By Fred Kent
We have been to London many times in the past several years, and every time we go, we are invigorated. London is terrific in this way: The more you go, the better and more interesting it gets. Exploring London’s neighborhoods reveals more with each visit; indeed, this is where London’s assets are, and it is one sign of a great city.
London is also particularly wonderful at the opening of the 21st century: It’s got an aggressive agenda centered on urban regeneration; rebuilding transportation systems to emphasize transit, bike and pedestrian use; and creating successful public spaces. In fact, all of Britain is engaged in a national agenda of renewal.
As with all great cities, however, there are also some disturbing trends and indicators that are holding back the quest to become better:
Parks and Squares
London’s parks and squares are currently the weakest link in the city, and as a result, have the most potential for transforming the city’s image. Hyde Park and Regent’s Park were originally laid out for horseback riding, and they still have the vast open spaces that were necessary for that activity. Yet today people are more likely to be walking, and these parks don’t offer the variety that’s needed to engage walkers. Olmsted’s parks, for example, created with a social purpose of bringing people together in natural settings, are the best examples to contrast with Hyde and Regents Parks. St. James Park, Queen Mary’s Gardens, and Kensington Gardens are quite good, but probably the best model in London is Battersea Park.
When you first visit London, its small squares are a wonderful feature to discover again and again. But the more you come across them, the more you notice that many are in a bad state, and outside the often too-high fences are just parking lots or fast round-a-bouts. Some are being fixed up such as Russell Square, and the soon to be finished Bloomsbury Square. Russell Square has a new restaurant and a water feature that is a good addition. But these changes still don’t give these squares the qualities of some of the greatest, but they show the contrast dramatically. They represent a good start.
Streets, Bus Stops and Tube Stations
Because the streets of London have been immersed in traffic for so long, the city forgot this network of public spaces, which is its most important asset. London’s new congestion pricing plan has helped to re-introduce this possibility and some of the most transformative opportunities are ahead–if they are taken advantage of. By focusing on walking, biking and using transit, and responding with improvements supporting each of those modes, London can create a wonderful awareness that human use has a priority over the vehicle. Fixing up Tube stations and bus stops needs to be a priority. Having a greater presence will help create more use, but the worn out state of many of the tube stations is a real downer.
London is full of wonderful markets, both in market halls and on the streets. As wonderful as they are, they still need to be nurtured, enhanced, and replicated to grow that time-honored, high-energy, community-defining sense of activity that enhances the communities that they occupy. Imagine the city without Leadenhall Market, or Southwark without Borough Market. We fear that with the threatened destruction of Old Spitalfields Market, Londoners will lose a sense of history, connection to different cultures, and the access to special foods and creative trends that can emerge from a market environment.
London’s newer public buildings may have enormous resources and interesting public spaces inside them, but outside, their spaces are among the worst of any city. We found this another of the city’s problem areas. Design trends in London are not taking into account either context or sense of place, and as a result, the city has a wealth of recently-completed, dramatic buildings and new developments in key locations — more than Paris, New York, and Barcelona combined — which may be high-profile, but ultimately do not contribute to the city or its citizens. This is an enormous tragedy and poses, in our view, London’s greatest challenge. Large-scale development and “object-oriented” architecture have been as devastating to communities as the new or expanded roads and highways. This pincer movement has transformed formerly wonderful streets into rivers of traffic, and new buildings into objects to view rather than to use. The result has been as tragic cumulatively to London as the World War II bombing.
One of the most disturbing areas of change occurring in London is in the “City,” where new development fits so poorly into the existing system of streets and development that have evolved over the centuries. This truly incompatible new development is a desecration of a neighborhood that once had sensitivity to its environment and defined how each new development fit into and added to a contextual growth pattern. Recently and at an accelerated rate, this time-honored synthesis has been largely, even totally, ignored. The consequences of this new agenda are devastating. One of the great challenges of urban development is to create something new that is better than the old. Only in rare cases has this happened. We think there should be a moratorium on new development until there is plan for new development and a retrofitting of recent development that has so devastated this vitally important asset to London. We would start with A B N AMRO Headquarters and Lloyd’s. Showing that these new buildings, that are so out of context at their base, could be able to change enough to be an asset, could give people confidence that new development could be an addition. Rockefeller Center in New York has been transforming itself continuously in the last 20 years to be better urban buildings.
In addition, Canary Wharf is the worst of new office park developments in any of the other major cities, and on the South Bank and Southwark, developments such as Tate Modern, City Hall/ The Greater London Authority (GLA) Building, Oxo Tower and the South Bank Centre (Royal National Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre, Hayward Gallery (being renewed at present), IMAX (impossible to access), Saatchi Gallery in the Old County Hall, and The Shell Center greatly hold back the promising and every exciting prospects for the entire south side of the Thames.
Despite these shortcomings, London has far and away the most potential of any major city. The opportunities are extraordinary in its great neighborhoods that continuously need nurturing; and an exceptional retail/entertainment/museum core within a 10 minute walk of Leicester Square. But to pull it all together, London needs a stronger center, and that is where the most promise lies. With its untapped waterfront potential; the potential to transform its parks and squares; and the new opportunity to bring streets back as public spaces coupled with transit improvements, London could quite easily become the greatest city in the world to live in and visit. Paris, New York, and Barcelona have lost their waterfronts to high-volume roadways that have stifled development directly along them and even deep into the communities adjacent to them.
London’s biggest obstacle is that the design professions are too full of themselves to allow their city to reach its potential.