Oxford Street is beautiful. Pedestrianisation will help us appreciate it

Look at the pillars on that: Selfridges, during the 2011 post-Christmas sales. Image: Getty.

Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It is home to over 300 shops, receives half a million visitors a day – and, according to new plans recently announced by the Mayor of London, all 1.2 miles of it are going to be pedestrianised by 2020.

As city planning announcements go, Sadiq Khan’s plans for Oxford Street are a pretty big deal. But of the many benefits associated with canning the cars, one perk has barely received a mention: pedestrianisation will let us appreciate the beauty of Oxford Street’s buildings.

“Beauty” and “Oxford Street” don’t often appear in the same sentence. However, if you cast your eyes up above the plasticky shopfronts, you’ll soon realise that you’re surrounded by some very fine architecture. A little bit of digging uncovers numerous points of historical interest, too.

The Pantheon. Image: Matt Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

There is the darkly distinctive 1930s frontage of the Pantheon building, built to house a Marks & Spencer and which remains the retailer’s home to this day. Its well preserved art deco facade won it Grade II listed status in 2009. The Pantheon gets its name from the James Wyatt-designed assembly rooms that originally occupied the site, and which was once considered to be one of the finest buildings in the country. Horace Walpole once referred to the original as “the most beautiful edifice in England”.

Then there’s the flagship John Lewis store, opened by the retailer in 1960 after its original premises had been razed to the ground in the Blitz. Capturing the spirit of London’s post-war recovery, the store is also noteworthy for the “Winged Figure” sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth that is mounted over one of its main entrances.  

John Lewis. Image: John Allen/geograph.org.uk/creative commons.

Both buildings serve as reminders of the rich architectural contributions made by the British retail industry to the look and feel of our high streets. But away from these two very visible landmarks, there are many other gems on offer – some of which are all the more interesting due to the sheer incongruity of building and present-day occupant.

There’s a Sports Direct – all “pile it high, flog it cheap” – housed in a gorgeous art deco building with windows two stories high. The premises once housed Britain’s first Woolworths and, more recently, a large HMV. Now it looks, rather poignantly, like it’s in urgent need of some TLC. Another art deco-fronted beauty – The Plaza – was home to a dreary and underwhelming mini-mall of shops. The mall closed at the end of June and is scheduled for redevelopment.

Some of the real treats are the ones that you barely realise exist. At 215-219 Oxford Street, there’s a large Zara store that occupies what would originally have been two distinct premises. Look above this outpost of Amancio Ortega’s multi-billion dollar business, and at the corner you’ll see a fantastic 1950s building, replete with curved windows and three ornate plaques, added to commemorate the Festival of Britain in 1951. The building’s architects, Ronald Ward & Partners, were also responsible for Millbank Tower.

Intermingling with the old stuff is a growing collection of ambitious new additions. No. 61 Oxford Street, which won the 2016 RIBA London Award, is a prime example. It is a beautiful, wavey, shimmering structure that embodies Oxford Street’s willingness to take on challenging new projects.

So we should welcome Oxford Street’s pedestrianisation. Not just because it will ease the congestion that bedevils the street, but because of the extra time it will give us to pause and appreciate its many overlooked buildings. The only negative is surely that the absence of double decker buses will make it more difficult to see many of them up close. New Oxford Street monorail, anyone?


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.