London should create its own boulevards – even if it doesn't look like Paris

Imagine what could be: Euston Road, 2014. Image: David Holt/Flickr/creative commons.

“London is going in for boulevards, but it is doubtful whether they will bear a striking resemblance to the gay, café-lined thoroughfares of her bright rival across the Channel.”

This was the take way back in 1904, from, of all places, New Zealand’s Star newspaper. A stroll  around London today will reveal that, contrary to most predictions of the future, this one was not too far off being correct: London today has some big wide roads – often arterial roads – which are some of the most important in the city.

But too many are unpleasant, polluted and ugly. London is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, in breach of EU regulations on air quality (although, of course, Brexit will solve that). Indeed only the other week, the London Air Report cautioned that we should “breathe in moderation”. All of this means that our main roads aren’t, on the whole, the kinds of places people would like to live.

As was alluded to 112 years ago though, it doesn’t have to be like that. At Create Streets we envision another way of doing things: our new programme, Create Boulevards, is proposing a rethink of these roads.

Intensely used avenues or boulevards can be both beautiful and busy. Currently however, significant streetches of many of them, such as the Old Kent Road, are surrounded by big-box retail and car parks, a criminal underuse of space in a London that requires so many more homes. 

At the same time we also know that new development can be unpopular – and often for very good reason. We want communities to be genuinely engaged and empowered on this, to harness people’s passions for their neighbourhoods, to be able to take the lead on how their major roads, and the buildings alongside them, should work, and what they should look and feel like.


Creating boulevards will nevertheless require a holistic, city-wide approach. Take the issue of trees, for example. Everyone loves trees and wants more of them.  Urban trees improve air quality. They moderate heating and cooling energy use. They improve physical and mental health.

But one of the major reasons why there aren’t more trees in London is because there isn’t always the space on the crowded pavements: trees, as you might expect, need far more space than they take up above ground, because of their roots, and so you can’t just cram them in closer together. So you need more pavement space - you (obviously) can’t put a tree in a car or bus lane. Really therefore, the key reason why there isn’t space on the crowded pavements is because the pavement area could be bigger – but cars on our roads take up a lot of space inefficiently, and their needs are prioritised.

So, we say, let’s think about space differently. Few of London’s major arterial roads (aside from a few Croydon-centric exceptions) strategically make any use of express buses or light rail to improve transport into the city centre; hardly any have properly segregated cycle lanes. But they could do all of these things.

Kingsway Boulevard. Image: Create Streets.

To demonstrate what London could have, we’ve worked with a couple of architects, Francis Terry & Associates, and Alexandra Steed Urban, who have sketched up what Euston Road and Kingsway might look like if they were boulevardised.  You’ll notice trams, greenery, and dedicated, segregated space for cycling.  You’ll also notice Francis Terry’s design for how the Euston Road could incorporate the Euston Arch, as an iconic, Arc de Triomphe-style feature looking up and down a green boulevard. It could even be a tram stop, with Milan’s Porta Ticinese offering a bit of a precedent there. Alexandra Steed Urban has also suggested bringing back trams to a greener, pleasanter Kingsway.

Euston Boulevard. Image: Create Streets.

The next big step for this is the Create Boulevards weekend, which we are planning for next June, as part of the London Festival of Architecture. There, we will demonstrate how some of London’s roads could feel if they were more like boulevards, rather than traffic-clogged car canyons.

In advance of the weekend, there will be a series of community co-design events. The aim of these will be to work out what the community would like a boulevard to look and feel like, both in terms of public realm and new development.

And on the weekend itself we will close motorised traffic lanes on part or all of a suitable road, leaving it open only to bus and cycle traffic. We will install temporary greenery and street furniture, and pop-up, community-built, new development.  The local community will run events to celebrate the occasion and the new space. We hope – and think – that people will like it so much they’ll want to see it permanently.

We’ve partnered with an array of organisations to begin to plan this, including HTA Architects, JTP Architects, and Urban Engineering Studio. We’re looking for more suggestions of places we could do it, and communities that want to get involved.

That 1904 article was right in another way, too – the boulevards of London, when they finally properly arrive, won’t be a copy of Paris, or anywhere else. We don’t think they should be. We want them to be very much true to London: perhaps a bit more cluttered or idiosyncratic than Parisian boulevards, but all the more characterful for it.

Kieran Toms is a researcher and urban designer at Create Streets.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.