Is grass the great disruptor?
When Olafur Eliasson dazzled visitors to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with his sun emerging from the mist, people in their thousands laid down on the Tate’s cold concrete floor, gazed up dreamily and basked in its fake rays.
Grass has a similar effect. Lay down a verdant lawn – fake or otherwise – and in no time at all, out come the picnic blankets and scotch eggs. It happened in Trafalgar Square in 2007, when a two-day grass-over turned the most formal of urban squares into a play space.
This is what we long for from our cities. Of course, we want them to be safe and well connected with good homes, but we also want them to be social and inclusive. We need them to be – our health and wellbeing depends upon it.
Space is at a premium in cities, and so too is time. For a quick sandwich away from our desks, proximity is king. And yet, so many of our city centres lack good quality pocket parks and public realm. That’s why on a sunny day you will see every square inch of those places colonised.
But is it still a radical act of reclamation to introduce grass into a historic, formal and hard-paved part of a city centre? Is grass the great disruptor?
Views of how StrandAldwych could be, a place for people not cars
I am leading a team at LDA Design that is exploring these ideas as they develop concepts for one of London’s most famous areas, Strand/Aldwych, for Westminster City Council.
Strand/Aldwych has been a thoroughfare since AD 190 and was a major processional route between the Palace of Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral. It is lined with some of the UK’s leading institutions, including Somerset House, King’s College London, and the Courtauld Institute of Art. An estimated 14 million people use it every year – workers, students, residents and tourists.
As it stands, those millions are poorly served. The area is a notorious bottleneck and the public realm is certainly not for lingering. The Grade 1* listed church of St Mary le Strand actually is set on a traffic island.
Our proposals include turning a 200-metre stretch of road into public space, creating a place where people, rather than cars, belong.
Studies tell us that Strand/Aldwych could become a lovely place to de-stress. It has wide streets, so despite the massing of the buildings along it and the orientation, it almost all gets the sun. Once Strand/Aldwych becomes green public space, people who are too busy to make it to Lincoln’s Inn Fields or Embankment Gardens will still find a delightful place for down-time right on their doorstep.
We are proposing areas of lawn to introduce a more human scale at ground level, and make the place feel inviting, even playful as an everyday space. Lawn is comfortable for sitting to watch performances and events, or to view installations. It will change the pace, slow people in their tracks. In a space that for centuries has never yielded under foot, it is a pioneering move. But not surprising, when you think about how people like to relax, even if only for a few moments. Softening adds variety, and changes how people will use the space.
So, could we one day lie down in Strand/Aldwych with our picnic by our side and look up at the sky? We very well might. And why shouldn’t we? It is our city after all.
Cannon Ivers is leading LDA Design’s work on StrandAldwych. He is author of new title, ‘Staging Urban Landscapes’, shortlisted for a 2019 Landscape Institute Award.