turn, led to a patchwork of management approaches across the city.
This can be confusing for Londoners: when different rules apply to different spaces it can impact on people’s enjoyment and experience of these vital spaces. This is also why, since 2000, successive London Mayors have sought to set out baseline principles for the public realm, covering both privately and publicly-owned spaces, from streets to parklands.
Under Ken Livingstone the Greater London Authority launched the 100 Public Spaces programme, which aimed to create new ones or upgrade existing ones. The project also sought to demonstrate the difference improved public space can make and ways in which the highest quality designs can be secured without excessive expenditure. The 2004 London Plan, developed under Livingstone, committed to ensuring that the public realm is “accessible, usable for all and that developments and the social infrastructure they provide should address the needs of London’s diverse population”. It also called on London government as a whole to make sure that spaces within new developments could be used by as many people as possible without undue effort, separation, or special treatment.
Under Boris Johnson further projects were implemented under his London’s Great Outdoors programme, alongside campaigns and guidance documents such as the Mayor’s design advisory group’s Public London. The current London Plan (developed by Johnson’s team and adopted in 2016) expands on these principles and makes specific reference to privately-owned public spaces, stating that they must offer the “highest level of public access” and be “secure, accessible, inclusive, connected, easy to understand and maintain, relate to the local context and incorporate the highest quality design, landscaping, planting, street furniture and surfaces” with a “clear indication of whether a space is private, semi-public or public.”
Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor, has made public space central to his Good Growth by Design, Healthy Streets and Night-time economy initiatives. Khan has gone further than his predecessors by committing to develop a Public London Charter, which will set out rights and responsibilities for the users, owners and managers of public spaces irrespective of land ownership. Under the charter, rules and restrictions on public access and behaviour will cover all new or redeveloped public space and its management, and this requirement will be secured through legal agreement or as a planning condition.
Khan’s draft new London Plan makes specific references to what should and should not be the subject of site-specific rules: “Whether publicly or privately owned, public realm should be open, free to use and offer the highest level of public access. These spaces should only have rules restricting the behaviour of the public that are considered essential for safe management of the space.” The charter will help address the inconsistencies arising from the patchwork approach to management of London’s public spaces. But what areas should it look at?
First, it must focus on access, regulation and enforcement. To what extent do regulations and their enforcement have an impact on how spaces are used? Second, it must address issues of accountability, oversight and transparency. How are new spaces created, and what practises are in place to ensure public accountability, user oversight and the transparency of regulations and management regimes? Finally, it must address resourcing, events and commercialisation. How can we address some of the concerns and issues that have arisen over the growing commercial use of public spaces?
I and my colleagues at Centre for London think tank look forward to seeing the Public London Charter and call on Mayor Khan to adopt the seven principles set out in our new report on the issue entitled Public London: investigating the regulation of public spaces. He and any future Mayor must put the management of and access to public spaces at the heart of his or her agenda.
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