Rebranding has become all the rage in London. There’s now a Northbank and a Midtown where once there was only a confusing mess of Middle English names, big roads and expensive shops.
Don’t get me wrong, the latter two both still exist; but they are now apparently located in areas known by entirely different names.
Northbank stretches from Trafalgar Square to the west end of Fleet Street; an obvious rival to the Southbank, the bustling strip along the south of the Thames that’s seemingly wildly popular among everyone in the world except actual Londoners.
Even with all the mimes, people flock to the Southbank in their thousands. And it’s easy to see why: it’s an attractive stretch of pedestrianised land with great views of the river and some of the best cultural attractions in the country: the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, to name a few.
Meanwhile, Northbank is essentially two parallel A-roads. It still has its fair share of attractions – the National Gallery, Somerset House, the odd theatre and some great pubs – but they’re all clustered around two very busy roads in one of most polluted parts of London.
A stroll along the Thames in Northbank would see you confined to a thin stretch of pavement and hemmed in by a four-lane road, while sitting outside a cafe would be made less enjoyable by being able to taste the car fumes alongside your coffee.
Darker areas indicate higher levels of NO2 pollution. The top half of the image shows the heavily polluted Northbank, while the pedestrianised Southbank in the bottom of the image has much lower levels of pollution. Image: London Air, by King’s College London.
Midtown, on the other hand, is loosely defined as the area between Tottenham Court Road and Clerkenwell, centred around Holborn and stretching to Farringdon in the east.
It tactfully encompasses Bloomsbury so as to also include British Museum, but it still has much the same problem as Northbank: this is an area built around roads. Big, smelly, polluted roads.
Even the main picture on the area’s website is of the four-lane interchange by Chancery Lane station.
I don’t want to come down too harshly on these projects. They are ultimately local businesses banding together to improve their part of the city and that’s always going to be admirable. Both schemes are already miles ahead of other developer-led rebrands such as the nauseating attempt to rename Fitzrovia as Noho.
But concerted attempts at making these areas more brandable completely miss the point of what draws people to popular parts of London. It’s not an easily pronounceable, swish name they’re after, but a reason to be there. A pleasant place to spend some time wandering around – maybe taking in some light street entertainment, perhaps dropping £3.50 on a latte.
It’s not enough to forget about about the fascinating urban history that led to the naming of such areas and just go Orwellian, naming all parts of the city vaguely based on where they are located. Holborn? Midtown. Then Shoreditch is Eastown. Stratford? Really Eastown.
If people are going to start seeing areas like Holborn or the Strand as destinations in their own right, local businesses need to work with TfL and the relevant borough councils to make the streets more about the pedestrians and less about cars. Only then will tourists be able to swan around sipping their coffees and enjoy the area, instead of flinching every time a bus goes past.