Helen Goodwin

Research Group: Research Cities, Architecture, Landscape, Environment
Award studied: PhD

Project title

Public life by design? A study of the social implications of public space design


Over the past two decades, huge sums of public money have been invested in public realm regeneration projects across London as a result of a series of policy initiatives by the Mayor of London aimed at bringing about the social and economic transformation of some of the city's more deprived communities through 'good design' of the public realm. Whilst evaluation commissioned by the GLA has highlighted the more measurable economic benefits that such projects may have achieved, the same attention has not been paid to the more intangible social benefits and consequences of the design of these public spaces, in spite of the implications for social justice and for individual and community well-being in an increasingly multicultural and divided city. Everyday encounters and social interactions have been identified in policy and academic discourses as significant in this respect, but there have been limited studies examining the specific relationship between the physical design of these urban public spaces and its social impact.

Aiming to address this gap in the existing literature, the focus of my research is three case studies of town square regeneration projects across different London boroughs funded by the GLA over the last decade - in Acton, Barking and New Addington, by East, muf and Assemble architects respectively. The research investigates the relationship between design ambitions on the part of policy makers, stakeholders and design professionals and the social impact of the designs in terms of the experiences, preferences and opinions of the individuals and groups who inhabit these spaces, in an attempt to evaluate the social value of these projects.

Using a mixed method approach including interviews with specialists and everyday users, and drawing on extensive participant observation, my evidence-based research finds that, whilst seeking inclusion and integration, the unintended consequences of the projects are social exclusion or differentiation along class or ethnic lines as a seemingly direct result of specific design objectives and design decisions. As such, my research reflects on our role and responsibility as designers acting within the public realm, and on the need for a more holistic means of evaluation, which takes into consideration the social implications of the design of public space in the interest of better informed policy and practice, as well as the enhanced quality of contemporary urban life for all.


Funding received

AHRC PhD Studentship