in our backyard: the pedestrianisation of the strand
by jenny zhong
“The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart's desire... But the right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality is one of the most precious of all human rights.” David Harvey, from ‘The Right to the City’
Backed by the Westminster Council is a £28 million pound project to pedestrianise the Strand. The vision for this project is of “a new creative thinking quarter for London' with the hope of the completed project being a “dynamic new model of civic space inspiring people to learn, contemplate, discuss, mingle, play and rest... and an international beacon for creativity and learning”.
Why the sudden interest in the Strand Aldwych? This is home to an agglomeration of commercial and intellectual spaces and is a hub for creativity in London with many cultural institutions, theatres at the heart of the West End, hotels, and other attractions. There are approximately: 20 arts organisations, 100 creative businesses and over 300 artists working around this area, on top of 400 commercial businesses employing 20,200 people. Additionally, located here are the High Commissions for Australia and India, 3 five star luxury hotels and 2 churches.
Despite the endless attractions, there are several crucial factors in preventing people from spending long in this public space and having poor visitor experience: there is notable traffic congestion which challenges pedestrian safety and this creates significant car pollution, undermining economic activity, business competitiveness and the long term attractiveness of this area. In particular, highlighted here is a record of poor air quality and pollution because of the traffic flows.
The project seeks to improve this situation in the following way: the main objective is to introduce better movement of traffic, improving journey times and safety for many routes by removing the gyratory and removing Aldwych from the Strand and implementing two-way traffic. Additionally, there will be more pedestrian crossings along the two-way traffic street to prioritise pedestrians, giving less power to cars. This is closely associated with the objectives of improving links for walking and cycling and subsequently bettering air quality, reducing traffic in this area, and to mitigate the overflow of traffic.
Parallel to this is the improvement of the public realm and increasing attractiveness of the public space, in the form of prioritising increasing green spaces. There have been suggestions to create a public plaza with planted areas and lawns in front of King's College London. All these objectives ultimately converge into supporting the objectives of supporting culture, education and innovation, showcasing the area's wealth of culture, educational talent, and opportunities for collaboration in beautification.
There is a notable emphasis on public feedback and engagement, including a robust partnership framework in private, third and public sectors. This indicates consideration of people's opinions, rather than a top-down approach, giving power to the people.
The Strand is among some of the most congested streets in London, with drivers spending an average of 49 hours a year sitting in traffic if they frequently use this route. Concerns about this project contributing to congestion are justified, as there are questions of potential diversion of traffic to other areas, leading to congestion elsewhere on other roads of London. The reduction in road space and giving priority to pedestrians raise the question of whether this project truly helps the traffic congestion for those travelling between the City of London and the West End, as increasing pedestrian crossings is also a potential way of increasing congestion.
Under these concerns, we look to push Westminster Council to re-evaluate the traffic situation along the whole of the Strand, not just one area of the Strand. Furthermore, green spaces should be emphasised all around London, not just in 'one of the most visited attractions in the UK'. To this end, making cities more public transport centric, green and pedestrian-friendly has never been so important. In the face of poor urban environmental standards, we must consider the outcomes of every proposed urban project to ensure the most desirable and effective outcome is achieved.