Meet the academic breaking down barriers to better placemaking

Urban designer Jenny Elliott is speaking with built environment practitioners working to provide healthy and inclusive outdoor environments for citizens and visitors across the UK, and is about to publish a series of recommendations for the sector.

Ambitions to introduce greener and more pleasant public realm in streets and public spaces are in evidence throughout the country; but there can be challenges for professionals trying to deliver change, according to a chartered landscape architect and urban designer. 

Jenny Elliott, a PhD Researcher at the University of Edinburgh, has recently interviewed scores of built environment professionals about their experiences, conducted surveys and hosted several workshops in association with Connected Places Catapult as part of her PhD research funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities.

These have led, she says, to some fascinating discussions and emerging themes, with final research findings due to be shared later this year.  

One common frustration she has found so far is that despite practitioners’ desire to introduce more green infrastructure, prioritise active travel and deliver contextual, collaborative design, there can be challenges to fully realise these aspirations in practice. Jenny has made it her mission to find out why, and to ask what can be done to improve policies and processes, and reduce barriers to delivering better public spaces. 

Good quality public realm is often seen as a nice to have but I would argue that it needs to be prioritised to benefit both the environment and society. Planting more street trees, for instance, can help to bring down the temperature on a hot summer’s day, but is also good for our health and wellbeing.”

“Green spaces offer benefit, but so too does having a view of a tree out of your window,” Jenny adds, pointing out that good quality public realm can also have a positive economic impact on a local area. 

“There are some fantastic examples of public spaces out there, but there are other places where they could be improved to become more inclusive, accessible and welcoming to people. So I want to understand how we can learn from these really good practice projects, and help greener and healthier places to develop at greater speed and scale.” 

Jenny says her research is necessary because she is not aware of any previous studies that look specifically at the experiences of built environment practitioners involved in the design, delivery and maintenance of public spaces. There is a need, she adds, “to better understand the challenges they face which are stopping them from delivering what they consider to be best practice outcomes.”

Three years ago, Jenny was introduced to Connected Places Catapult which convened workshops with industry to aid her study and will distribute her findings across its networks.  

“It’s been fantastic working with the Catapult which has helped me connect with a wider range of professionals working in the industry. It has been good to engage with a broad mix of people with whom I hope to share my findings.”

A lifelong love of pleasant spaces 

Jenny Elliott works as a freelance urban designer and visual communicator in Edinburgh and has previously been based in Copenhagen, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as London and Leeds. So how do UK cities fare against those of Denmark and Australia?

“They’re all very different places, so comparisons are tricky,” she begins diplomatically. “Copenhagen is well known as offering a great quality of life; and good infrastructure supports that.” Successful cities, she adds, tend to be “innovative and progressive” in how they design and deliver their built environments. 

Jenny cites a climate quarter on the outskirts of the Danish city which has introduced a wealth of green infrastructure including sustainable drainage systems to several streets, improved conditions for those on foot and made space for hosting temporary events. “They’ve been bold, which can be a challenge. Built infrastructure is typically very expensive and any changes to the public realm can be quite difficult. But taking a ‘district’ approach to trial best practice may be successful. 

“Melbourne is another fantastic city doing brilliant things,” she adds, “such as working towards a target of 30% tree cover for the city and integrating green infrastructure into existing streets.” 

Realising Better Public Spaces - illustration by Jenny Elliott

Great examples of public spaces and streets can also be found in the UK, she points out, such as in the Quartermile district of Edinburgh which features a popular walking and cycling route through a large green space, plus places for people to sit and mingle. Jenny also cites the King’s Cross redevelopment in London as a good example of urban design where a “lively and vibrant place has maximised the positive impact that somewhere with a lot of footfall can have”. 

But elsewhere the research is starting to reveal examples of tension between the objectives of different professionals – such as landscape architects and those of highway engineers, whose remit is more around moving people from A to B as quickly as possible, often prioritising motorised traffic. 

For new developments, she says “things are moving in the right direction” but adds there is “still a lot of work to do as an industry” to overcome challenges and deliver the “full potential of public spaces”. 

Some of the challenges relate to a lack of a common, aligned vision or criteria for decision-making, such as the different professional cultures at play on projects, she explains. Some people are focused more on ‘quantitative’ elements, such as considering the impact of a scheme on traffic flows. But it can be harder to measure the benefits of improved public realm. Therefore, the gains seen in terms of how people use a street – or the ‘qualitative’ outcomes – are sometimes dismissed as purely ‘anecdotal’ and therefore seen as less valid. 

“That difference in perception about types of data, how valid they are and what should be prioritised can be huge issues,” Jenny says. “Qualitative data is, I would argue, equally as important as quantitative data.” 

In conducting her research, Jenny is keen to not only understand how people currently use a street or urban space but to identify reasons why others may choose not to, in order to identify possible improvements. 

Early career highlights 

Jenny grew up in Cambridge, where she cycled almost everywhere. She went on to achieve a Masters in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. “I was very interested in how people use public spaces and interact with the built environment, how they move around and what affects how they feel about cities.” 

During early work placements, she realised that many of the topics she had studied and had interested her were the building blocks of landscape architecture. So she enrolled on a two year Masters conversion course at Leeds Beckett University and later the University of Copenhagen to become a chartered landscape architect and urban designer.

“Landscape architects have been around since the days of Capability Brown, but I think the value of the discipline is increasingly realised now because of the way it can help with climate adaptation.”

Eleven years ago Jenny emigrated to Australia to work as an urban designer and landscape architect in Brisbane and later Melbourne before returning to Scotland in 2014. She co-founded landscape architecture studio Here+Now and went on to work for the Edinburgh Futures Institute as its smart places lead. 

In recent years Jenny has welcomed an increasing emphasis within projects of their environmental outcomes, and the greater use of digital tools and technologies to support contextual design – from urban data insights to augmenting in-person methods of community consultation. She started her PhD in September 2019 part-time alongside her work as a practitioner and is set to finish next spring. 

Career highlights have included helping to deliver an ‘Ideas Fiesta’ to encourage community engagement in civic proposals in Brisbane, promoting the use of small ‘pocket parks’ in the City of London and working with the Edinburgh Futures Institute to consider the role of the high street over the coming years: seeing how the “user experience of going to a high street can surpass the experience of shopping online”. 

While working in Edinburgh, she also helped to explore new uses for old railway tunnels by working with local people to create a more appealing thoroughfare and a new community exhibition space. 

Much of Jenny’s work involves designing new infrastructure, but sometimes it sees the removal of what is already there, such as railings or redundant signage. “There has certainly been a shift in recent years towards creating clear carriageways where people can move around more easily.” Another emerging approach is to use street trees to serve a highways purpose; creating natural barriers between vehicles and pedestrians. 

Now, as Jenny prepares to finalise and subsequently publish recommendations off the back of her latest research, she hopes to encourage more policymakers, local authorities and industry bodies to listen to calls to action from professionals working behind the scenes to design, plan, manage or deliver our streets and public spaces. 

She also wants to see the changes needed to processes that will ultimately improve the public spaces across our cities. “My aim is to change the places that we live – for the better.” 

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