Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

PLAY in your park

Exploratory Park is now open for use from early morning till dusk, daily – just a 12-minute walk from Brent Cross tube station.

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Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

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28 December 2020

Where everyday life happens: the public realm at Brent Cross Town

Tree and stumps in a circle
We’re using the public realm to connect diverse neighbourhoods, experiences and atmospheres.

There are small details that seemingly reveal a lot about a person’s character – like the books they put on display or the way they organise their sock drawer. In a similar way, that’s how we should get to know towns and cities too, not through their headline attractions but the often-overlooked public realm. 

The London Plan describes the public realm as, “the space between and within buildings that is publicly accessible, including streets, squares, forecourts, parks and open spaces.” They reveal a town’s true character because it’s where everyday life happens – where people meet, relax, socialise, reflect and debate among other activities. 

At Brent Cross Town, the public realm has been thoughtfully designed to meet our community’s needs. Its parks, playing fields and streets come together to create an inclusive and sustainable town. But what makes it particularly unique is the blurring of city and nature.

Armel Mourgue, partner at Gillespies
Time spent in nature can provide a respite from our overactive minds.

“Time spent in nature can provide a respite from our overactive minds and improve our moods. In a dense urban setting, that sense of nature is critical,” Armel Mourgue explains, the partner at Gillespies who is working with the Brent Cross Town team on the landscape and public realm design. It’s about creating a green network that forms vital connections for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as corridors for biodiversity, wildlife and ecology at the heart of Brent Cross Town.

When you first arrive by train, you’re greeted by urban features like the town square and places to socialise. As you explore and move further east, the scene gradually changes into more natural landscapes where lush greenery permeates the streetscape in the form of pocket gardens, parks and green links. 

Multiple studies have shown that nature is good for our health and wellbeing – it lowers blood pressure, heart rates and even reduces stress hormones. And Mourgue sees the public realm as an opportunity to enhance our relationships with nature. Using sounds, sights and smells, we’ve set up different networks to help the community feel more connected with nature.

People sitting in a city square with lush planting
St Helen's Square in the City of London is one of Gillespies’ previous projects. Photo: John Sturrock

But nature is just one part of the story. “Public realm is a canvas of expression for everyone,” says Mourgue. “They have to reflect the diversity of people that will live in and around the neighbourhood.” This means introducing different character areas within the public realm in order to offer diverse experiences to our community of residents and businesses. If you’re looking to play a game of five-a-side, then the open spaces of Clitterhouse Playing Fields is where you’ll want to go. But if it’s a quiet oasis you’re looking for, then Claremont Park or Whitefields Park will be just right.

Mourgue starts his masterplanning process by setting out two sets of design principles: the fundamentals and the flavours. The fundamentals include infrastructure that is necessary to create a successful town, such as streets that are easy to navigate and places that function all year round. The flavours are what we would consider as spices in a recipe – they enhance and enrich, drawing the best features of a place.

For Brent Cross Town, this includes a landscape where sport and play can occur anytime, an exciting range of arts and culture, and places that create moments of delight. Best of all, none of these places will ever feel out of reach. “We’re using the public realm to connect diverse neighbourhoods, experiences and atmospheres,” Mourgue says. Designed as a 15-minute town, residents and workers are able to access everything they need within a short walk or cycle from home, whether that’s childcare or a picnic in the park.

Planting in recessed trenches on street with trees and shrubs
These pavement planters in downtown Portland incorporate nature and manage stormwater at the same time.

In the face of this year’s global pandemic, the outdoors has gained even more significance as it became a safe place to socialise and reconnect with others. But recent events have also revealed inequalities within our society, one of which is the unfair distribution and access of public green spaces. It’s important for us at Brent Cross Town to create public spaces that are open for all, spaces that are warm, inviting and bring people together. 

“The biggest reward is when people use these public spaces and make the most out of it,” Mourgue concludes. The measure of success isn’t just in how well-executed these spaces are, but in the sense of ownership communities have. 

Since the creation of cities, public realm has been considered as the ‘glue’ that holds them together. It certainly is the case for Brent Cross Town, as we see it as a vital ingredient in building resilient communities. A canvas that reaches out in all places and directions, we’re making sure people and nature thrive together.

Image at top shows work by Clitterhouse Farm Project on Clitterhouse Playing Fields today, photographed by Tian Khee Siong. Portland planter photo courtesy of Green Streets.