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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.