Waterloo Station, Paddington Station, and London Bridge

The train stations in London are the best in the world, each a wonderful experience in its own right. Taken all together, it’s hard not to become enchanted with the wealth of ingenuity that Londoners brought to building a great rail system. There is no doubt that cities all over the world modeled themselves on London’s great stations. By looking carefully at each one, it would be possible to piece together the best of the best. But to add a bit of challenge, we think the test of a truly outstanding train station is its context: how it situates itself in the surrounding neighborhood. This is an enormous opportunity for London, and in some situations there are uses that show possibilities for renewing these very important gateways, such as Borough Market between London Bridge and Southwark Cathredal. Many of the stations are or have been renewed and some have major new additions such as the Eurostar Terminal within Waterloo.

The London Underground

We use mass transit in every city to which we travel, and we love the Tube, putting it among the top of any city’s transit system. We have never been tied up on it, having used it over a hundred times. Yet we know that Londoners love to hate it. Sure, it’s crowded, smelly, and hot in the summer, but it gets you almost anywhere quickly and safely. It has good information and a fare system that allows people to take full advantage of it. In addition, it is “the” place, like transit systems in other great cities, to see people from all over the world. It is as interesting as the most vibrant international marketplace. Everyone is on view and in the right situation, you can get into a conversation with someone you would never meet anywhere else. Still, it can get better… The real opportunity for London Transport is to upgrade the stations and better integrate them into each community.

Double Decker Buses, London Cabs

Getting five people in the back seat of a cab is one thing; allowing them to face each other and carry on a conversation is a phenomenal asset and wonderful experience (especially when compared with New York City cabs). Besides the vehicles, London cab drivers are the most professional in the world. They make you feel well-taken care of, and we like to think that their new-found freedom from insane levels of traffic has made them less peevish and better able to act as real front-line ambassadors for London. And the London double-decker bus is a world-class treasure. Weaving through the city, taking in everything from a second-story height is a photographers dream… and very special experience for tourists and residents alike. What’s more, with the new congestion charges (see below), the bus has become a very real option for getting around. Terrific!

London Traffic Congestion Charges

This really seems to be working. We can’t remember being able to move anywhere on the surface in London in the past. Now it seems actually to be a pleasure. It is easier for pedestrians and bicyclists, and once again you can get somewhere by riding the bus. We think congestion charges are only the start: A whole series of public-space and pedestrian improvements can follow. We can even envision that London could create (or re-create) some truly great streets. For example, Oxford Street, which formerly was oppressively full of traffic, now seems actually quite comfortable both in a bus and on the sidewalk. Quite a change.

Covent Garden

This is the best of the “festival marketplaces” in the world. Its key location near theaters, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus make this entire area the most interesting and dynamic center anywhere for eclectic entertainment, crafts, upscale retail, restaurants, and museum. Historically, it served as a true food market, and one could feel deprived of that use today, but what has replaced it has no parallel anywhere. With that in mind, continuing to improve Trafalgar and Leicester Squares will make this area really shine.

Seven Dials, Neal’s Yard

This district at the northern end of Covent Garden is very comfortable – almost too comfortable – for London. It is truly special, with a scale that shows a kinder, gentler side of London that you didn’t think existed. The small buildings, narrow streets, and little alleyways reveal wonderful treasures of little courtyards, such as Neal’s Yard, that seem almost like a hidden paradise. And while it is very historic, the overwhelming feeling is that it is contemporary, with uses that fit the setting. New York has Greenwich Village and Paris has the Marais, but this area is somehow even more enchanting. It’s one of those places positively draws you toward it, and makes you want to return to often.

Harrods Department Store Food Halls

There is no classier series of upscale food halls with better displays, counters, and eateries anywhere in the world. You can feast your eyes and browse to your heart’s content. It is better than a museum, partly because here you can buy anything you want.

Leadenhall Market

No market in the world contrasts more with its setting than Leadenhall Market. South Street Seaport comes close, though it’s a bit contrived. Leadenhall, however, is the real deal, having been in operation for 122 years (although some form of food market has been on this site since the Middle Ages). But the marvel of Leadenhall is that it is has survived in an environment of urban devastation. The contrast has only gotten worse with new development. We feel strongly that contemporary design, with its array of materials, could be wonderfully contextual; yet architecture in the “City” is about empty, blank building bases with reflective glass and heavy columns. New retail and storefront design, practiced all over London and in other great cities, has not, unfortunately, carried over into new development in the “City” – or for that matter, in Canary Wharf.

Columbia Road Flower Market

This is the place to go to see a huge array of flowers, and perhaps even buy some if you can maneuver through the tightest crowd we have ever been wedged into. The Market has been around since the 19th century, tucked away in one of the small streets in London’s East End. Expanded to include coffee, crafts, and antiques, it has evolved into a quite a trendy Sunday hangout and appears to attract people from other parts of the city, too. Get there early if you expect to get anything.

Borough Market

One of the best collections of gourmet foods anywhere, with specialty growers and producers from all regions of the UK and other parts of Europe. Tucked under the railroad trestles next to Bridge Station and Southwark Cathedral, it also one of the highlights of the South Bank walks along the Thames. This is one of only a very few spaces that we consider a place I would go to for my annual birthday pilgrimage.

Millennium and Hungerford Pedestrian Bridges

It is fantastic to be able to walk over a major river without vehicles rumbling by at your side. Even better, London has provided two such places to do this in the last few years. The results of these efforts, combined with the comfortable pedestrian crossings on the London, Tower, Southwark, Waterloo and Albert Bridges, has virtually brought the two sides of the Thames together. This is certainly a transformative opportunity, probably wisely foreseen by visionary planners, which will define London for the future. No city has such opportunity to reinvent itself, and these bridges, more than any other development, create the setting in which to do so.

Battersea Park

This wonderful neighborhood park provides a good model for success, along with the great Olmsted Parks in the United States, for London’s Regent and Hyde Parks. There are so many creative/inventive aspects going on here, it’s a virtual laboratory for defining the neighborhood park for the 21st century.

Queen Mary’s Gardens

This great garden within Regent’s Park, though very well-hidden, is a true treasure for all of London. The outdoor theatre which we were so lucky to attend gave us a real thrill.

St. James’ Park

This wonderful park has always been a respite from the busy city around it. It sits between Buckingham Palace and Whitehall with great views to either side. It is spiritual place, and far and away the best park in the heart of London. Its only real rival is Queen Mary’s Gardens, which has many similar qualities, but is buried deep in Regent’s Park.

London: Great Public Spaces was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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