What makes a ‘liveable city’? How are we trying to achieve this in Edinburgh?
There are many different ways to define what makes a liveable city. Everyone reading this will have a slightly different perspective of what they consider a liveable city to be and the qualities it would have. We each have our own conception of what a place being ‘liveable’ means, based on our own perspective, experience, professional background and subjective opinions. Take a minute to think - what qualities do you think a liveable city has?
As landscape architects our focus is usually on the external spaces in between buildings - from the public street spaces you use as soon as you step outside your front door to the local parks, public squares, community gardens or other spaces in between buildings. It is important to ensure that their design is fit for purpose - one that works for all the end users that will experience these spaces and use them once built. As a result, at HERE+NOW we feel that to create a liveable city it is important to take a user-centred approach to design. Helping to realise designs or outputs that reflect the needs and aspirations of the full range and diversity of people that will use these spaces.
By not just designing FOR people, but designing WITH them, the outputs of projects that take this user centred approach create more liveable places, that the people who will use them actually want to spend time, and that are most sensitive to their context and the people and place qualities that are already there.
Whilst each project is different, at HERE+NOW we use a variety of different methods to engage with local people or the end users of these spaces. This might be in the form of community engagement events, workshops and walkabouts (getting people outside helps people think differently, see the space that we’re talking about in practice, helps form relationships through informal conversations, or can include more structured workshops that help gather information to input into the design), or prototyping and piloting (testing ideas as they evolve in practice, using models or mock-ups with moveable parts to allow users to play around with and communicate their aspirations or input into an evolving design process, or making temporary interventions in spaces that tests what could become a longer term more permanent outcome or design output).
We use the outputs of this engagement with local people or the end users of a place to feed into a delivered design outcome, recommendation or response that has the backing, genuine input and incorporates the knowledge and local expertise of the end user - the people that this design affects. Core to our ambition to help create or design liveable places, is therefore finding ways to invite input from local people, and then sharing this local knowledge and aspiration. Either by integrating it as part of the fully realised design, or via events, exhibitions or publications which share and celebrate local places.
What makes a ‘liveable city’?
So how do we define what makes a ‘liveable’ city or place? It’s a huge topic and there are many different ways that this could be defined. I’ll just use one way of defining it here (borrowed from the Livable City organisation in San Francisco). A ‘liveable’ city can be defined as one with qualities such as affordability, creating a diverse and resilient local economy, robust neighbourhoods and communities, accessible and sustainable ways to get around, and vibrant public spaces.
Of this list, it is the last three qualities that we have most input into as landscape architects and urban designers in our work as HERE+NOW. You can argue that these three qualities are about designing and creating places that are good for people (robust neighbourhoods and communities), movement (accessible and sustainable ways to get around), and place (vibrant public spaces).
To achieve these three qualities, you need to combine the good design of the physical infrastructure of the built environment - or good ‘place design’ - together with ways to engage, empower and enable the people and communities that live there to thrive.
When both these aspects are done well, creating ‘liveable cities’ in this way, can lead to benefits for both people and environment. For example people’s health and well-being can be improved as a result of walkable, cycleable neighbourhoods that encourage physical exercise, green and pleasant places can help improve well-being and reduce stress, and places to meet and socialise with neighbours or bumping into others in the street. Liveable cities can also lead to environmental benefits, in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services - creating habitats, stormwater management, increased biodiversity and climate change resilience via an increase in green space within the urban fabric as part of this ‘good place design’.
What is ‘good’ place design?
What do we mean when we say that to create a liveable city it is important to have ‘good’ place design in terms of the built environment? As we are a team of landscape architects and urban designers, I'll focus on design of public spaces and ‘outdoor’ urban environments.
These ‘spaces between’ are crucial places in making a liveable city. Every time you leave your front door these are the places you walk through to get to a destination - whether that be to go to work, the park on the weekend, to go to the shops or visit a friend. These public spaces often form our first impressions of cities, are often where you bump into friends or neighbours, and set the scene for everyday life. If these are designed well, they enable a lot of other social activities to happen that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. By making these outdoor urban environments ‘liveable’, i.e. with accessible to all, walkable, bikeable, and a vibrant place that is interesting to meet others, we can take huge steps towards creating a liveable city.
As HERE+NOW, we have developed 12 design principles for these types of public spaces in the built environment - whether they be streets, parks or urban squares. These 12 design principles are what we would consider best practice for ‘good’ place design. They are based on us summarising and synthesising the contemporary academic literature to date, boiling down the common agreed qualities to 12 core principles that the research agrees help create pleasant, attractive, and healthy public spaces.
These 12 core principles mean designing places are:
- Sensory rich (planting and material selection to give a range of sensory experiences and throughout the year)
- Flexible spaces (suitable for different activities)
- Walkable (pedestrian priority, wide paths, accessible surfaces)
- Places for play (close to where people live)
- Variety of spaces (a mix of public/private spaces, spaces suited to different users preferences)
- Distinctive (building on local character and identity, creating different distinct places)
- Events and activities (places people can come together, a framework from which activities can happen)
- Easily navigated (using landmarks for wayfinding, legible environment)
- Green and restorative (green space and planting)
- Excellent facilities (frequent seating, toilets in public space, accessible facilities)
- Safe and secure (natural surveillance, well-lit)
How can we help form and engage communities around a place?
In addition to ‘good’ place design i.e. designing the built environment well, to create a liveable city the other most important factor from our experience is people. How can we, as landscape architects help to facilitate, form and engage communities around a place?
At HERE+NOW we believe that people make places. This social interaction and sense of community is really important in creating a vibrant liveable city. By bringing people together around a place that is important to them, and by listening to local people and genuinely involving them as part of a design process that will change somewhere in their neighbourhood, you get the best results in terms of robust, relevant place design. We do this by taking a co-design approach to design a place together with local people (the local experts), and by helping to facilitate feelings of ownership and opportunity to get involved and active in local places along the way.
Where a built design is not the outcome of community engagement, this process can also lead to outputs such as a ‘community brief’ summarising the needs and aspirations of the local community (residents, local businesses and other stakeholders) that allows funding to be sought to turn aspirations into reality or which feeds into urban planning for the area, a pilot intervention that helps test some of the ideas raised and sets the scene for longer term action, or the engagement process can help develop a series of productive discussions and relationships between different local stakeholders that can lead to longer term collaboration or action in the neighbourhood.
By taking an approach that deliberately integrates people and place and as part of an ongoing process, you can start to lay the groundwork for a more liveable city. Helping create opportunities to meet neighbours or make other social connections, increasing feelings of ownership that can lead to more active citizens, and helping form a framework around which people can form groups or increase their participation from.
How, as HERE+NOW, are we trying to achieve this in Edinburgh?
How can this mix of good built environment design, and community engagement be put into practice? We’d like to highlight a couple of examples of projects we’ve worked on in Edinburgh that show, quite practically how we try to achieve these principles of creating a liveable city. Often this is by bringing together a community around a place as part of a design process, or in terms of research with users of a particular places within the city to help with the planning of design interventions for the future.
Public Life Street Assessments
One example of this is a project we have been working on for Edinburgh City Council - Public Life Street Assessments.
We have been commissioned by City of Edinburgh Council to research and analyse the issues and opportunities that currently exist in the street environment of 8 town centres across Edinburgh. We have completed 5 of these to date and are now working on the final 3 town centres (Corstorphine, Gorgie/Dalry and Tollcross). These town centres are important as local hubs for residents, featuring local shops and amenities, as a place to bump into people you know, and each with their own character and identity. Our Street Assessments aim to look at how these high streets are doing currently, what issues there are in terms of how they are experienced by users and local residents as a place, and also observe how they currently function in terms of movement on foot in particular, but also by bike. From there we make design recommendations to aim to improve the quality and liveability of these places - shown by an increase in public life.
To do this we use a variety of methods. User interviews give us a good understanding from a user perspective of how it is to experience these places, and any current issues as well as opportunities for improvement. We also use a whole host of other methods including pedestrian counts, tracing studies, behavioural mapping, demographic mapping of the ages of people present in the street, and direct observation through an immersive series of full days in each town centre. This data is measured at numerous points throughout each town centre and on both weekdays and weekends.
We then go through a rigorous analysis progress to find patterns in the data, and help highlight particular issues or where there might be opportunities to improve the design of the street environment. This allows us to start to define how each town centres functions as both a place, but also in terms of movement for pedestrians. They focus on direct observation as well as user experience, and combine this with our design expertise. The resulting suggestions for improvement and design recommendations come from this research baseline of information, but are also guided by other policies and guidance such as the Edinburgh Street Design Guidance.
Street assessment helps us to understand the current liveability of public street spaces, and has allowed us to assess these for a number of Edinburgh town centres. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s a good starting point to understand how we can start to improve these aspects of liveability - making more vibrant, accessible, pleasant public places, where people can meet each other, spend time, as well as get around easily and enjoy the city.
Hold Me Dear exhibition in Rodney Street tunnel
Another example is a community photography exhibition and series of workshop days we held in Canonmills, Edinburgh in late 2015. This project relates to the ways that you can engage people and communities, acting as a catalyst that helps local people realise their aspirations for place - driving feelings of ownership over local places, enhancing the social connection between residents and different other local stakeholders, and building an improved and more liveable sense of place.
Our Hold Me Dear exhibition involved the transformation of an old railway tunnel using a community photography exhibition all about sense of place, that was developed from and with local people. The exhibition displayed local people’s photographs of places in Edinburgh and other cities that they felt a personal connection with. However, the strength of the project wasn’t just in the output, but also in the engagement that took place in the 6 months prior to this. This helped to bring local stakeholders together and start to translate ideas and aspirations into realised outcomes.
The process started with an initial engagement in the Canonmills neighbourhood more than 6 months ahead of the final exhibition. At that time a location for an intervention or improvement wasn’t set at all. We were testing a fluid process of community engagement whereby we started off just listening to local people about the issues and opportunities they felt existed for the neighbourhood. We did this via spot interviews in the street with a large number of passing residents and visitors, and discussions with other key stakeholders such as businesses and local organisations. This identified the tunnel as a key location where there were both a lot of issues at present - people felt it was intimidating to walk through, deserted, and scary. But there was a lot of potential. Local people and organisations all saw potential in creating this as a destination for the neighbourhood, and making more of the tunnel in a way that made it a more positive space.
To explore this further, we organised a Pep Talk event. We built on what we’d learnt from the initial interviews and discussions with local people and held an event along the themes that had emerged and in the place people had shown most interest in transforming - the tunnel. This was pitched not as an ‘engagement event’, but as an interesting evening filled with inspiring speakers, live mural painting, free drinks and music in the tunnel. This drew a broader range of people and formed a starting point for further conversations about the tunnel and its potential. The speakers for the evening were chosen based on their relevance to the initial ideas and aspirations local people and organisations had told us about for the tunnel.
The discussions and potential collaborations that were established from that event were summarised into a ‘community brief’. An agreed brief for the kind of intervention or change to the tunnel that the community and local organisations and businesses would support. It included more potential for the tunnel to become a creative destination with more artwork, and the possibility for the community events. Making the tunnel a place you’d like to go, rather than be scared to walk through.
The next step was to pilot and prototype what an intervention like this might look like. We started planning an exhibition in the tunnel, delivering a series of workshop building days with local people and inviting photographs about local treasured places from residents. These formed the resulting photos in the exhibition and offered a chance to show local pride and involve a broader range of people in the space and project.
The exhibition was installed for one month, and helped to show how the space could be transformed as a place for local people’s artwork to be displayed and for events. Since then the exhibition has started a discussion about how the tunnel - or the adjacent Scotland St tunnel - could be better used as a creative local venue. There have been a number of subsequent events in the tunnel which have built on the relationships we developed with landowners in getting the project off the ground. We also monitored and evaluated the project to help capture some of the positive outputs that resulted from the project.
What are the challenges for Edinburgh as a liveable city going forward?
We’ve given a couple of examples of both the techniques we use and types of projects we have been involved in which aim to have a positive impact on liveability in Edinburgh. These have looked in particular at the way that we can create better, more vibrant, well-designed public places, help promote easier and more pleasant and convenient movement on foot or by bike, and in bringing communities together to take action in their local places. As HERE+NOW, we are coming at this from the perspective of landscape architects and urban designers. However, those reading will all have your own individual backgrounds, expertise or interests that may understand the topic of ‘liveability’ and its relation to Edinburgh quite differently.
Edinburgh is already considered by many as a very liveable city. It’s a reason many people locate here, or choose to stay here. However, no city is perfect, and from our perspective a few key challenges going forward for the city will be:
How can local people become a bigger part of shaping the city?
How can we continue to make sure that local people, residents, visitors, businesses, and the full diversity of people who are present in the city, can genuinely have a stake in shaping Edinburgh and it’s built environment? How can we encourage the building of relationships and social connection, that make Edinburgh a pleasant, and vibrant place to be, that is inclusive of all communities and users, and gives people ownership over their neighbourhoods and local places?
How can we increase green space within and throughout the city?
We’re really lucky in that Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities in the UK. However, green space doesn’t just have to mean the big parks like The Meadows or Arthurs Seat. There are many benefits that result from increasing green space and greenery across the city at even the small scale. This connection to nature, and at the very local scale, in close proximity to where you live is really important. How can we go further, improving our public spaces by creating a better network of green space across the city? (Take a look at our City Garden project for an idea we are currently developing that we hope might help).
How can we improve public space to make the city easier and more convenient for walking and cycling?
Edinburgh is a relatively walkable city, but there are some accessibility issues in terms of uneven surfaces and some difficult traffic junctions to cross that can make it frustrating or intimidating to be a pedestrian in places. Perhaps even more of a challenge is encouraging more active travel within Edinburgh in terms of cycling. Edinburgh is a hilly city, however traffic, and lack of adequate provision for cyclists in places, is limiting this flourishing to the extent it could. Encouraging a better public space and street environment that reduces dominance of cars and helps provide better conditions for pedestrians and cyclists will not only help measures of liveability in terms of sustainable movement and accessibility, but also help create more vibrant attractive places that are designed at the human scale and result in more public life.
We believe all these challenges are able to be overcome, and together we can help make Edinburgh an even more liveable city.