By Alastair Leighton, Technical Director – Cities

Public spaces provide the connective tissue of the city where we mix, meet and move. They are the places of shared experience that we all have in common. How would you rate your city or suburb as a place for people – for community? What would you change – and how would you do it?

Cities are a work in progress. They are complex organisms that constantly evolve and reinvent themselves – through our actions. It is the dynamic balance between change and stability – the new and the familiar – that makes them compelling.

Our city environments are underperforming in response to a changing climate, congested streets and ageing infrastructure. Demands change and cities also need to be capable of changing in response to what we need. We need to fine-tune the organic mechanism of the city to ensure that the inputs deliver the right kind of outputs. Physical space in cities is finite and contested. As populations grow, we need city spaces and places that perform well for more people. We need safe and effective urban environments that balance competing demands and deliver a healthier environment. We need our cities to be brilliant – everywhere, and for everyone.

In many cities, most of the public space takes the form of streets. If the streets are mostly reserved for cars, then they can’t be used for other things. Fortitude Valley in Brisbane lacks public open space, yet space including streets equates to roughly 24.5 hectares, or approximately 36 football pitches within a dense urban setting – and 85% of street space is typically reserved for vehicles. The Valley has a growing residential population. At face value and at peak times the streets look full. Where then can we deliver the urban forest for cooling and how do we achieve a more equitable balance of space for people?

Most cities bear the mark of car-centric design that has yielded a legacy of inflexibility and semi-privatisation. The concept of streets that deliver people to a CBD business hub is outdated. The way we have divided and relinquished control of public spaces can make it hard to imagine that change could be possible.

Are we ambitious or imaginative enough when we consider the role and function of public spaces in our increasingly urban future?

In the city organism, everything is connected. London provides a great example of a city struggling to accommodate different transit modes in segregated and regulated spaces. Instead of asking in isolation ‘how much space does traffic need?’, what if we were to flip the question around? How little space does transit need? And what happens to the space when traffic does not need it – or when the space has a more important function to perform?

Beenleigh Town Square in South East Queensland is a new community public space that was reclaimed from a space-hungry traffic intersection. The project reduced tarmac by 50% and delivered 50% more trees – whilst maintaining appropriate traffic functions. The estimated future return on investment was exceptional by comparison with any standard business case for infrastructure.

Change takes many forms, it may be fast or slow and reflects different triggers. A decade of regeneration in central Manchester began in response to the devastation of the 1996 IRA bombing. Closer to home, the Expo of 1988 delivered Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands as a catalyst – and the mixed city development that has followed.

Sometimes change can be accommodated and sometimes it needs a bit of help. Regeneration in cities is shorthand for a scale of renewal that is organised, strategic and purposeful; to deliver the kind of change that cannot be achieved through the normal cycle of gradual and piecemeal evolution. It applies to the whole environment of the city – not just the renewal of buildings. Regeneration implies that something may be broken and needs to be fixed. It suggests that the city could deliver something better; reborn in a way that is more attuned to what we need now.

If big change is hard, then we need dynamic strategies to deliver adaptation. Short-term change can be used as a testbed for ideas. For example, the recent transformation of Times Square in New York began with the introduction of red tables and chairs that encouraged people to pause and enjoy one of the busiest intersections in Manhattan. Meanwhile, closer to home in Fortitude Valley we are advocating for the staged closure of Bridge Street to create a new urban green space at the heart of an expanded destination. This is public space as a catalyst for regeneration – a concentrated urban forest; where future legacy value to the city is the critical question – measured in terms of broad community benefit.

In 2005 CABE Space published ‘Start with the Park’ to deliver generous urban green spaces at the heart of housing market renewal in the UK – as a statement of intent, as evidence of investment in community, and to demonstrate what could be possible through transformed places.

We need ambitious adaptation to transform the common spaces in our cities to create places for healthy habitation.

The Public Space Ideas Competition is the perfect opportunity to help improve public spaces in Sydney. Change starts with us – are you ready to do your part by coming up with an innovative way to create positive change in Australia’s biggest city?

Alastair Leighton is a Technical Director, in the cities team at AECOM and is based in Brisbane.

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Banner Image – Bridge Street is proposed as a valuable new urban green space at the heart of the Valley.