How do we make our main roads better, bigger and more beautiful? We need to Create boulevards

Clapham Road, south London, 2011. Image: Getty.

Create Streets on the need to rethink London’s highway.

Experts have had a tough time of it of late. From politician to pollster, those in power stand accused of misunderstanding what people want. Or not caring. Or worse. Confidence in institutions and their intentions is at rock bottom.

We often see in community engagement work we do that councils’, architects’ or developers’ motivations are assumed – unfairly – to verge on the actively malign. Society is changing. People no long believe that the man (it usually was a man) in Whitehall or Town Hall knows best. They expect to influence what happens near where they live and work. And, our research shows, they are more inclined to support development when they are genuinely involved – not just in a tawdry and ersatz PR exercise.

But – to state, I hope, the obvious – we do need experts. If anything, in urban design, we need them to be more expert. David Halpern, the Director of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Unit (the ‘nudge unit’) has observed that

“architecture and planning does not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that psychologists or the... sciences would understand. There are very few studies that ever go back to look at whether one type of dwelling or another, or one type of office or another, has a systematic impact on how people behave, or feel, or interact with one another.”

How do we fix this? Well the first bit of good news is that it is becoming easier, thanks to big data, to research associations between urban form, design and beauty with wellbeing and long term value.

And the answers are getting clearer. A walkable, green, structure of human scale, blocks and streets that clearly define the public and private realm with a sense of place and which most people find beautiful is, put simpler, better for our health and a wiser long-term investment. So designers need to be more empirical in their understanding of wellbeing.


The second bit of good news is that this type of low to medium rise, high density but high beauty development is – guess what? – more popular with the public. There is wisdom in crowds. We therefore need to get better at helping residents work with designers and developers collectively to unlock what both the data and the polling support.

How do we do this while also facing up to London’s challenges? The capital’s global future may seem less certain than 12 months ago. But it still faces major growing pains: more people need more places to live and move around more. Some 31m journeys are made on TfL’s network every day, and that’s increasing. How can we deal with this, when London also has a housing crisis and an air quality crisis?

At Create Streets we see that our major roads offer a potential opportunity to be more beautiful, more intensely use and more liveable whilst still working as major roads and acting as a showcase for a better approach. At the moment, to say the least, most major roads are pretty unpleasant. People don’t tend to want to live, work or play on them. They are often polluted and noisy. Homes on them are less desirable than homes round the corner – they typically sell for far less.

Working with a network of residents and architects, we’ve started a programme called Create Boulevards, to encourage goal-focused debate and discussion about the future of these streets.  We think the answer is “Boulevardisation”. We don’t necessarily propose precisely what you might see in other countries, but rather major roads with similar characteristics: greener, more beautiful, and carrying more than just cars but pedestrians, cyclists, express buses and possibly trams too.

The Old Kent Road. Low density. Low amenity. Google StreetView.

How to do it? At present, some of London’s biggest roads operate in a bit of a democratic no-man’s land. They are within London boroughs but are operated by TfL. This means that the usual, more direct means of influencing local affairs – through councils – isn’t really there. TfL do undertake some consultation, and do some of it very well. However, they understandably have a remit to consider London’s overall travel first and foremost rather than keeping that requirement in necessary tension with other ends.

We could not find a forum for collectively and comprehensively discussing how to make our major streets better – so, we decided to create one. Using our social media platform, and the network of local resident groups we have built up through our community work, we put out a call for suggestions for roads that people thought would be good candidates to Create Boulevards.

We got dozens of suggestions from all over London and eventually whittled them down to three areas: Baring Road in Lewisham, the Holloway Road in Islington and Clapham Road, round the corner from our office in Lambeth. We chose them for the opportunity they presented, as representative of London, and due to the presence of already well-organised local groups.

We then arranged for some architects and urban designers to team up with residents and us in a series of mini-charrettes to create a three stage set of proposals going from the tactical easy wins, to the more strategic and profound.

In all, the underlying questions were the same: how can we make these streets bigger, better and more beautiful? How can we house more people in a better environment that still ‘works’ in getting from A to B?

(It’s worth stressing that all the firms involved (including ourselves) gave their time pro bono. We’d like to thank HTA Design, JTP Architects and our regular collaborators Alexandra Steed URBAN and Urban Engineering Studio for their much appreciated generosity.)

The time spent on each project was much less than one would do if it was for real. But despite these constraints, the results were, we think, fantastic. Intelligent, nuanced decisions were made by people who were given the space and time to make and discuss their points reflecting both local knowledge and professional expertise.

Possible new mansion blocks, Baring Road, Grove Park. Image: HTA Design.

For example, on Baring Road in Lewisham, we found that the town centre didn’t actually feel like a town centre: density actually reduces from the surrounding suburbia. Residents were more than happy to accept, even argue for, intensification, with higher more urban mansion blocks (which most insisted should be beautiful), as it would bring more life to the area, and help revitalise it. Conversation quickly linked this to how streets could use new trees and narrowed traffic lanes to permit cycleways.

In the wide stretches of Holloway Road, residents and JTP worked up an ambitious set of steps to remove a speed-inducing gyratory while making the road a better one to live and walk in. Obviously following the latest research, they even suggested a new hedge to protect a central walkway. Create Hedges, anyone?

The Holloway Hedge. Image: JTP.

In Clapham Road, our mini-charrette identified a row of shops near the Oval tube station, with large, mostly-unused paved areas in front of them and enough unused old phone boxes and clutter to fill a skip. Here everyone suddenly realised was an Oval High Street in embryo.

We identified tactical steps to remove clutter, create raised side street crossings, build more height near the tube and then, more ambitiously, created a raised street with tactile paving opposite St Mark’s church and round the corner from the Oval.

A Future Oval High Street? Image: Create Streets.

This was only an exercise. But greener and more pleasant London Boulevards are very possible – and very fundable via higher density. It’s not necessarily a leap into an unknown future either. Before the car was dominant, our towns and major routes were not designed around them. Just look at the photos of Finchley Road in north London with wider pavements and more greenery.

Finchley Road in the 1960s. Image: Create Streets.

Elsewhere the wider Create Boulevards work has shown that there is space for modes of transport other than the car. Alexandra Steed and Francis Terry’s sketches of Boulevardised Euston Road and Kingsway and our own street studies show there is often enough space to introduce trams (or high speed express bus routes or trackless trams) on many of our major roads.

From Euston Road to Euston Boulevard? Image: Francis Terry Associates and Create Streets.

Putting the King back into Kingsway? Image: Alexandra Steed Urban.

Exercises are easier than reality. But real decisions could be more like this. And city authorities are improving. Look at the pioneering work of Janette Sadiq-Khan in New York or great improvements in London, like Great Queen Street or Windrush Square.


  Create Boulevards has, we dare to hope, shown that street design and street density can and should be linked and that approaching a community with an open mind, a blank sheet of paper and some pencils can lead to better, more popular results than the old tired design and then ‘consult’ model. Community engagement can get results that will solve some of London’s most pressing issues – and do so with an increased chance of local support.

Thanks to the IT revolution, it is easier, quicker and cheaper to access the views of a wider number of people, via social media and online polling and engagement platforms, than ever before. We dare to see this as a model for how the rest of the city should be thought about, planned and built. Boulevards for ever!

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director, and Kieran Toms a researcher, a t Create Streets.

The outcomes of the three Create Boulevards mini-charrettes will be exhibited tomorrow, 30 June, at 75 Cowcross Street, EC1M 6EL as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The professional and resident teams who worked on proposals will also be discussing their work in a discussion chaired by CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge. You can (still just) sign up here for one of the last few places.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.