Somebody designed all this stuff. A herd, an army, of people at drawing-boards and computer screens down the years painstakingly devised the astonishing array of tat that today clutters our streets. The bits that get forgotten about but still exist, in a weird half-life. Zombie design.
It is a cautionary tale, the street, for anyone who thinks that what they do might have some enduring quality. I’m talking about decapitated stumps of lamp posts, disconnected privatised phone kiosks, redundant switchgear cabinets from the days of the General Post Office to today’s cable companies. Also the grim after-effects of ill-considered tree-planting schemes, usually memorialised by patches of broken, uneven paving around where a tree used to be until it got too big and the insurance companies demanded its removal. And don’t get me started on signage. Too late, I have. Nobody ever removes old signs. The street I used to live on has still got a large red sign warning that traffic lights are going to be installed shortly. They were installed in 1989.
We as citizens have very little say in the objects that get placed in our streets. Utility companies and local authorities have the right to plonk down all kinds of boxes and notices and markings and flashing warnings and poles of every description. There appears to be no obligation to remove them once their useful life is over. An increasingly patchwork appearance is the consequence, and it’s not just three-dimensional objects, it’s also surfaces: anti-skid road treatments either side of zebra crossings; speed bumps and chicanes, unpleasant textured pavement sections intended to help people with poor vision; red bus lanes, green cycle lanes, and, of course, the explosion of revenue-raising controlled parking zones with their frantic paintwork. Our streets are resembling a giant board game.
The current mess is partly the result of the utility privatisations of the 1980s, which vastly increased the number of companies entitled to leave their mark on our streets. It is partly the result of today’s obsession with health and safety, which is linked with an increase in litigation. It is also an unfortunate consequence of something few could disagree with – the desire to make streets safer for people who happen not to be in cars.
It didn’t use to be like this. Cities still have a surprising number of well-designed objects from the 19th century, from pillar boxes to manhole covers and kerb stones. Often these help to define the character of a district. If only today’s consultancies thought long-term like that. But getting a better, more integrated design strategy for our streets needs to start from a radical position: let’s see what we can take away.
There are a few local authorities, usually in wealthy parts of London, that have the means to take a holistic view of the streetscape. The City of London is one, Kensington and Chelsea is another. Southwark was a rare example of a poorer borough that had a go, but that was accretive: the visual clutter became better designed. Still, an Anthony Gormley iron bollard is a cut above a concrete post that snaps off when a dustcart touches it.
One thing will make a difference. If the few enlightened public servants committed to cracking down on clutter were to receive automatic top honours and double pensions, why – there’d be a lot more of them, wouldn’t there? Less really can be more.