Close your eyes and imagine a public space
What do you instantly see?
Were you picturing a public square? A park? A marketplace? Or even just a street?
All of these and more would be correct. Public space is essentially somewhere which is open and accessible to people. However, in our technologically run world our public spaces are changing. They are becoming fragmented and less clearly defined.
Just the other day while sitting in my room in Newcastle, I suddenly found myself on an Italian balcony watching fireworks light up the night sky. How you might ask. Through the wonders of Skype! Now this undoubtedly was a fantastic moment and a wonderful, unexpected way of ending my day. But it brings into question how technology is affecting and changing the way we experience places.
Lecturer Georgiana Varna presented a fascinating lecture on ‘Measuring Public Space’. She is interested in challenging if we can create ‘very good’ public places or whether it is just an illusion. Through her PhD research she developed a theoretical ‘Star Model of Publicness’ to use as a tool for measuring public spaces. The Star Model looks at 5 key themes: ownership, physical configuration, civility, animation and control. This model enables these key characteristics of spaces to be compared to help identify what works or doesn’t.
During her lecture, Georgiana made mention of the Highstreet debate and asked:
“What do we do with the Highstreets in 20, 30, 50 years when we’re all online?”
This question really stuck with me.
The Highstreets used to be considered the social hubs of our towns and cities but undoubtedly with emergence of online shopping they have begun to suffer and see less footfall. Can we really see a future ahead of us where there are no longer shops lining our streets? What would our cities be without shopping?
We are witnessing the smartphone change the world, much like the car and the printing press have done. As a result, it has led to academics like Don Mitchell going so far as to question if we will reach a point where we have “created a society that expects and desires only private interactions”. While we undoubtedly live through screens more now than ever before, I still find it very hard to believe this would ever be a reality. Humans need human contact for their own well-being and there have been numerous studies to support this. Both Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have written extensively about how people are drawn to people. With Gehl stating that “the presence of other people, activities, events, inspiration and stimulation comprise one of the most important qualities of public spaces altogether.” This should therefore give us hope that our public spaces will continue to be both needed and desired. But in terms of our Highstreets, and our shops specifically, I do believe that how they are designed and what they offer will need to change in order to maintain their social, as well as economic dominance. The question is how?
The concept of convenience has always been an issue. Back in 1961 Jane Jacobs wrote that “when distance inconvenience sets in, the small, the various and the personal wither away“. It is, therefore, unsurprising that shops are succumbing to the squeezing pressures that online shopping are creating as it allows people to shop wherever they are. How do we, therefore, encourage people to go to the Highstreet to shop?
One way of increasing the number of people in an area is the amount of seating available. William H Whyte did a study on ‘The Design of Spaces’ which concluded that the “plazas with the most [seating] tended to be among the most popular”. However, while “retail is dependent on public space and a steady flow of people”, being in a commuter flow and providing seating still isn’t enough. To be able to compete with the likes of Amazon, shops and Highstreets will need to offer something you can’t get online to tempt us back out to the Highstreets and enable these public engagements and interactions.
Michele Chang-McGrath believes that “for a long time it was more about providing access, distribution, getting goods into the market; but products alone are no longer enough.” Highstreets will need to provide an experience. In essence they will need to find a way of appealing to a new breed of shopper.
I, therefore, would like to ask you the reader to think about:
What would draw you to back to the Highstreet?
Or if you do shop on the Highstreet regularly
What is it that keeps encouraging you to go back?
Please do share your thoughts!
 Varna, G. (2019) Measuring Public Space, Lecture, Newcastle University, delivered 31st Oct 2019
 Mitchell, D (1995) cited from Varna, G. (2019) Measuring Public Space, Lecture, Newcastle University, delivered 31st Oct 2019
 Gehl, J. (1987) Three Types of Outdoor Activities, in The City Reader, pp.534
 Jacobs, J. (1961) Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, pp.147
 Whyte, W. (1988) The Design of Spaces, in The City Reader, pp.515
 Karrholm, M. (2012) Retailising Space: Architecture, Retail and the Territorialisation of Public Space, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp76
 Varna, Georgiana M. (2011) Assessing the publicness of public places: towards a new model. PhD thesis, Pp 83