The home-from-home trend sweeping our public spaces shows that as living space in big cities grows more dense, people are crying out for areas to relax and socialise

Selina Mason BW 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation by James Corner of James Corner Field Operations, the American landscape architecture practice that established its international reputation through the design of New York’s High Line. Among some great projects, the highlight of the show was the practice’s recently completed Domino Park in Brooklyn. And what was remarkable was how intensely used the landscape has become so quickly, despite very little development having been completed around it.

The park is centre stage with its sunbathing loungers; beer garden tables; jets, sprays and mists; and relaxing promenades for cycling, running, walking and lingering over a view – in this case the fabulous view back to Manhattan. And there were beanbags, blankets and ottomans scattered on the lawn – an invitation to relax, with a vibe of playfulness for adults as well as children.  I can’t wait to go and see what it is like to be there.

It made me recall the wonderful shock of the new at the London Festival of Architecture in 2008 when Studio Weave collaborated with Eley Kishimoto on London’s Largest Living Room at Somerset House. It turned the square into an invitational space with oversized lamps, chairs and sofas – a home from home. When the first section of the High Line opened to the public a year later, I recall a similar sense of transgression. Sun loungers were arrayed alongside the public path – at the time, places that encouraged sleeping in the public realm were unheard of – it wasn’t something a respectable person would do! Now, it’s become virtually obligatory to introduce loungers, day beds and hammocks – places to feel free to fall asleep in. There’s clearly something happening to our public spaces – they have lost a lot of their formality, as we have lost some of our inhibitions.  

So what is driving this? A cynic might suggest it is a product of private interests creating content and selling points to generate value in spaces that might otherwise appear to be a dull setting for development. There may be an element of this, but I think there’s much more to it and that developers are generally recognising and accommodating the trend, rather than leading it. My instinct is that the way people are working and living is creating a demand for space for peace, relaxation and gathering.

As cities like London become more dense and generation rent are all sharing with flatmates, there is limited outside space in which to breathe freely. Friends and relatives are dispersed miles apart across cities and need convenient places where they can socialise informally and feel able to relax and switch off in a public space: hence the need for beanbags, deck chairs and picnic blankets.

There’s clearly something happening to our public spaces – they have lost a lot of their formality, as we have lost some of our inhibitions

I also wonder whether what I call the “lobbyfication” of our buildings is part of the same picture. All around us, buildings and spaces look more and more like hotel lobbies. Whether austere modern, industrial urban, quirky plush, or vintage vibe, there’s a hotel lobby – in your office, in the neighbourhood bar and the local park.

There is no doubt that creating places in the city where you are free to feel at home and relax is becoming a pervasive theme. The combination of time-poverty, long hours and high-density living for many city-dwellers means that social spaces in cities have to work harder to meet the demand. The public realm is putting in hard labour to fill the spaces in our lives that were once a lot easier to deal with in a less dense city with less complex lives.

Public spaces now need to accommodate not just children’s play, and dog-walking, but every conceivable outdoor activity. The design must also manage potential conflict, for example between the 10-year-olds kicking a football and the baby groups looking for safety and peace.

Time-poverty, long hours and high-density living means that social spaces in cities have to work harder to meet the demand

People are also demanding more variety and entertainment. As some struggle to manage their work-life balance, the time they do have to meet friends and family becomes even more meaningful. Demands on our public spaces could easily outgrow their capacity.

We have to be very smart about this. Where masterplans are creating more dense environments, the quality of the public realm is the most significant consideration. How does a site perform in terms of its microclimate? Is it sunny during the right times of day to encourage a community to go there? Is it a gusty vortex when the wind direction changes? And will it be dominated by one group of users to the detriment of others?

The great thing about the array of high-profile international examples, such as Domino Park in Brooklyn, is that they put people centre-stage, within a beautiful natural setting – the kind of places people clearly crave. I would love to see a more muscular response from our design community towards this – to genuinely put the public realm at the heart of new places which, with the necessary investment and management, will create enduring and much-loved places where people will while away some time together.

If you put people first, the rest will follow.

Selina Mason is director of masterplanning at Lendlease