people make places

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This talk was given by Charlie Tims at the 'Megapolis 2025' event in Helsinki. The talk draws on the Demos report 'People Make Places' which looked at the capacity of public space in the UK to foster sharing and interaction between different groups of people.


  • People Make PlacesMEGAPOLIS 2025 The Rhythm of the City

    Charlie TimsHelsinki2010

  • My names Charlie. Im a social researcher interested in public spaces. I spend most of my time working here, in the British Library.

  • The library and the spaces around it are used by different groups of people, for different reasons.

  • Different times of the day and different points in the year bring different groups of people through the library.

  • The library sets the tempo of how I experience the rhythm of the city and condition how it is revealed to me.

  • You can learn about a city by looking at its public spaces and what goes on in them.

  • In this photograph, the different reactions of passers by tells you something about British peoples relationship to the army.

  • Public space is a powerful device in news stories about power and democracy.

  • Controlling the depiction of public space is important to people who want to convey an image of a city and its people.

  • Public spaces are useful to designers and policy makers not just because they reveal a city, but because they offer a chance to shape it.

  • They offer an opportunity to give power to people, not just as protesters, but in their every day lives.

  • At Demos, in 2005 we were commissioned by a charitable trust to look at the health of public spaces in Britain.

  • We found that many of the squares, plazas and key-sides, of the urban renaissance despite being labelled public spaces were actually empty.

  • So our study became about the places and spaces that could actually support sharing and interaction between different groups of people.

  • Many of these places werent quite what you might think of as traditional public spaces.

  • a supermarket cafe in Swindon.

  • a car-boot sale, in Preston

  • some allotments in Cardiff.

  • Many forces have contributed to the emptying of public spaces in Great Britain.

  • Danny Dorlings work shows how growing inequality in Britain is mapped onto physical space. The same streets that were poor in London 100 years ago, remain the poorest today.

  • The design and governance of new public spaces in Britain has largely been driven by the need to minimise anti-social behaviour and encourage the frictionless movement of people to work and to the shops.

  • Many surveys report low levels of trust between groups of people. Just half of people in the UK generally trust the man on the steet. It has been this way since the early 1980s.

  • New technologies can enable us to avoid people who are of no immediate utility to us enabling us to imprint our own self-assembled digital networks on public spaces.

  • In the future people will not be divided from information, they will be

    divided by information.

    Perri 6, 2001

  • Despite these obstacles our research and experiences show that spaces that can support sharing and interaction by different groups of people share common features.

  • Room for self-organisation All the spaces have obvious routes to taking control of the space. Anyone can take a car to a car boot sale. The library, the Arts Centre and the Supermarket we studied all had obvious points of contact for visitors that could enable them to start their own groups and activities.

  • Props and PermissionPeople will be more likely to engage with other people in public spaces if there is something that bridges their experience. People who have dogs talk to each other in parks. In the library people have books. Car-boot sales are littered with curiosities that provide talking points that can bring people out of themselves.

  • Balance between different groupsPeople dont like it when a space is dominated by one group of people. Spaces that work well, are able to encourage different groups of people with different activities, but without putting up walls between them. The following images are taken from two recent projects - an urban beach and an urban orchard. Both had prgorammes of different activities; discussions, skills swaps and craft groups.

  • The spaces were also safe and accessible. But this was more a consequence of well-balanced space than because they were the starting-point for their design.

  • Public spaces that are capable of working like this need great managers and designers. The Beach I mentioned before was designed by my friend Melissa Mean who I worked with on People Make Places. The Orchard was designed and masterminded by Heather Ring. Google them!

  • In their work both are able to create structures that can provide a home for other peoples projects. Its basically what Charlie Leadbeater calls The Art of With. Google that too. In a perfect world this type of work that can provide a home for collective creativity would be the starting point for all future cultural regeneration projects.

  • It should be the starting point for Londons Cultural Olympiad too.

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  • But Im not hopeful.

  • In Britain the big new political idea is the Big Society - we are about to find out what this means.

  • It could be a nice way of describing a country where government is less present.

  • Or it could mean a new way of organising society and governing ourselves.

  • If its the later, People Make Places has three lessons for The Big Society.

  • 1. A Big Society needs public spaces that have the public in them. Public spaces arent just the theatre of democracy - they are also its cradle, its test bed and its life blood.

  • 2. Institutions do not automatically disempower, or empower people, but in all the public spaces we like, institutions play a key role. They create settlement between people who have power and people who dont. On the face of it a project like the Union Street Urban orchard is a product of volunteerism - but it still relies on The Architecture Foundation, The Arts Council, The Open Spaces Trust (and many others) to make it happen. The Big Society isnt made by removing institutions, it is made by institutions who work differently.

  • 3. Public space, when it works well, is a device for giving power to people. The principles that make for better public space are the same as those that make for more democratic organisations, cities, campaigns, ngos, libraries, parties, schools, cultural organisations etc etc etc etc

  • Charlie