We need to talk about London’s pavements.

The annual Quality of Life survey by Mercer has placed London – one of the world’s most confident, richest, (historically) creative, diverse and educated cities – at no.39 in its list.

I’m of the opinion that London’s strengths as listed above don’t necessarily equate to ‘quality of life’. Together they create a place where the sheer volume of educated, motivated and open-minded people produces a dynamism and frequency of opportunity that has attracted successive waves of migrants since the days of the Roman Empire. People come to London to make their fortune, and leave for the suburbs or further afield (on a global scale) once they have the experience or the connections they set out to secure.

The preponderance on the Mercer list of smaller cities with better access to nature – such as Copenhagen, Auckland, or Stockholm – suggests that it’s probably very difficult for big cities like London or New York City to score highly due to their complex economies, the inequalities these economies foster, and the scale of infrastructure needed to move/feed/water/clean 10 million + people every day. However, the Mercer study specified that air pollution, traffic congestion and climate were key to London’s poor performance, and these are things within London’s power to do something about – the fact the city hasn’t already should be a source of some shame for all its inhabitants.

In my view London’s problem is its pavements, its bin stores, its redundant 1980’s telephone boxes, its cramped traffic islands, its randomly placed sign poles, and its fenced off grassy areas with ‘no ball games’ signs. These are the things that provide the stage, or at least back-drop, to significant parts of our daily lives, and they are so often grey, surrounded by aggressive traffic, and shockingly dirty (I think we’ve all seen sights that remain in the memory for months and years). The fact that our communal spaces are like this suggests that we as Londoners are grey, aggressive and dirty, and that makes for a slightly glummer day. We are not, and the back-drop to our lives shouldn’t insist that we are.

Now that we know we have a problem, this offers us an opportunity to change our communal spaces to reflect us as humans, and this should be an exciting prospect for London’s city designers.

I am aware that this topic is nothing new – Jan Gehl told London we had hit bottom 10 years ago in our obsession with prioritising vehicular flows over living things, and some good projects have been delivered through the GLA Outer London Fund to great effect since 2011. I have also have read the recent ‘Good Growth’ reports produced by the GLA Mayors Design Advisory Group (MDAG)/NLA with interest. The MDAG ‘Public’ report contains many good suggestions and rightly emphasises that the 1.5 million new Londoners expected up to 2030 are going to need to walk in dignity on new pavements as the 1.5 metre wide pavements in Shoreditch and Hackney are already full.

I’m also aware that Transport for London are exploring improvements to London’s streets as part of its ‘link and place’ methodology – i.e. looking at how places for people can be created on streets where traffic flows have traditionally been prioritised – and its ‘Future Streets’ initiative – i.e. how can technology help improve the street environment for actual people?

I believe more needs to be done, a lot more. I think London needs to adopt a war footing in its approach to improving its public spaces. Individual projects, even as part of larger initiatives, are important but it’s the everyday that has to change. This requires more fellowship and coordination between the many people and organisations that build London’s public spaces – from highways engineers to development management officers, architects to developers – from schools to supermarkets, waste contractors, and the Department of Transport. Without people talking to each other, and realising that they have a role and responsibility in creating the backdrop to the lives of Londoners, nothing will change.

My experience as a city planner means that I am most familiar with how public spaces are considered in planning documents, planning applications and masterplans. I believe there is a real need for greater detail and site specificity when considering pavements and public spaces in these documents and proposals. Laudable aspirations for ‘public realm improvements’ or ‘better connections’ in places identified for increases in density or new homes is great, but without the detail for highways engineers to follow, and for contractors to ultimately build, the same sub-par pavements will result.

This lack of detail, and rigorous analysis of the qualities and opportunities of a site, could also lead to lost opportunities as local authorities shift towards Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) schedules. Unlike Section 106 agreements, CIL monies will not necessarily be allocated to specific projects. Without detailed ‘shopping lists’ of public realm projects that an area or borough requires (not just to mitigate the negative aspects of new development, but to seize opportunities to create the fantastic backdrop Londoners deserve), CIL funds are likely to migrate to whatever political emergency has centre-stage at a given moment. Over time, this will again result in the continuation of the status quo.

From a planning perspective, I think a bigger role for design thinking (analysis, imagination, delivery) and a greater awareness of the detail of constructing public realm is needed. Local plans and masterplans should go beyond ‘improved connections’ to ‘this street needs to do this, like this, funded by these CIL monies from these developments.’ Planners should become better acquainted with landscape architecture, and landscape architects should perhaps start to get involved in the drafting of local plans.

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