Look at the way people use places and spaces before you decide how to develop an area. That was the message from public realm consultant Lucy Musgrave to Stratford’s planners when she spoke recently to members of the Stratford Society about ‘Designing for People’.
“If you want to maintain an area’s individuality and character, always start by looking at the way an area is used,” she advised.
“ This is the way to identify the distinctiveness that makes a place unique. It provides strategies for long-term thinking and therefore value, which is important to landowners as well as developers.”
As founder of the consultancy Publica, Ms Musgrave has a team of urban designers, planners, landscape architects, film makers, artists and socio-economic researchers who develop master plans for developers and major landowners.
These include the Howard de Walden, Grosvenor and Portman estates, Transport for London, tenant associations and neighbourhood planners.
“In order to set the right brief for urban designers, architects, highway engineers and landscape architects, we spend a great deal of time on site – watching, learning, drawing, talking and listening, visiting at different times of day or late at night,” she explained.
“We are always looking for the lived experience as a reality check, rather than an imagined experience. We look at what exists, what’s missing and what has to be made from scratch. The mix is difficult to manufacture and it is very easy to destroy.
These basic principles, she went on, apply not only to grand formal spaces, but also to small, intimate ones and to market towns like Stratford, with which she has had family connections for many years. Some of the criteria to be considered – “apart from having forward-thinking developers and planners” – were the texture and variation of materials that make public spaces open and welcoming.
When new spaces are created, they too often feel a bit sterile, or corporate, she said. They are overly prescriptive and over-designed, which is alienating. More informal layouts softened by handsome specimen trees providing focal points would allow for greater flexibility between day and night-time uses.
“I try to think of all the different types of spaces I work on as you would think about an urban garden – you have to factor in time to grow, places to play, benches in front of shops to create ‘dwell time’ and others that can be moved to follow the path of the sun.
“Add flexibility, care, maintenance and appropriate management and you have a celebration of our shared civic lives – and you achieve it by showing a respect for the DNA of each individual place and giving it a continuity which will be appreciated for many years to come.”