Playing nicely

Some Peckhamites reflect on the challenges (and delights) of making public space

One evening, as it was getting dark, we headed to Peckham Square with the CoDesign bike. It was early in the process, and we wanted to have some conversations about what good ‘public space’ might be in the context of central Peckham. Local people have stressed many times in the past months that the ‘station square’ should be not only welcoming to all, but also useful to the community, so we were keen to get a sense of what that might mean from a broader range of voices. The points below were all made that evening by two or more of the eight people we spoke with, all but one of whom were new to the CoDesign process. (We asked a number of questions about what public space meant to them, what spaces they felt worked well and less well in Peckham, and what they would like to see the Co-design achieve.) These points, and the accompanying headline quotes, offer some valuable insights into how public space in Peckham is perceived and used, and what some Peckhamites would like it to be. They articulate some ideas, questions and also – importantly! – challenges that we hope will inform thinking about the future look, feel and use of the ‘station square’. Because making space that is truly public, while a vital endeavor, is not by any means easy.

“Public space should be for EVERYBODY.”

Of course, we all – architects, communities, society – say this ALL the time. But once we start to think about what we mean, things get more complicated. Not everyone feels welcome everywhere – even if theoretically free to enter – or that some spaces offer them anything useful. As one participant pithily put it: “Middle classes going on trains [use the station]. Lower classes use the Rye Lane shops.” Some people may feel uncomfortable in the presence of others – beggars, the homeless, those who have been drinking, groups of young people etc – and therefore either avoid spaces, or seek to have those others moved elsewhere through policing or policy. The people we spoke with, while some had experiences themselves of feeling less welcome in places, had not abandoned the ideal of everyone feeling welcome, and of communities coming together.

“Public space can be a location for change. For new life to start to happen.”

These beautiful words were shared with us by a Ghanaian preacher. He stressed the need for public space to be truly welcoming – and the importance of being both welcome in public nd publicly welcomed– to those who have lost hope or fallen out of society’s support structures. This was not a religious discussion, but one about the power of community. His hope for the new square – with its ideal situation so close to points of arrival by bus or train – was that there might be some space for public or charitable services from food banks to advice. Then the square would feel truly welcoming to everyone.

“It’s not important how public space looks. It’s about how it’s run and what happens there: the people and the activities.”

More than one person made this point. It can be easy to become focused on issues of the character, materials or height of buildings and spaces. And indeed, these are important, but perhaps not as important as  the way in which buildings, management and use work together to shape the experience of being in a place, and the opportunities it offers. The theme came through time and time again that it was the act of being outside and in public whether that was quietly sitting and watching, or taking part in some activity such as a festival a market or a table tennis game – that really mattered to people.

“Public space offers somewhere to go outside your home, and facilities that are not in your home.”

Different people said this in different ways. For some who live alone, public space can offer a sense of company and community. But if you live in a small house or flat, with a large family or many housemates, public space may be somewhere to you go – paradoxically – to find privacy, peace, or some space of your own. “Sometimes I come here to sit and make a phone call” said one younger man. The Ghanaian preacher stressed how Britain’s cold, wet climate kept people inside much of the time, often in homes without gardens, and that therefore it was even more important to offer the facility of somewhere to sit in fresh air and sunshine at those points when the weather is more clement. He would like to see “small shed structures where people – especially older people – can relax in the sunshine” in the station square.

“It’s really important just to be able to sit.”

Almost everyone made this point. It was clear that many of those we spoke to, or those they knew, just found a real straightforward pleasure in being able to simply, “sit and look”, “sit and chill” or “just sit and relax”. Indeed, this is what some people we spoke with were doing. (Until we disturbed them, that is!) Although sometimes this was just about pausing on your unhurried way somewhere, for others sitting was a proper ‘leisure’ activity, and for others still, a way of encountering friends, as if you sit in a popular place for long enough someone you know will sooner or later pass by.

“Sometimes I just would like to sit and drink a beer.”

Throw alcohol into the mix, and things get controversial. Why is it appropriate for example, to buy a glass of beer and sit at a pavement café, but not to buy a can of beer and sit on a bench? Expressing disapproval of the rowdy street drinkers in Peckham Square, one young man felt annoyed that the knock-on effect was that he can’t have a beer there in the evening without being moved on by police. He has a fair point, especially if people in Peckham do want and need to make use of some public spaces as extensions of their domestic sphere, and cannot always afford to be consumers.

“It’s really important that something is happening in a public space otherwise there’s no reason to be there.”

Well absolutely. This statement was partly about the need for space to be attractive as a community gathering point – to have some ‘pull’ to it. But also related to the fact that it is quieter spaces that tend to attract ‘undesirable’ behavior. So how does one keep a space activated? “Safety is a big thing round here”, someone said. While the young man in Peckham Square pointed out that, annoying as the “layabouts” were, they kept the space feeling occupied. “Even at night no-one has ever robbed me here.”

“Any public space should be stuffed with CCTV.”

While not everyone would agree with this statement, it does flag up concern about the safety and management of the new station square, and public space in general. “There are loads of places in Peckham that are messy and could do with a clean up, if they were cleaned up and kept clean people would respect them more, ”we were told. One man stressed: if there is a poor long-term management, it won’t be a public space. So again, people we spoke to were not so concerned with the ‘ta-dah!’ moment of a newly designed space appearing and looking beautiful. They were concerned about how it would play out over time.

“Those outdoor gyms are great”.

Clearly, station square is an unlikely location for an outside gym. But I’ve included this point as the gyms were named more than once as a positive example. (I have heard this many times recently in London, especially from groups who tend to be underrepresented at core consultation events.) They bring people of all ages – from toddlers to the elderly – and backgrounds together for free and positive activity, that they do in each other’s company (but without being forced to interact). They also attract people who just want to sit and watch, and are seen as welcoming to young people, while promoting health and physical activity. This makes them am interesting symbol or possible metaphor for ‘good public space’.

“Peckham Square is alright actually”.

That’s me! In previous stages of this project, I have often been told that Peckham Square is an example of poor public space: big, open and not as well used as it might be. But everybody we spoke to this time thought it pretty good, sometimes for those very same qualities: you can sit there, with space around you, with good long views, and just watch the world. Its situation close to residential areas, and its distinctive architecture, made it a place that was valued (i) as an extension of home, (ii) for bumping into people you knew, and (iii) for meeting people. “It’s a place with a clear location where you can tell someone you will be, or to come and meet you, especially if they don’t know the area”. The landscaping gets children and skateboarders playing, there are plenty of places to sit, and the table-tennis tables are usually in use. Kids gather there after school. “You can be coming from anywhere and you can sit down and look and relax. Not everyone can go to a shop to eat or relax.” In contrast, Holly Grove Shrubbery, which I am used to hearing people praise, was twice named as somewhere that felt dark, unsafe, unwelcoming and that offered little of interest to sit and look at. I’ll end on another quote from the lovely Ghanaian preacher, that moves beyond the topic of the evening’s discussions, and onto the theme of the project as a whole: “Co-design needs to be for the whole community. To benefit even those who are not wanted. To draw people in and make them welcome.”

Daisy Froud (cultural researcher and member of the Ash Sakula CoDesign team)