Saturday, 22 October 2011

London's Docklands continued.........

For another example of poor urban design in Docklands/ East London I would take this site from the south side of the Thames, on the Greenwich Peninsula. By the Blackwall Approach Road a large commercial  development has been designed and built in the form of a series of large retail sheds.

The public space in front of it is dismal, simply a large car park.

The space behind is worse, simply an access road. The retail buildings do not have any active frontage on this side. There is no public realm here, simply a pavement which is not enlivened by views into the shops or indeed any access to the shops.

But this is the side which faces onto the Millennium  Village, itself only the first of a whole series of housing developments planned for Greenwich Peninsula. Effectively, these shops, which include a well known Sainsburys designed by Chetwood Associates, are surely destined to be Greenwich Peninsula High Street. But there is no quality of public space linking these sites; the retail developments are orientated the wrong way. In urbanistic terms,  the result is a disjointed mess. 

Here is the view looking from the Millennium  Village back towards the retail development.

A photo from Google should help orientate the reader. The Millennium Village is top-left and the retail development bottom-right.
Why do planning disasters like this happen? It is my belief that poor quality urban design like this happens because of a failure to understand how cities grow. Surely Greenwich Peninsula should have been identified as an important brown-field site. The Jubilee Line was proposed in the early 1990’s with a tube station on the tip of Greenwich Peninsula. Doubtlessly it must have been obvious that this large brown-field site would now be re-developed? I am sure some sort of strategy was drawn up for Greenwich Peninsula.
New development should be  designed with a long-term strategy. The strategy must culminate in buildings accumulating to form a sense of fabric, defining quality public spaces. Perhaps it necessary to from a hierarchy of external spaces; high-quality spaces for pedestrian and secondary spaces for cars and deliveries.

Here I show  a sketch proposal indicating a better approach that could have been taken to the design of these retail units. Some sort of double-fa├žade approach should have been taken, with active frontage both to the car park and also the space facing towards the Millennium Village. The more people-orientated space is actually the more important space.

Strategies are, of course, filled in very slowly. A density diagram alone  is inadequate as a strategy. The failure of the shopping centre to relate to the Millennium Village is a clear example of this. The sort of diagrams that need to be produced must indicate qualities such as active frontage and the relationship of built fabric to public space. Once such a diagram has been drawn up then each building can be filled in. It may be a slow process but ensures that messes like this don’t happen, inevitable when you pursue a planning free-for-all.

( Thanks to Google for aerial photo)

Sunday, 16 October 2011

London’s Docklands: the biggest planning disaster in Europe?

London’s Docklands is possibly the biggest planning disaster in Europe. Take the following example: Consider the following series of photos, illustrating the experience of walking from Poplar into Canary Wharf. The sequence of spaces begins here, on Poplar High Street.

Attempting to walk into Canary Wharf, you use a pedestrian bridge, beginning your ascent here.

You use a pedestrian bridge to cross what is basically an arterial road.

This is what greets you on the other side;  not Canary Wharf but a wasteland.

A knowledgeable pedestrian may realise that there are high quality public spaces on the far side of these building but there is no implied route to get there. If you are prepared to wander through the wasteland, you may eventually find your way into Canary Wharf.

Why are these two public realms so disjointed? Part of the answer lies with  the very  busy road separating them, the A1261. Dealing with heavily used transport infrastructure is a problem which occurs again and again in urban design. However, I feel that there is a deliberate strategy here to separate the two areas, keeping the rich and the poor apart. New developments like Canary Wharf, it was argued, were part a regeneration strategy for East London, replacing the defunct docks. Actually it offers little for the indigenous inhabitants of East London. All  urban designers  view the creation of a street as the creation of a place. Is it possible to give the A1261 a sense of place?

Perhaps it would be illuminating to compare this new part of Docklands/East London  with another part of London. On Silvertown Way, near Canning Town Station, several new apartment buildings have been constructed. The building illustrated here, just visible at far right, is probably  not a master-piece of modern architecture. But between this building and Canning Town Station there are a series of fine-grained, walkable public spaces.

 Perhaps the successful urbanistic quality of these this building, as opposed to the previous example,  the spaces between Poplar and Canary Wharf, can be summed up in the following diagram.

Here we have ultimately the reason why so much of London’s Docklands is a failure. There is no attempt to integrate new development i.e. what is usually conceived of as part of Docklands with East London. In fact, I cannot  help feeling there is a deliberate strategy to keep them apart. East London contains some of London’s poorest boroughs. The new docklands developments were intended for the well-off. The strategy seems to be islands of prosperity separated by wastelands from the deprived parts of East London. A pedestrian-hostile city where quality  of life is only available for those who can afford it.

 How can buildings accumulate to form a sense of urban fabric, defining public space instead of the disjointed mess we see here?  The building in Canning Town gives us a small clue. How do you make a place of a street which contains a high volume of fast traffic such as the A1261? There are many strategies which could be adopted. I suggest two examples.

                  The parkway    


                 The green bridge 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Fleet, Hampshire and Charleston, South Carolina, USA

What have these two places got in common, you may ask?
One is a good example  of a street which acts as a people orientated space; in the other such spaces are all too rare. However, moves are being made to create that sort of space.

The centre of Fleet is dominated by its vast “High Street,” Fleet Road, which  stretches approximately 1 km from Fleet Railway Station towards Church Crookham. Along that entire distance, buildings are brought up to back of pavement. No one has to walk from the pavement, across a vast  car park to get to a building. 

 When car-based urban design began to take hold, many developers began to demand enormous car-parking spaces at the front of their buildings. These might have attracted passing motorists but essentially destroyed the street as an urban space. The plan below  showing  the centre of Fleet is instructive. The space of Fleet Road is defined by shopping. Car parks are provided but they are set back from the shopping street. Passageways connect the shopping to the car parks, ensuring the latter are visually repressed.

In recent decades, urban design has seemed focused on creating spaces entirely for cars not people. This is as true of Britain as it is in the USA. My last two images are from the City of Charleston, South Carolina where car based urbanism has produced what can only be described as wastelands, spaces devoid of any human or aesthetic quality.


This is what is  proposed as a replacement. Streets, framed by the architecture which surrounds them. As the plan in this example seems to indicate, the car parks, an inevitable accompaniment to any retail development , are tucked away to avoid visual  disruption. There also seems to be some housing, in walking distance of the shops. It  is implied that the site of the second series of photos is show in the first set  i.e. they are remodelling the spaces.

If the British Public demanded from their retailers high quality urban design instead of simply convenient car parking, then the quality of British urban design might improve.

Ask yourself what British spaces resemble the first  set of example from  Charleston, South Carolina. Then ask yourself why more spaces cannot be remodelled to resemble the second.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Two Business Parks in Frimley, Surrey

It is instructive to compare these two business parks in Frimley. One difference that is immediately apparent is that one is accessible by foot and that the other is not. In one it is possible to walk into the centre of Frimley, in the other it is not. One can be accessed by public transport. In the other, this does not seem possible.

The first is owned by Siemens Electronics. The road outside has footpaths allowing someone to walk into Frimley in about ten minutes.


The second business park is by the M3 exit.

The site is surrounded by motorway slip roads. This means they have no footpaths and hence no pedestrian access is possible to anywhere.
It might have been possible to arrange access via the side of the site which is not dominated by the Motorway. This side faces onto Hawley, which is a highly residential area and, in truth, contains few facilities office workers would wish to walk to.

Some of the buildings here are actually architecturally better looking than those at the first business park.

But here we have a group of buildings with no real mixture of uses, inaccessible by pedestrians and which seems to have no connection to public transport. All this is highly unsustainable. Ideally the office workers ought to be able to walk to Frimley, with all it’s facilities such as restaurants, sandwich shops and railway station.

The final irony is the pedestrian bridge connecting two of the buildings. It’s a beautiful bridge but unfortunately in the wrong place. The road it crosses has a negligible traffic. It would have been so much better if it had crossed one of the busy roads surrounding this site, allowing access to local neighbourhoods.

A case of non-joined up thinking.