Fleet Street defined the Public Realm

It didn’t take Covid to get city-dwellers thinking about what attracted them to their city centres, and concluding that maybe home wasn’t so bad after all. The history of the last century, along with advances in communication technology over that same period, have made it ever easier for the world to be brought to the consumer: think remote working, streamed entertainment, delivered shopping and takeaways (more often bringaways).

To the extent that people might be tempted into town, city centres have emerged increasingly as marketplaces where the challenges were logistical – how to get the crowd quickly into, and safely out of, the mall/stadium/concert hall. Less and less over time were cities places defined primarily by the human appetite for company: where getting together just for conversation and comradeship was the whole wonderful point. Then along came Covid, social distancing, and a deepening fascination with the amount of fun to be had in your luxury Lazy Boy.

Now, with fingers crossed that the challenges of Covid are receding and we edge closer to the months of spring’s renewal: how do we go about the challenges of re-imagining and regenerating our city centres, in ways that balance comfortably our worries over climate change with the need to re-ignite economies? And can all of these concerns be accommodated in ways that get large numbers of people back into city centres, and happy to be there?

If the challenge is addressed in the language of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or of the UK’s own Business Improvement Districts, the focus tends to be upon logistical efficiencies, citizen safety, diversity and inclusiveness, greening and open spaces, “smart solutions” to building operations, and risk reduction. Each of these is laudable; all are vital. But for a fresh perspective, let’s consider a case study from history – say, London’s Fleet Street in 1750 – and ask how close it came to the ideal state of regenerated urban spaces.

History tells us that, for all its problems (see below), Fleet Street was such a triumph of co-located genius and entrepreneurial energy that it resembled nothing so much as the Silicon Valley of the 18th century. More than this – and without being consciously minded to achieve anything like a “Public Realm” – it created an extended forum within which thousands of fascinating people foregathered over the centuries to talk politics, science, philosophy, law, medicine, literature: always in awe at what can be achieved by the communities who peopled the hundreds of coffee houses, taverns, and theatres within which a language evolved and the Enlightenment took off.

So no: we won’t get a new dawn of civilisation by installing a water feature here and a few street lamps there. And the price of people being electrified by each other’s ideas is not a return to the conditions of 1750: rats, polluted water, and regular firestorms. With the benefits of modern technology and what we have learned in the years since about the transcending values of historical sensitivity and civilised conversation, perhaps we can achieve the best of both worlds.