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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What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.