News & Insights

Re-imagining Public Spaces

Mural in Valencia

As the pandemic continues to toy with our everyday life, disrupting the way we work, social engagement and the places we visit, at FrancisKnight our thoughts have turned to the opportunities and challenges for reimagining public spaces in our post-Covid world.

Published date: 16 September 2020

It seems that a lot of changes have already been happening. Locally here in Kent, our road system is being adapted with the introduction of new cycling lanes. In Sevenoaks, proposals for a Cultural Quarter to promote more outdoor events such as food festivals and film screenings have received support to help the town recover.

Nationally, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, has called for an ambitious multimillion-pound public investment to enable cultural institutions to create a new generation of artists. Internationally, the influence of a public art per cent policy, introduced in the late 1980s in Western Australia, has seen an increase in public art policies being implemented by Perth Councils, leading to a rise in art and sculptures being installed at schools, hospitals, train stations, apartment buildings, public spaces and commercial buildings across the state. Recently vacant buildings and empty shop fronts have been transformed in Houston, Texas with 18 public art installations dubbed WindowWorks to prevent the Downtown District from looking empty.

From our own more personal perspective, we’ve watched countless webinars and contributed to many discussions exploring how best to work with artists in the current situation, with a particular focus on placemaking. There seems to be an increased appetite and greater recognition that people want more and will demand more from their high streets, town and cities and the public spaces they encompass than ever before. We were particularly pleased to contribute to a Visioning Day with Dover District Council in preparation for their Local Plan. Debates focused on the area’s uniqueness, and how to be braver, more radical, ambitious and aspirational in their approach. We posed the question: How can we look to ‘elevate the local’ through the use of public art? A phrase that seemed to resonate and became adopted through the ensuing discussion. Other contributors reflected the need to be inclusive, to listen to the younger voice, embrace digital communication and reflect the past with contemporary solutions– all valid points that chime with the way we like to work too.

Lockdown and social distancing have enabled many of us to reconsider how we should use our time, our urban spaces and how we interact with the natural world around us. Climate change and ecological drivers demand that we review how we use materials and create sustainable places, striving to create more livable and usable public realm, which add greater value to human experience. We’re determined to utilise this new way of living to consider how we could influence the pedestrian, to take more time to look and see and ultimately appreciate what is already around us.

How does this impact on our role in delivering public art? Well, we work with artists in helping to shape places and tease out the character and identity of local areas. We do this by matching the right artist to the right project and creating consequential and transformational engagement with local people and communities. Artists never fail to question, surprise and delight us every time with their responses and ideas.

We recently unveiled new public art murals at Wivelsfield Railway Station Bridge with artists Maria Amidu and Lionel Stanhope. A project delivered during lockdown restrictions in a fun and imaginative way, created with and overwhelming supported by the local community. “Because Neighbourhood Counts” a new moto for the community has greater significance than ever before.

If CoVID-19 has taught us anything it’s how to enjoy and connect with our own neighbourhoods. It’s so important that we live in places that are loved and looked after, that are well designed, accessible and are life-enhancing places to spend time.

We would like to see more artists invited onto design teams with commercial developers, housing associations and local authorities to authentically collaborate as equals alongside architects, regeneration officers, masterplanners and construction leaders to help shape new developments and public open space. If social distancing is the new norm, let’s create more interest and connection in the hard and soft landscaping, in meaningful artworks and the spaces between buildings.

It doesn’t always have to be permanent either, some of our most interesting projects have been temporary interventions, artist-led walks, performances and pop up workshops. In fact, this is where true creative thinking and collaboration starts for many artists: talking to people and thinking about how communities can be engaged in new developments and regeneration schemes.

With the Prime Minister calling for Britain to ‘build, build, build’ our way out of the Covid crisis, and a new Government White paper ‘Planning for the Future’ currently out to consultation, it’s encouraging to read that; “This Government doesn’t want to just build houses. We want a society that has re-established powerful links between identity and place, between our unmatchable architectural heritage and the future, between community and purpose.”

As a public art consultancy, FrancisKnight has always placed the emphasis on those powerful links. The question is, how will the decision makers rise to the challenge?

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