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Expert group highlights vital public realm in towns and cities

The BID Foundation Public Realm Working Group has met to discuss the range of projects being delivered by Business Improvement Districts, and the future of high quality public realm as local finances make investment a key challenge.

The group, led by Stephanie Kerr, Chief Executive of BID Leamington, convenes Business Improvement Districts from around the UK. Most BIDs finance intervention in and improvement of public realm through the contributions of their local businesses (the BID ‘levy’) but many go beyond this, raising extra income and collaborating on council- and developer-led projects.

Transforming and caring for public spaces

A number of BIDs have invested in transformation public realm creation and curation, including projects like the Low Line in London which provides new spaces and also complements new opportunity spaces for businesses within the railway arches themselves. At the smaller end of the scale, installing new seating areas in public realm continues to be challenging in the current environment, with close cooperation required with local authorities.

Alongside this work, active management of greenery and ‘pocket gardens’ or ‘urban forests’ continues for many BIDs, which creates new atmospheres and reasons to dwell. Addressing the logistical challenge of maintaining this planting means innovation such as providing gardeners with a cargo bike and fitted watering tanks.

Challenging financial landscape

As local authority finances hit breaking point around the UK, many are finding it necessary to reduce services such as bin collection which is having a direct impact on the management of public realm and the experience of businesses and residents with shared waste collection. This challenge exists for all non-statutory spend that impacts public spaces and creates a tension when set against efforts to drive local growth and spend, such as active management of vacant units and improving shop frontages.

While BIDs have an excellent track record for public realm strategy and delivery, the ongoing availability of funding streams is clearly threatened, either via the end of previous government capital schemes or the state of local finances precluding investment or even prudential borrowing. While there are many well managed public spaces across the UK – including those that have seen innovation following the Covid pandemic with more outdoor seating and a focus on walkability – there is also plenty of tired public realm requiring renewal, for local communities and for the confidence of investors in high streets and centres.

The working group also heard from organisations like The York BID, which is working to make its public realm the tourist attraction, capitalising on the existence of heritage assets to curate trails and include these in unique place branding and marketing campaigns in the city. It’s not just cities like York which have had success via this route, with many smaller locations and with a lower profile of local history able to deliver heritage action zone schemes to preserve and enhance the character of the area.

Planning consultees

Many BIDs are non-statutory consultees on local planning decisions, however this input can vary. The Working Group discussed how this local knowledge – including business and community insight – is vital to ensure that the best possible schemes come forward, making use of scarcer budgets. These projects aren’t just about true public spaces like the local square, but how publicly-accessible privates spaces are well managed and enhance the offer of town and city centres.

The Public Realm working group, formed in 2023, will continue to meet on a quarterly basis, to share knowledge and inform the BID sectors work, as well as influence on national planning and place policy.

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