But when despairing over concrete ‘play areas’ punctuated by pebble-dash dustbins, we have to remember that when much of this infrastructure was built, there wasn’t much choice. During the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, landscapers, architects and designers often faced the stark choice of aesthetic or function.
This is no longer the case, as many innovative materials have emerged that combine both endurance and good looks. This means that designers can approach their briefs with creative vigour, to fashion original spaces that truly do stand the test of time (and footfall).
By reframing the outdoor design process, we can build better destinations. But eliminating that civic-engineering outlook requires a ‘back-to-basics’ mindset. Millboard’s Caroline Birdsall has put together her top five tips for throwing off convention and embracing ingenuity.
1. Work out how much space you’ve got and what the functions of the space are
Get your fundamentals in order by looking at the space itself. How much room do you have to play with? What health and safety considerations do you need to take into account? Once you’ve got those essentials locked down, you can let your imagination run free.
You can now think about how people might use that space – help to guide these future visitors with clever design. If your space is a recreational public park, for example, encourage people to drift around by introducing meandering pathways and points of interest. Conversely, spaces between buildings on a business park will need direct routes and clear signage. Put yourself in the shoes of the space’s visitors and ask yourself what guidance you’d need if you were them.
2. Create a distinct ‘sense of place’
Public spaces include retail outlets, public gardens, private businesses (such as theme parks and hotel lobbies) and leisure facilities. You’ll want to strike the right tone by thinking about what it is that sets your space apart, and bring those qualities out in your design.
Chester Zoo recently revamped its Komodo dragon enclosure and opted to use Millboard’s weathered oak boards for the walkways, to intensify the ‘wild’ element of the experience. These durable, slip-resistant and stain-resistant boards are perfect for public spaces, and their aged appearance adds perfectly to the zoo’s jungle vibe. Use of such distinctive and cutting-edge materials can maximise the potential of a space and enhance its character too.
3. Use inspired street furniture
Public space designers have seen their options explode over the past few years as design-led companies have arrived on the scene. Bland concrete seating, depressing planters and utilitarian bins are becoming a thing of the past with the emergence of revolutionary paint coatings and imaginative shapes.
London’s Studio RHE used seating from Vestre in their recent installation of a public water garden in the East India Docks. The Oslo-based street furniture company bring contemporary Scandi chic and ergonomic design to cityscapes all over the world. Their playful and colourful designs elevate public spaces from ‘convenient seating’ areas to destination centres.
4. Create a mood
How do you want your space to make people feel? Use texture and colour to energise, focus or relax visitors in your space. Richard Hywel Evans, Director of Studio RHE, used bright flashes of yellow in the East India Docks project to inspire ‘joy and vibrancy’. Conversely, Tony Wood’s ‘Floating Pocket Park’ in London was inspired by a 2016 report that confirmed that waterside living fosters a calm state of mind.
The designer, therefore, fully embraced the watery environment, and his floating decked platforms surround visitors with ‘urban blue space’, encouraging them to unwind. His choice of decking in such an environment would’ve been unthinkable just a few decades ago, but Millboard’s enhanced grain wood-look decking in golden oak is specifically engineered to withstand footfall and the elements. It’s perfect for wet environments as it offers superior slip-resistance, which ensures high health and safety standards.
5. Make it memorable
In 2018, Kew Gardens commissioned Landscape Designer Suzie Jewell to create a 350-acre ‘children’s garden’ on a disused part of the site – the most ambitious design project in Kew’s recent history.
This project resulted in four interactive gardens themed around the elements that plants need in order to grow: earth, air, sun and water. This attraction was specifically created to encourage children to ‘get up close and personal’ with nature, so durability was key to project success. The space has made great use of engineered walkways and child-friendly interactive exhibits. Parents are used to telling their children not to touch the exhibits, but in Kew’s new garden, children are encouraged to physically engage with the environment. Every millimetre has been landscaped to be exciting, inspiring and, most importantly, memorable. Since opening in May 2019, the space has been a big hit with children and parents alike.
So, in summary, designing a public space can be an incredibly exciting process. The broader your imagination, the greater the results will be. Throw out any preconceptions that you might have about what’s possible and think about what you’d like to see. New materials open out the possibilities, so have fun and embrace all the great innovations now at your fingertips.