The public realm gives a city its identity. Roadways, sidewalks, and parks are the lungs and arteries of modern urban cities. More than just access, they give communities a sense of place, and can very well define their social and financial success. Today’s landscape architects are keenly aware of the need to transform the public realm’s functionality, from connected livability to socio-economic viability.
“We not only look at how the public realm impacts cities by improving livability and connectivity, but also at adding economic value to properties and profitability to businesses,” says Robert Shakespeare, group design director of Cracknell.
Shakespeare has over 25 years’ experience in the Middle East and Asia in the design and management of large scale landscape, urban design and master planning projects for hospitality, public realm, commercial, retail, residential and infrastructure development. At the September 25-27 Big 5 Outdoor Design and Build show, the World Trade Centre, he will host a workshop entitled: “Does the public realm define a city? Do landscape architects and urban designers hold the key?”
“We will show international examples of cities with great public realm, look at Dubai projects we designed and address the ways public realm here is changing the city not just aesthetically but by adding value to neighborhoods and creating thriving business opportunities around them.”
A landscape architects’ job is to improve the existing public realm and develop ideas to turn a street into something special, such as capturing pedestrian spaces and tying them into another community, identifying strategies that add esthetic and functional factors that make usable public realm truly engaging.
“If we left it to the engineers we would end up with a very different world. When an engineer designs a road, he is looking at how much traffic he can get through it and how to manage the infrastructure. Landscape architects look at it as both a pedestrian and vehicular environment and seek to connect people with open spaces, adding value to people and property,” Shakespeare says.
Residents of cities like New York, Barcelona or Chicago use the public environment in different ways than Dubai as they’re more accustomed to having and using these public spaces as the fabric of their living environment.
“For example, Barcelona has a lively boulevard called Las Ramblas that cuts through the heart of the city centre and is a combination of public street and pedestrian environment where the whole city meets, creating a vibrant business zone for street shops and vendors,” he says. “That has an impact on how people see and use their city, creating an economic function as well as a great social function.”
Real estate agents will tell you that properties located close to certain facilities like a train station or park, but also good public realm and streetscapes will add a premium to properties. For example, the Boulevard in the Burj Khalifa District, a vehicular environment that’s also accessible to pedestrian traffic, raises the value of properties along it.
Shakespeare said public realm functionality is the key. He gave the example of Jumeirah Lake Towers, which was developed as part of a trend in Dubai to focus properties around water, in this case a lake. “What people have found is that it didn’t really add a functional value to living there, because although you have a lake it is inaccessible to the residents, costs a lot of money to maintain and was potentially dangerous to young kids,” explains Shakespeare.
“We have recently redesigned one of the areas at JLT, filling in the lake to create a park. As a result, property prices for nearby apartments have gone up by 30%, because now there are kids’ play areas, recreational spaces, a market, and outdoor cinemas. All of these elements are the essence of a great community and bring social and economic benefits.”
Another example Cracknell have worked on recently is The Palm Jumeirah Island where for a long time the land beneath the monorail link was left undeveloped and derelict.
“It was a barren underused space with huge potential so we put along the length of it a sustainable, low management, linear park with bike paths, jogging routes, gathering space and kids play areas, and people became more interested in buying property there because they have additional social facilities to supplement the beach access,” says Shakespeare.
The Walk, or The Beach at JBR, is another public realm example Cracknell designed, working closely with the project’s master planners and architects to ensure that the public realm potential of the scheme was maximised.
“What’s interesting there is the push towards outdoor retail as a new twist to make it viable, and the idea is to once again encourage mixing indoor and outdoor functions and combine recreation and entertainment with retail in an environment fully linked to the street,” describes Shakespeare.
The project’s main drawback is traffic.
“When JBR and the Dubai Marina were developed, the number of residents and cars really over-stressed the existing transportation infrastructure. So, when designing The Beach at JBR, the project team were careful to ensure that the new design did not further impact the existing poor traffic situation, providing underground parking and modifying the traffic flow to address how people came in and out without further adding to the traffic problem there.”
The public realm is a gathering place for strangers who discover, each in their own particular way, anonymously, the designs, wonders and hidden gems of creative landscape architects.
“Public Realm discovery leads to shared experiences, paving great potential for personal growth and giving birth to profitable business opportunities. These are the win-win scenarios professionals in our field aim for.”
Shakespeare’s Top 5 Cities with Great Public Realm