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.

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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”.