Pedestrianising Oxford Street is good. But humanising it would be better

How the new Oxford Street might look. Image: TfL.

Every day, some 500,000 people walk along Oxford Street in London – Europe’s busiest shopping street. Now, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has proposed a plan to divert buses and taxis on to other parallel roads and redesign Oxford Street specifically for pedestrian use.

The scheme is in the process of public consultation, but the idea is to have the western part of the street pedestrianised by December 2018, followed by the eastern section by 2019 and the remaining area around Marble Arch by 2020. So far, so good – but for me, simply making Oxford Street a thoroughfare for pedestrians does not go far enough.

If you take a stroll down Oxford Street today, pedestrians are generally trying to walk along it as fast as they can. Those who pause or dawdle are met with a huff of frustration from the person behind. And then, you see a pair of people standing and chatting. They are creating their own social space, to enjoy a conversation among the bustle of pedestrians. They are being human.

A street designated for pedestrians won’t have any vehicles on it, but it will still look and act like a street. If its design treats pedestrians like traffic, then they will behave like vehicles – rushing from A to B. Yet it is people, not pedestrians, who are the lifeblood of the city.

Human traffic. Image: jepoirrier/Flickr/creative commons.

So, rather than becoming a street for pedestrians, Oxford Street should become a place for people – a place where people want to come and spend time, because it is a great space to pause, linger and simply be.

Design places for people

Renowned people-watchers, such as anthropologist Edward T. Hall, commentator Holly Whyte and more recently architect Jan Gehl, show that people define the spaces in which they feel they can socialise.

Human places also need soft edges: that is, boundaries defined not by walls, but by passable doors. Oxford Street is already full of doors on both sides, and the space between them is large enough to allow for lingering as well as movement. So there is potential to create a place which people can enjoy, rather than endure, as they make their way from one encounter to another.

In his study of personal and social space, Hall suggests that a comfortable distance for people chatting is between about 45cm to 120cm – a theory which myself and other researchers are currently checking in our laboratory. During our tests, we observed how a casual chat, evenly spread between three or four people, descended into a highly restricted, two-person encounter as background noise levels were increased.

So, for people to hear and see their companions in comfort, they need places of the right scale to stand, sit or lean, and a suitably low level of background noise. This requires street furniture and space to chat – as in Havana, where people come together to chat around 18th-century bronze cannons, which have been repurposed as bollards.

Room to play. Image: mfmb_bentley/Flickr/creative commons.

The bollards are a comfortable height for people to lean on and, as a result, the frontier between the pedestrianised city centre and the roads beyond is often full of people chatting and having coffee.

Get rhythm

Another way to make Oxford Street more people-friendly would be to unmask the rhythm of the street. Scholar Henri Lefevbre, in his book Rhythmanalysis, talked a lot about the rhythms of the city – some of these are audible, like the sound of footsteps, while others are visual, such as the vertical columns between shops.

The bustle of many people walking means that the rhythms of footsteps along Oxford Street are rather lost at the moment, making the space sound featureless. But they could be revealed through design or even music. People function at different speeds – from a lingering pause to a purposeful walk – but always with a distinct rhythm. Those rhythms can be captured in the way a place is designed – acoustically as well as visually – by offering people great spaces where they can choose to stop and chat, or simply walk on by.

Having this freedom can stimulate other spontaneous activities – taking a coffee, engaging in conversation, enjoying a performance, looking at art – which could help to generate the varied experience that a wide range of people would enjoy. Make the place work for people, rather than pedestrians, and it will do wonders for society. After all, unexpected encounters with strangers or acquaintances have the power to make people feel happier and more fulfilled.

The ConversationPerhaps the mayor’s scheme should be to humanise Oxford Street, rather than pedestrianise it – to create a place for people, and not just a street for pedestrians.

Nick Tyler is the Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering at UCL.

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


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become 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 coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from 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 going to be 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 will be 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’ll 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 this fall, 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.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming 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 forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. 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!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

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