A square deal for London

The Government’s decision to back Sir Norman Foster’s World Squares for All masterplan gives a rare opportunity for designers to reshape the face of the capital.

Opportunities to redesign vast tracts of public open space rarely present themselves in any urban environment – let alone slap in the centre of London.

So, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s decision to back Sir Norman Foster’s 54m World Squares for All masterplan to pedestrianise parts of Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square, could seem like a dream come true for many design consultancies.

The project’s main aim is to reclaim Trafalgar Square for pedestrians, by banning traffic from its northern side, in front of the National Gallery. While this presents a grand opportunity to create a people-friendly urban utopia, it can only be achieved by striking a realistic balance between private and commercial vehicles, and pedestrians.

Westminster City Council’s head of transport policy Malcolm Murray-Clark acknowledges the enormity of this task. “We are very concerned about the traffic implications. This led to a decision whereby we didn’t want to progress the scheme until traffic restraints were in place,” he says.

While Prescott has included the required changes in his transport White Paper, there is no clear timetable for their implementation. And the council is not prepared for changes to be implemented in Trafalgar Square before they happen across the rest of London.

The council has conceded, however, to progress with the next stage in the project, by inviting design consultancies to come forward with detailed design proposals for Trafalgar Square. It will advertise design commissions for the redevelopment of the square in the Official Journal of the European Union, in the next two to three weeks.

Murray-Clark explains: “We are seeking invitations from consultancies to progress the detailed designs of the Trafalgar Square element of the proposals. It is not only the choice of material, but also how the traffic is managed – and comes down even to the exact layout of curbstones. We need urban designers and pragmatic traffic engineers to get something that both looks good and works well.”

Westminster’s next step, however, is to liaise with other organisations involved in the World Squares for All project to submit an application for Heritage Lottery Funding.

In the meantime, designers interested in having a say in the square’s redevelopment should put their skates on. Westminster Council intends to draw up a shortlist, invite tenders and, subject to receiving Government funding, make appointments by next March.

The key design issue for the pedestrianisation of the area centres on what kind of public space it is intended to be, stresses Building Design Partnership director Peter Drummond.

“If it is to be a major public space, it cannot just be left to its own devices. [As a major tourist attraction] tourists expect some kind of facilities, and they need to be an integral part of the scheme, not just tacked on,” he says.

Graham Phoenix, managing director of Lighting Design Partnership, which was responsible for the existing lighting scheme in Trafalgar Square, stresses the importance of lighting in such projects. He suggests the lights should be changed from orange traffic types to white-light pedestrian versions.

Imagination’s creative group head Alex Ritchie agrees. But he reckons further improvements could be made by ridding the area of burger and bird seed kiosks. “You have to be very strict, or the whole ambience comes down,” he says. While Ritchie, in common with many Londoners, would also like also to see the area rid of pigeons, this is unlikely because of their appeal to tourists.

In recognition that the square’s cultural importance could be enhanced, the National Gallery has launched a competition inviting designers to come up with ideas to use the space beneath the huge plinth below its entrance.

“This could be turned into a tourist information centre, shops and restaurants,” says Ritchie. “It solves the problem about kiosks.”

He believes that toilet facilities also need to be improved. “There is a small WC and underpass in front of Grand Buildings, leading up to Charing Cross Station. It is a huge space which is not used properly. But you could put on a glazed roof – in keeping with the local architecture – and look up at Nelson’s Column. It could be the best ever place to go to the loo, have your hair done or get your shoes polished.”

It seems that most observers agree that Trafalgar Square desperately needs to be transformed from its current state of being little more than a congested traffic hub, into a celebration of London’s cultural heritage.

As Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, puts it: “Sir Norman Foster has produced a brilliant masterplan which would transform the environment of the historic centre of London. The public has given it widespread support. It must go ahead if London is to survive as one of the world’s greatest cities.”

What happens on the ground is now down to the designers who come up with the ideas.

Project aims:

Improve pedestrian access to, in and around, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall

Provide a high standard of urban design in terms of lighting, signage, pavements and roads

Improve transport in the area

Improve opportunities for visitor enjoyment

The consultant team

Architect and masterplanner:Foster and Partners

Urban designer: Civic Design Partnership

Landscape architect: Peter Walker and Partners

Transportation planner: Halcrow Fox

Pedestrian movement analyst: Space Syntax Laboratory

Cost benefits consultant: Davis Langdon and Everest

Urban planning consultant: Richard Burdett (London School of Economics)

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