Soho Square and Lessons in Public-Private Urban Spaces / by Emilia Morano-Williams

Bloomsbury

Soho Square is the untended child of London’s green spaces. It is not well-manicured like Russell Square, nor illustrious like Berkeley Square. When the Earl of Macclesfield built Soho Square in 1681, it was London’s first garden piazza. Today people come to sit and read and toast to Friday with cheap cava and challenge their coworkers to ping pong. They come to gasp at the drunks and druggies and dead-beats who mill about as if a homing device lures them to the epicenter of once-raucous London. Soho Square exhibits the memory of London pseudo-grittiness.

But the Square’s scruffy appearance juxtaposes the high-street stores, boutiques and restaurants that draw people to Soho. You could be on Corso Como in Milan or Mott Street in Nolita. Some people aren’t content. In 2014, Stephen Fry and Tim Arnold began a campaign called ‘Save Soho’ to defend the neighborhood’s art scene from being priced out by Identikit shops and cafes. According to them, Soho means independent expression, creativity, and interaction. These days, however, urban grit lives there only before the street washers arrive on Sunday morning.

Yet some character remains in Soho Square.  Sanitation officers might wash the dirt from the street, but they won’t take it off your pants after you lounge in the patchy grass. The token bum might be three feet away. Combined with the phone conversation in French on your left and the sprinklers beating the grass to the right, Soho Square personifies weird Soho.

This is public space. This is the public realm. This is what makes London vibrant.

I recently attended a talk at the New York Public Library presenting Alex Garvin’s book What Makes a Great City. His answer: Shared spaces that develop the relationship between citizens and their city. These spaces encompass everything. They are the sidewalks and the subway platforms and the parks and the streets. In London they are the squares.

These garden squares haven’t always been open-access and their liberalization highlights how smart urbanization rendered London a modern world city. In the seventeenth century, green areas became popular as the population grew and wealthy citizens craved an escape from the chaos. Developers built houses along fenced-off parks, which residents of the surrounding townhouses could access only with a key. This elite model persisted for several hundred years until politicians realized that a disempowered artistocracy meant regular citizens should also benefit from squares. So far roughly two hundred have been turned into public-private urban green spaces, but many private ones remain. Nevertheless, this re-imagination of city space demonstrates London’s commitment to creating shared zones where all social classes can interact.

Garvin knows that he’s not revolutionizing urbanism by suggesting that a vibrant public realm equals a vibrant city. What he does instead is argue that urbanists should develop a vital atmosphere through a combination of public and private funds. It’s a complex argument with implications too technical to approach in this blog-post. There are indications that this model works, just look at Brooklyn Bridge Park, London’s Santander (previously Barclay) bike sharing scheme or Atlanta’s BeltLine. But the encroachment of private money in the public realm also qualifies free-access. Although Bryant Park currently offers a calendar of free events, they could erect gates and charge admission if they wanted to control their audience and boost funding. Garvin wants his reader to understand that cities need help to attract to a dynamic population, but the relationship between money and civic life remains negotiable.

Soho Square encapsulates this paradox. It attracts wealth and poverty. It attracts business and leisure. It attracts relaxation and work. But this peaceful co-existence is precarious. Although the area provides a place for people to meet, stronger policing could threaten diversity. Out pricing the surrounding area could promote sanitization. Every visitor has an individual reason for mucking up their jeans in Soho’s patchy lawn. We need to linger and observe to understand how cities can enable citizens to indulge in their urban fantasies together.