For seven years now, London has been consumed in its preparations to host the 2012 Olympics. As we enter the final countdown for the opening ceremonies, thoughts are now turning to what lies beyond this global event. What’s next for London? How will the city maintain the momentum and enthusiasm sparked by the Olympics, and how will London plan and deliver further improvements to its quality of city life? One road through the center of the city could provide an opportunity to alter the urban environment in fundamental ways, and give some lessons to other cities looking to revitalize tight urban areas.
Much of the debate about the future of London focuses on the need for new infrastructure: high-speed rail, airports (the new Estuary Airport), essential systems (a new tunnel under the Thames). Whilst these underpinnings are significant, none directly addresses livability. Within London’s historic core, the area known as the City of London or "The Square Mile," there are no public parks of any scale. We know that open space offers economic, psychological, and ecological benefits, each key to improving a city’s livability. But in a densely packed, historically rich urban setting with no unused land, how can we create additional open space?
Cities across the world have started turning their attention to the acres of land allocated to roads and the almighty car. The Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass movements illustrate the pressure building in communities across the world for a better use of the valuable space now dedicated to streets. Anarchists asked a basic question: Why don’t streets belong to people, not cars? Municipalities listened and are taking initiatives to find a better balance.
In the past year, "parklets" have spurred interest in cities including Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Chicago. An act of resistance, a parklet is a small urban park comprised of plantings and seating, typically created in a parking space. When people see and experience parklets, they realize the value open space offers in terms of livability. Parks—even at a micro-scale—are places people want to be, particularly in dense urban environments. San Franciscans are particularly enamored with the concept. They recently launched a Pavement to Parks initiative with the goal of reclaiming a portion of the 25% of San Francisco real estate currently devoted to streets.
Pedestrianization is not new to London, but the proposals are becoming more ambitious. City officials have experimented with closing small shopping streets and discovered that the result is increased foot traffic. When Oxford Street closed to vehicular traffic, thousands of additional people frequented the street’s shops. These temporary street closures are now giving way to much larger civic interventions that could be transformative in how we use our cities. When a groundswell of anarchists, city officials, and even retailers see value in closing streets to automobiles, we have to ask: Should we use space devoted to cars in cities differently?
That’s precisely the question London should ask with regard to London Wall, a four-lane highway built in the 1950s as part of an unrealized urban motorway system. Located in the heart of the historic City of London, this road functionally separates the Barbican, one of London’s most important cultural and residential centers, from the city core. This truncated highway is of little importance from a traffic management perspective, but potentially hugely valuable as an opportunity to create new open space in this densely developed part of the city. Why not reclaim that space, and transform it into the first large-scale urban park within the historic walls of the City of London?
The vision for London Wall Park is just one component of Gensler’s conceptual designs at The Developing City, an exhibition running in London throughout the summer. The exhibition curators challenged designers to re-imagine what London could be by 2050. To see more and explore possible futures for London’s streetscape, click here.
In addition to giving The City more precious open space, the act of reclaiming London Wall would also offer the opportunity to activate its history—and purge some indignities: Segments of an ancient Roman wall currently sit adjacent to and even within an underground car park.
The new London Wall Park could provide a new front door for a range of cultural facilities contained within the Barbican, including concert halls, museums and galleries, and re-engage the public with "culture" in an entirely different way. The transformation would come at financial cost, to be sure, but it would be an investment in the long-term prosperity of the city.
London Wall presents an extreme example of a condition that exists in many cities. Urban streets should be designed for people, bicycles, and mass transit—not just for cars. Paradoxically, the parts of London redesigned in the 1950s and '60s to accommodate the car are those which now lend themselves most readily to conversion to large-scale parks.
We are living in the century of cities, and we must redefine what cities can be and how they can become more livable, not simply more crowded. One key to the transformation will be realizing that not all streets are created equal. It’s time to reclaim some of them to create the additional open space that cities need to thrive.