Peter Heath: 'We can create public spaces which people respect'

From a presentation by the architect and town planner, delivered to the environmental campaigns organisation Encams, at the Houses of Parliament


Litter, dog mess, graffiti - the familiar detritus of urban living and a plague on our communities. It's not hard to understand why places and spaces suffering these unappealing additions become unwelcoming to outsiders and bring down the mood of the people that live within them.

The trouble is that the problems these seemingly small things cause actually run deep. The economic and social viability and vitality of an area can be constrained, or worse still undone by the superficial scars of litter and debris. At a time when "respect" is the buzz-word in creating successful communities, we need to recognise that this means more than simply stopping people's antisocial behaviour, it means incentivising them to change.

What does this have to do with design? The role of town planners, architects and local authorities within the respect agenda must be to stimulate a change in social behaviour through making the right changes, even small and incremental, to the physical aspect of any community. Our evidence has shown that by working alongside communities to redevelop public spaces like streets, squares and greens we can create a physical environment which people respect. This leads to less vandalism, graffiti and damage and, in the longer term, can be part of the solution for more comprehensive regeneration within the community.

Opponents say that we are "tinkering around the edges" if we think that, simply by building a new park or by putting in new pavements, benches and railings we can actually stop antisocial behaviour. In some cases, they have a point. But if you consider the vast majority of schemes, for example Trafalgar Square in London, you can see how improvement to the physical environment follows through into the social side.

Witness the way Trafalgar Square has become a lively, family-friendly space, rather than the drab old thoroughfare it was before. You cannot "design out" social problems within a community but, if you use physical change in the right way, you can reinforce "respect".

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