Russell Square

London, United Kingdom

Submitted by: Carolin Hagelskamp

An urban garden square characterized by majestic trees, meandering pathways, and a playful fountain.

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Why It Works

After last year's complete redevelopment, the new Russell Square is now experiencing its first spring, and it is proving to be a great public place. Decisively, the new design has brought the contented atmosphere of surrounding Bloomsbury back into the area's biggest central square. Like its neighborhood, Russell Square contains a pleasant symmetry and a few refined features that encourage diverse yet serene activity. Bloomsbury is characterized by a density of traditional cultural institutions: the university, creative industries, and a variety of hotels and B&B's. However, most of its buildings remain privately owned, and historically there has always been an attempt to keep entertainment and shopping facilities to a minimum. Respectively, Russell Square succeeds with just one perfectly placed park café, a small ground-level water fountain, and a statue attesting to the permanent status of the Russell family, as the only points of attraction. The rest of this wide-open square is given to greenery, large chestnut trees, meandering pathways and plenty of benches. There are no hiding places, which creates a safe atmosphere. Yet, nowhere doees it particularly expose people to the view of others, nor does it provide much opportunity for people to attract the attention of everybody else. Instead Russell Square facilitates the types of unperturbed recreational activities that people look for when relaxing, visiting, working or studying in Bloomsbury. By doing this, it in fact attracts a large variety of people. This makes it a great public place.

What Makes Russell Square a Great Place?

The square lies at sidewalk level. It is easily entered through open gates at its four corners. Diagonal pathways cut through the square, linking the nearest underground station and the magnificent Great Russell Hotel on the north-east with the rest of Bloomsbury, e.g. the University of London and the British Museum on the south-west. As such it encourages people to take a shortcut though the square. Once inside, however, one may easily decide to stay a bit longer.

Russell Square is spacious and green. It is laid out to direct attention to the playful fountain in the centre, while the Duke's Statue remains modest in the background. The trees are high and spread out, not blocking the view of people strolling around the pathways. Rather, they provide comfortable shadows and resting places. It is clean, and well taken care of. There are benches placed throughout the entire square; and the café gives it the final touch of comfort as a convenient spot for lounging, lunching and refreshments.

People are scattered all across the square. They come during their lunch breaks, after work, in the evenings and weekends. There are families, working persons, non-working persons, students and tourists who sit around, talk, eat, read, play and sleep. And there are many taking photos, too.

Russell Square is not sociable in the sense that is strikes excited conversations with strangers or suggests surprising events. It is far less demanding than that. However, it is a great open-air place in which to spend breaks with friends, take tourists to, or to be alone in. People let each other do whatever they want to do because it feels open, truly shared and safe.

History & Background

In the late 17th century the Russell family, Earls and later Dukes of Bedford, acquired most of Bloomsbury and established many formal bourgeois squares. Completed in 1806, Russell Square became the most distinguished one. Besides some un-motivated alterations in the 1960s, it had never seen changes to its design. However, it also wasn't receiving significant care. While the trees had time to reach their majestic maturity, the rest of the place fell into relative despair. It became unwelcoming to many people, especially to those unfamiliar with the area. In February of 2001, Camden Council undertook the full restoration of the Square and refurbishment of the garden. Today Russell Square has a permanent gardener.

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