25 Mar 2012

Civilising London Spaces

Tackling oligarchy: wider pavements

London is the richest city in the country and its wealth is conspicuously, often obscenely, displayed. At the same time public spending per capita is higher in London than anywhere else in the country as a patronising Paxo was forced to concede in his bruising encounter with Plaid Cymru. Public investment in public transport and the public realm is massive and that is a good thing – would be nice if the rest of the country got a look in too but London is a world city and a different world from the provinces. There is a big question however about how wisely this public largesse is being spent. London is also the most unequal city in Europe and that too is horrifyingly obvious, yet so much public investment is directed to vanity projects, mostly Boris inspired. However there are also some good examples of relatively low cost enhancements of public spaces which really improve the quality of city life.

Pedestrian friendly crossing to the new King's Cross

It is a commonplace to say that London is a city of contrasts but nowhere is this more so than Euston Road where the great stations disgorge provincial hopefuls into the maelstrom. Euston of course, now a byword for philistinism and public squalor, is to be redeveloped as the mother of all Grimshaw stations due to the tenacity of the HS2 train spotter tendency. The implications of this for the rest of the rail system and indeed for the onward journey of HS2 passengers have not been thought through, following in a great British tradition of non-joined up planning. Expect chaos.

How the elite arrive in London

St Pancras, now basking in the sunshine of its magnificent re-invention, must be about the most exhilarating station to arrive at in the world. And I say that despite the fact that my Midland trains have been pushed out into a utilitarian annexe. However, I do baulk at the privatisation of what was the station’s magnificent booking hall much as I applaud the painstaking restoration of the hotel. What seems a particular wasted opportunity is the elevated forecourt above the clamour of Euston Road which has been beautifully paved but is mostly used as a car park for the 5* hotel. Although not exactly private, the signals of uniformed flunkeys and privileged access for cars certainly doesn’t encourage public use.

How everyone else arrives

Across the way McAslan’s new concourse to King’s Cross is just opening and looks sufficiently exciting and robust against the magnificent power of Cubitt’s station. As with St Pancras the cleaning and reglazing of the train sheds is creating an extraordinary transformation. But the biggest benefit should be the clearance of the tat in front of the station’s monumental façade and the creation of a new public square – except this won’t be the entrance to the station and the square will give onto the snarling bedlam of Euston Road. The new square has been designed by Stanton Williams who got it spectacularly right with their minimalist conversion and extensions of the King’s Cross goods sheds for Central St Martins. However I fear their stark approach to the new square is wrong headed. The station façade is certainly very dominating and the design of the square must not compete with this. But its other perimeter is Euston Road. How or why a civilised city would tolerate this idiotic and selfish traffic is beyond me, and it is worst at the King’s Cross gyratory. There is only one solution – to massively reduce the number of private vehicles and put pedestrians, cyclists and buses first. But the Mayor has bottled this. King’s Cross Square surely needs some enclosure, some attempt at tranquillity and to be somewhere that people can meet and enjoy, not just an external concourse.

FFS - Tavistock Place

Along Euston Road the British Library has very successfully created just such a place. The spacious courtyard with subtle enclosure and changes of level is screened from the road and provides a very tranquil and reflective environment which is a prelude to the library itself. This is one of the most important public buildings of the late C20th - thoughtful, practical and beautifully detailed and executed. The tremendous interior spaces flow from the courtyard and have great quality of materials and design so that the building reveals its pleasures slowly. St John Wilson managed to achieve this despite the parsimony of government, delays and controversy which HRH famously fanned - testament to the values and public service ethos of his generation of architects.

Byng Place is shared space

Opposite the library is Camden Town Hall – not a particularly remarkable building in itself but home to some excellent thinking about streets and urban design, the pole opposite of Boris bling. Camden includes Bloomsbury, perhaps the most simpatico part of central London although 50 years ago Nairn pronounced it was dead. Cycling on the Euston Road is terrifying and foolhardy but there are relatively quiet alternative routes through Bloomsbury. These include an extremely popular segregated two way track along Tavistock Place. However this is very narrow and at times really congested - the balance between traffic, cycles and pedestrians is just not right. However the continuation of the cycle route westward at Byng Place has recently been redesigned as part of a shared space repaving scheme which I think is extraordinarily successful. It is all very simple and designed as an entity with uniform setts. There is a kerb between the carriageway and the paved area where cyclists mingle happily with pedestrians. What was pretty much a non place with endless taxis rattling through has now become a very pleasant new square. The traffic is still there but is slower, less dominating and the feeling is relaxed, tranquil, civilised. The adjacent farmers’ market makes it a lively people-place and an excellent spot for lunch even in March.

Widening pavements and reducing signage 

Malet Street which leads south towards Covent Garden has also been utterly transformed from what was a somewhat dour street of university institutions and parking to a text book model of sensible use of space. The street is now one way for cars and there is even some parking, principally for electric cars and car clubs. The pavements have been widened to allow for pleasant passegiata but, perhaps most importantly, the carriageway can now provide a very comfortable two way cycle route on the street with no need for fussy layout and signing. It is simple, very elegant and very functional. The same principles are applied to Montague Place outside the north entrance to the British Museum, although I’m not sure about Delia’s Kitchen Afrika van which seems to have taken up squatters’ rights here – perhaps I am being too anal.

Squaring the corners and defeating the racetrack - Russell Square

The massive improvements to this main bike route would not have been possible without the recent remodelling of Russell Square. London did not invent squares but London squares are one of its most distinctive features and biggest assets. In the 1960s many fell victim to the traffic engineers and one way systems of roaring traffic which so damaged street life, pedestrian convenience and cyclists’ safety. These traffic schemes were a stealthy sequestration of the wide roads which had not been designed primarily for traffic and parking but for proportion, outlook, light and public health. The street space had been multi functional – now pedestrians were penned into narrow pavements with awkward multi stage crossings and the geometry of the squares encouraged high traffic speeds. Russell Square, laid out in 1800, is one of the largest London squares but its fine public park was the centre of a race track. The new road layout has utterly transformed its setting. The streets are now two way and the junctions are a simple T, allowing straight desire line pedestrian crossings. Pavements are widened and some parking bays provided but visually these are part of the repaving. It all works brilliantly and is now a really comfortable place for pedestrians and cyclists. Although traffic is still heavy on the main Southampton Row to Woburn Place route at least you can now cross the street easily. The one thing in short supply is bike stands although Barclay bike stations are everywhere in evidence. Russell Square shows what can be achieved with political will, simple good design…and reasonable public funding.

The revolution will be repaved - Bedford Square

At the other end of Montague Place is Bedford Square, completed in 1786, and as Pevsner says ‘the most handsome of London squares, preserved completely on all sides’. The gardens in a central oval remain private but there is extensive ‘public highway’ outside the railings. This has now largely been reclaimed from taxis and parking in a very simple and effective solution and the new public space ‘borrows’ the private gardens in a very democratic way. It is somewhat galling that this new public space is being abused by American style anti-abortion campaigners seeking to intimidate women attending a clinic here.

Turning a traffic jam into a public space - Great Queen St

Bloomsbury’s public realm improvements are often very simple, like just widening pavements, improving crossings and civilising anarchic parking but they are characterised by good uncluttered design and quality paving. Other areas have similarly been improved, like Lincoln’s Inn and Covent Garden. There is a problem however in linking these up because of the horrendous traffic around Holborn which makes it a no go area for all but the most testosterone fuelled cyclists. Like Euston Road a far more radical approach to this conflict is required.

We don't need your private gardens - Fitzroy Square

Across the chasm of Tottenham Court Road, Camden and Westminster are currently consulting on an Action Plan for the fascinating Fitzrovia area based on a study by Urban Initiatives. This shows how public space and green space can be reclaimed even within a very tight and busy mixed use environment. It is bizarre that the restaurants of Charlotte Street do not spill out into the street which is dominated by parking. However Fitzroy Square provides an object lesson in sensible urban improvement. Two sides of the square are by Robert Adam but like Bedford Square the circular gardens remain private. What was the highway outside the railings is now pedestrian space with plenty of seating and views into and across the gardens - all delightful except for the litter which is everywhere.

Look, no guard rails and foot friendly kerbs !

Kensington High Street is one of the best known examples of rethinking highway design, although this was as much to do with libertarianism as aesthetics with politics overruling professionalism. And it works. The street is pretty much dominated by traffic but pedestrians have much more freedom and it looks crisp and uncluttered. Idiot rails have been removed, except I notice outside the Underground station. Pavement thresholds continue across side streets and there is a central reservation you can walk along – brilliant idea – as are the bike stands here, some of which are improvised. This really is a very practical model for high streets.

Exhibition Rd - making a bad exhibition of shared space.

The speedy car is still priority - Inequality Space

You could not say the same about the recently completed showpiece shared space on Exhibition Road. The concept is good – to make a grand visual and pedestrian axis between South Kensington, the V&A, Natural History and Science Museums and Kensington Gardens, the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall. Despite its grand buildings and the crowds of museum visitors Exhibition Road lacked interest and was certainly not geared for the pedestrian. The new scheme designed by Dixon Jones is definitely better – but with a price tag of £29m is just not value for money. This is not the fault of the architects but rather of the brief.

The London elite don't really get sharing.

The shared space concept is controversial and will be more so after Exhibition Road. It is based on the Dutch inspired principles that all road users need to take responsibility to ‘negotiate’ rights of way and this is safer than segregated and directed flows. This certainly seems sensible. My wife once had a research job investigating accidents, the conclusion of which was, broadly, that when roads look safe they are dangerous and vice-versa. (It also made her the worst car passenger in the world.) However to make shared space work it is not enough to remove physical barriers, signs and other paraphernalia – you also need to change the psychology of ‘ownership’ of the space. The problem with Exhibition Road is that this has only partially been achieved

Behind the parking, pedestrians stick to the old pavement lines - big wow.

The political deal is that the road space has basically been divided into three. The westernmost section alongside the Natural History Museum is meant to be a broad sidewalk. The eastern section adjacent to the V&A is a two way street. Amazingly and absurdly the central section is reserved for residents’ parking bays. The Dixon Jones design attempts to provide a false unity to this division in an overall wall-to-wall diamond pattern of white on black Chinese granite setts. This is elegant and not as assertive as I was expecting - although the central light columns on kerbed islands are – big time. Otherwise the detailing is all very nice but actually tends to reinforce the timidity of the central concept. For example the elegant cast iron drainage channels provide a visual kerb which eats into the pedestrian space, as do the residents’ parking spaces with their discreet studs. So the pedestrians don’t gain a lot in space. They would certainly be foolhardy to try and share the road space because the traffic comes in fast moving pulses whenever the lights change (the pace set by taxis of course). This is still effectively a segregated street and the reason for this is the visual and physical division caused by the very expensively paved residents’ car parking bays. This is a telling expression of Kensington priorities but really speaks of political timidity.

£29,000,000 spent on residents' parking for the super rich

Further evidence of political timidity is the failure to tackle the dominance of Cromwell Road, which slashes across the granite with tarmac and roaring traffic (although to be fair the pedestrian crossings are much improved). Then there is an abject failure to make meaningful visual or pedestrian connection across Kensington Gore to the park or the Royal Albert Hall. Indeed the upper section of Exhibition Road reverts to a traditional street layout complete with a very gross roundabout at the Prince Consort Road junction to speed traffic. All this is rather strange as Exhibition Road is the baby of Daniel Moylan, responsible for the groundbreaking Kensington High Street and now Boris’s deputy chairman of TfL. Exhibition Road is not a bad scheme but a compromised one which comes with a big price tag. Lots of lessons should be learnt for the future but it is telling that there has been little interest in the planning press or in the transport press, except for the excellent John Dales. That the architectural press take this important scheme seriously tells us a lot about relative professional values.

Flat Iron Square - Southwark

As well as big ticket items like Exhibition Road there are lots of interesting small scale, low cost improvements to be found in London, often the result of the enterprise and dedication of Council planners. A nice one spotted on our recent sortie to Southwark is at the junction of Southwark Bridge Road and Union Street. What was little more than a traffic island but with a characterful island café, some plane trees and the drama of the railway viaduct on its north side has been reimagined as a pleasant and interesting paved space including cycle priorities. As much aimed at regeneration of a run down quarter as at urban design, it deserves to be successful.

Playing frogger with your life - Bow Interchange

Way out east within sight of the absurd Anish Kapoor Olympic Tower, which will surely be Boris’s epitaph, we found a pedestrian and cycle scheme which really restores your faith in the value of good design. If Euston Road is unpleasant Bow Interchange is insane with a neo motorway in underpasses and a flyover speeding traffic between Bow Road (which is actually quite civilised) and Stratford High Street which needs to be civilised if Stratford is to achieve any of its potential as a recognisable part of central London post the Olympics. The roundabout between is notorious and two cyclists have been killed recently, movingly remembered by ghost bikes.

...and take a right turn, into the church

A masterplan for the area has already resulted in the renovation of the quirky Bow Church in the middle of Bow Road but the traffic is hugely dominant and dangerous. Plans for a cycle and pedestrian route across the flyover don’t seem like the answer to me. Leicester is getting rid of its Belgrave flyover. Surely TfL could do the same, but don’t hold your breath.

Sod the Olympics, lets have more of this 

The Bow Riverside project is beneath the notorious Interchange and links what were discontinuous footpaths/cycleways on either side of the River Lea Navigation leading northwards to the Olympic Park and southwards to Limehouse. Previously you had to traverse the deadly roundabout. The new link is basically a long Z walkway and bridge supported by robust stanchions set in the waterway. These are protected by fenders and create a habitat-rich water environment off the working navigation. Fencing in vertical hardwood timber batons ties the project together and creates a wonderfully satisfying and tranquil rhythm echoing the reed beds developing in the water below. What is great about this project is that it is so subtle and understated. It is not imposing itself on the riparian character, just complementing it. The cleverest thing is the way the cantilevered section of walkway beneath the roundabout is handled. This has very low headroom and is quite lengthy. Often such pedestrian/cycle routes can be really intimidating and unpleasant but here it is handled so well with low level lighting on the railings twinkling in the water below. Designed by Adams and Sutherland it is a real winner. It should be the start of a broader greening of Bow Interchange. There are lots of fairly marginal activities on land adjacent to the roundabout which could be made a much greener environment. Bow Interchange may never be a London square but it could and should be a hell of a lot better than it is now.

Guard rails - go faster stripes and pedestrian imprisonment

As London continues to boom, perversely benefitting from the financial instability in the rest of the world which it kind of had quite a lot to do with, it is going to have to make some difficult choices. The DfT forecast traffic growth of 43% by 2035 which is of course bollocks but is a useful fallacy as it can help London to confront reality. There is no way that the capital can accommodate such traffic growth and remain a liveable and competitive city. Bur Boris is eating his fine libertarian words of a few years ago about pedestrians in cattle pens etc. and is now promising more investment in roads, more guard rails and pedestrian bridges. Boris, you are pathetic  - stop appeasing the car minority and support the good work being done in the Boroughs to civilise London spaces.

Behind enemy lines - Kensington


David Arditti said...

Good article, but one thing I disagree on is the shared space in Byng Place. I have blogged about this here.

I think the Byng Place shared space messed up a perfectly good design that was there previously and damaged the cycle route. Shared space is an appropriate treatment for final destinations, not for places intended as high-capacity strategic routes, be they routes for cars or routes for bikes.

The Dutch get this right in general, and do not put shared space on strategic bike links, but keep clear separation where throughput with speed and safety is required. I have blogged elsewhere about the need to understand correctly the Dutch model of facilitating active travel. We have a tendency in the UK to try to selectively take out unrepresentative parts of their model and apply them inappropriately, as at Byng place and Exhibition Road.

Unknown said...

It's good they're making it easier to access important public buildings over there. I'd imagine it's already tough enough lining up at the royal albert hall booking office. To have trouble getting to the venue itself is a an added hassle that many would want to get rid of.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.