“The hope is that we emerge with greater clarity as to the kinds of places we want to create, places where we value social interaction and contact with nature even more. Good work is underway that we can build on. Now is not the time to falter.”
Sophie Thompson, Director & Public Realm lead, LDA Design
Global lockdown means around 2.6 billion people are currently under restriction. This new way of living has thrown into sharp focus inequalities. For many, lockdown has provided an opportunity to think long and hard about what we value most and the kind of society we want, one where workers are rightly celebrated for the contribution they make, where housing is fairer and better, and where access to local, good quality shared space is a right, not a privilege.
The emptying of our streets of cars has also provided food for thought. With UK road travel at 1955 levels, pollution is dropping. Pop-up bike and jogging lanes replace traffic jams and the air is easier to breathe. To provide more walking space and assist with social distancing, Transport for London is looking at expanding pavements on some of its busiest routes. When lockdown lifts, will there be a new-found energy and appetite to rethink and reclaim our streets at a pace and on a scale unimaginable before the crisis?
The good news (and we need this now more than ever) is that this process of reclamation is already well underway. In the last 15 years, inner London has seen a quarter of road space reallocated to walking, cycling and public transport. It is likely there will be calls to accelerate this process over the months and years to come. But as we rebalance, we still need to make our streets feel like proper places.
In a new piece for the Landscape Institute’s Journal on creating healthier streets in London, LDA Design’s Sophie Thompson points out how post World War II, urbanists ceded control of street design to the newly created class of traffic engineers. Streets became governed by fixed highway rules set in place to speed as many motor vehicles as possible through.
“Streets should be our most democratic public spaces, making visible the things we value,” explains Sophie. “Car-centric planning brought a raft of bad societal outcomes: environmental damage, and a crisis of inactivity and ill health. When streets become highways, public life disappears. Local trade declines, town centres become unattractive and unsafe. Barriers are created and communities suffer.”
Now traffic engineers in enlightened local authorities are part of a big move to remedy the situation. The ‘Healthy Streets’ approach recognises the need to reduce exposure to traffic pollution and danger, build activity into daily routine through walking and cycling, and design public realm with mental health in mind. As traffic is reduced and slowed, inclusive neighbourhoods can emerge, reconnecting people to place.
With Camden Council, LDA Design is working to turn central London streets into places for people. With an investment of £35m, the radical West End Project is prioritising the pedestrian and cyclist experience from Holborn to King’s Cross, Farringdon to Seven Dials. Bold moves include removing the polluted four-lane gyratory and introducing protected cycle routes at Holborn; creating the first new park, Alfred Place, in the Tottenham Court Road area for 100 years; and turning a section of Shaftesbury Avenue at Princes Circus into a sociable public square, with shaded fern gardens, cafés and attractive lighting.
And in Westminster, LDA Design is applying the Healthy Street approach to notorious traffic bottleneck, Strand-Aldwych, reimagining the road as a free-from traffic public space that sets the Grade I* listed church St Mary Le Strand in a beautiful new plaza.
There is little doubt that once this health crisis recedes, we will be facing unprecedented economic challenges and more tough decision making. But, as Sophie suggests: “The hope that we must carry is that we emerge with greater clarity as to our priorities and the kinds of places we want to create, places where we value social interaction and contact with nature even more. Good work is underway that we can build on. Now is not the time to falter.”
LDA Design Director and public realm lead, Sophie Thompson’s case study ‘Central London Streets: Places for People’ is featured in Landscape, the spring edition of the Landscape Institute Journal [p56-58]