If I ruled the world: Richard Rogers

Well-designed cities are a human right
December 11, 2014

If I ruled the world, all our towns and cities would be civilised places, with well-designed and maintained public spaces for the meeting of friends and strangers. I believe that shelter is a basic human right, alongside food, education and health, and that it is about more than basic dwellings. It includes the design of buildings and public spaces, and of the cities that form the heart of modern life. So it is scandalous how little attention we pay to the streets, squares, playgrounds and parks that make up our public realm.

The right to shelter should include a right to well-designed and maintained public space. Everyone should be able to see a tree from their window, or have a bench to sit on. Within a few minutes walk, you should be able to reach a small town square, park or a playground, with a few trees, benches for conversation and swings and roundabouts for children. A few minutes further and you should be in one of the magnificent parks that form the lungs of our cities; places to join friends for picnics, to walk dogs, to admire spring blossom, to meet strangers, to play softball or frisbee, or simply to spend time alone with your thoughts. And walking and cycling in the city through parks or well-paved streets is a pleasure, whether on the way to work or simply taking a stroll.

I once met a man in Verona, who told me he had moved there from Naples specifically because the beautiful streets there gave him the pleasure of the perfect evening passeggiata. When we visit new towns and cities, from Bath to Barcelona, it is the streets and squares that form the heart of our urban experience. The buildings may be beautiful in themselves, but it is the public spaces that they frame and form that create the city, forming the glue between buildings.

But, however much we pay lip service to the importance of public space, we fail to follow through with care and cash. London is littered with poorly-conceived one-way systems, which hand streets over to cars and trucks, rather than allowing them to be shared with cyclists and pedestrians. Alongside them are pavements scarred by inept paving, interspersed with gobs of tarmac, crowded with unnecessary signs and cluttered with ugly street furniture, in stark contrast to the elegantly paved streets that can be seen in many continental towns. These are streets to hurry down and turn your back on, not places to pause, to browse for second-hand books, to admire the view, to skateboard and hopscotch, or to talk to friends over a coffee or a drink.

As the American writer Jane Jacobs observed, it is “eyes on the street” that create security, not speeding traffic or CCTV cameras. Many of our parks and green spaces also seem like afterthoughts, space left over after the serious business of building has been completed. Even our better-designed parks and squares are left to deteriorate as investment in “non-essential” services is cut to the bone. Good public space civilises the city, bringing colour, light and joy to our everyday lives, and boosting our civic health.

As our population increases, the compact city is the only sustainable way of living. Growing populations mean higher-density cities; and it is generous and well-designed public space that makes density work and distinguishes the compact city from the crammed city. Economic prosperity takes root in good streets and squares, as much if not more than it does in our airports and offices. A city like London, one of the most expensive in the world, will never be able to compete with the megacities of emerging economies on the basis of cost, but it can offer something far less easily imitated or transplanted—the quality of urban life that will attract the most creative minds, and act as a magnet for students, tourists and businesses from across the world.

Improving our public space is one of the best investments we can make. It does not require the huge injections of cash that new airports, railways and sewers demand, but it does need interventions at every scale, carefully planned to make the most of and enhance what we have, and gradually to introduce improvements—in the same way that enlightened planners in Southwark gradually created a great riverside walkway along the South Bank of the River Thames; today London’s finest public space. Public space is the most democratic element of the city, used by everyone from slum-dwellers to the wealthiest.

A civilised society depends on good public space; we should celebrate and protect it.