Why London’s green spaces are more important than ever - and how they’re changing

Patricia Nicol
·7-min read
 (Abi Baker Smith)
(Abi Baker Smith)

One of the more eccentric experiences being offered to Londoners this summer is an ascent of Marble Arch Hill.

A 25 metre-high staircase festooned in sustainable vegetation, this temporary structure is due to open near Marble Arch, just as England (hopefully) opens up more fully in late June. Playful but purposeful, Westminster Council has commissioned the ‘Hill’ from Dutch super-architect MVRDV in an effort to both draw visitors back to London’s beleaguered shopping districts and rejuvenate an underused heritage site girded by roads.

With a premium on London’s public spaces it will be exhilarating to have a new venue to explore — especially one endorsed at a planning meeting as ‘totally bonkers’. ‘At least for the next year or so, the outside is going to be the new virtual,’ says Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture and founder of the London Festival of Architecture.

When most Londoners think of public space it is as the lungs of the city: south London’s commons; Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill; the 10 Royal Parks including Greenwich Park in the south-east, Richmond Park to the south-west and Hyde Park at the centre. Compared with other ‘mature’ European cities, we are lucky: London has more than 3,000 parks and 47 per cent of the city is classed as ‘green’. Since 2019, it has been a National Park City.

But actually, London’s greatest expanse of public space is our streets and it is on them where the pandemic has spurred a quiet revolution. Over the past year, urban planners have seized the opportunity of most people working from home to fast-track long-term, environmentally driven plans. They have put in 100km of cycle ways; widened many pavements; pedestrianised areas to create ‘mini-Hollands’ and introduced (often controversial) low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Certain schemes are short-term responses to social-distancing measures or experimental pilots taking advantage of temporary traffic patterns. However, some of the biggest plans, such as the pedestrian-first proposals for Oxford Circus and Bank Junction, reflect a fundamental shift in attitudes.

For 70 years or so, ‘mature’ cities like London have been ‘retrofitted’ for cars, says professor Fran Tonkiss, head of sociology at the London School of Economics, whose research interests include urban inequalities and design. Now, we must look to a future in which the car is not king.

‘Seventy per cent of Camden residents do not own a car,’ says Camden councillor Danny Beales, cabinet member for planning, regeneration, culture and inclusive economy. ‘The vast majority of our public space is in our streets. Yet historically, when it comes to the distribution of that space, the private vehicle owner has been given disproportionate priority.

‘Remove some of those cars, or move them elsewhere, create a pocket park or “streatery” and suddenly you have dozens, if not hundreds, using that space; you have children playing in it safely. It’s hard to argue against, when you see that kind of transformation.’

All the marbles: Westminster Council’s Marble Arch Hill installation, off Oxford Street
All the marbles: Westminster Council’s Marble Arch Hill installation, off Oxford Street

Last summer, the Belsize Village Streatery became Camden’s pioneer for pop-up kerbside dining. A creative response to social distancing regulations, it is now back by popular demand. More streateries have followed, from busy, central locations such as Fitzrovia’s Charlotte Street and Euston’s Drummond Street, to leafy Primrose Hill. ‘Some have been wildly successful,’ says Beales. ‘Areas have been rejuvenated; some new businesses have even opened in the pandemic. Nine new streateries opened on 12 April, the council is consulting on a further 10 and more than 100 new pavement licences have been issued.’

‘Meanwhile use’ is the urban design term for temporary repurposing of neglected, often disused space: think Box Park, Peckham Levels, Pop Brixton, the Paddington Basin’s floating restaurants, King’s Cross’s Story Garden or Catford’s Really Local. An act of temporary urbanism, the most successful projects achieve permanence or are instrumental in reviving areas, ushering in less makeshift-feeling structures. Marble Arch Hill, which has a six-month licence, is a form of ‘meanwhile use’. Meanwhile use is also a key element in London’s post-Covid resilience plan. For so long as our socialising is moved outside and made public, we are going to need more playing-out space: pop-up beer gardens, pocket parks, summer outdoor cinemas, flexible spaces that might have multiple uses such as a playground or ‘pause’ space in the day, a social spot in the evening.

For Sowmya Parthasarathy, director of engineering consultancy Arup’s masterplanning and urban design team, this feeds into the fashionable concept of the 15-minute city, the idea that for optimal urban living everything a person needs should be available within a short walk. ‘Meanwhile use can be a way of looking at what is in that 15-minute radius, and if there is something critical missing, dropping it into an empty site, building or ground floor,’ she says.

Tonkiss thinks the architecture of low-income countries is an influence here. ‘Most of the world is produced without architects,’ she says. ‘We get excited about pop-up restaurants and guerrilla gardening, sometimes forgetting these are the norm in most of the world. Still, it’s an interesting direction of travel to see these ideas being adopted by developers and planners.’

From café-owners setting up their outside seating to personal trainers planning park classes, in lockdowns, Tonkiss has been continually struck by ‘the remarkable ability of people to make use of space, transform and occupy it’. She cites the concourse of Emirates Stadium, which has become ‘a very well-used public space’ by families, exercisers, skateboarders and kids kicking balls. ‘It’s not a very attractive space, but it’s accessible and free — I think there’s an active choice to use it.’ Similar scenes can be seen on concrete landscaping across London: Granary Square, outside the O2, around both Westfields and the still-closed Tate Modern.

Is that because we need more parks? The inequality of access to green space has been a pandemic hot-button issue. In February, an international design competition for a proposed park in the sky, the Camden Highline, was won by James Corner Field Operations, the firm behind New York’s Highline park. When its first section opens, hopefully as soon as 2023, it will pass through four high-density housing estates and 10,000 more people will meet the Mayor’s aspiration for all Londoners to live within 400 metres of green space.

Or perhaps we need better-designed parks? What makes successful parks attractive, says Tonkiss, ‘is that lots of different kinds of people can use the same space but keep a distance from each other; a balance of conviviality and co-existence.’ Parthasarathy says there are established design principles to make us feel safer in parks: clear sight lines, access, seating that offers a view outwards but no threat from behind; various activity spaces that are demarcated but visible to all.

‘Seating’s currently a biggie across London,’ says Kay Buxton, executive director of the Paddington Partnership and chief executive of the Marble Arch Business Improvement District. Councils that once ripped out benches to discourage perceived anti-social behaviour are now having to recommission them. Buxton admires the seating in Granary Square, ‘which is integrated; part of the landscape infrastructure’. Parthasarathy thinks London would benefit from more moveable seating, a ‘really underused resource’ key to the transformation of Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

The death of Sarah Everard, who was allegedly abducted while walking from Clapham to Brixton, prompted the Government to pledge £25m towards more street lighting and CCTV. Can architects and planners ever design out crime? No, but they can try to ensure better natural surveillance through active neighbourhoods, windows that provide eyes on the street and more effective lighting. In Vienna, considered a pioneer of ‘gender mainstreaming’ planning, one of 60 initiatives to make women feel safer was adding mirrors to shortcuts and alleyways.

Tonkiss sums things up well: ‘If the last year has underlined anything, it’s how important open and green space is as a public good.’

Murray hopes we will never lose the outdoor habits honed over lockdowns. From paddle-boarders on the Paddington Basin to Sunday cyclists on the C14, Londoners are showing how to make our own fun around here. ‘I go out at the weekend and it’s fantastic to see — like Barcelona!’ Or the nearest any of us is going to get to it for the foreseeable future.

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