What can placemakers learn from the occupation of four London streets?
What can placemakers learn from the way Extinction Rebellion occupied Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Parliament Square? Here’s what I found as I visited these inventive, ground-up interventions on the fourth day of the non-violent protests in London
1. Waterloo Bridge makes a great garden bridge
The incredibly generous width of Waterloo Bridge with its amazing views of parliament, the Southbank and out to St Paul’s, makes an excellent all-ages and accessible garden bridge. This is the most successful of the improvised sites in terms of urbanism.
Without the £53m in consultancy fees, and in less than 24 hours, the protestors have managed to transform a piece of Waterloo Bridge into a green pedestrian crossing of the Thames complete with a small forest of trees and living plants, a wellness centre, food and beverage stall, skate park, stage and children’s centre.
Between the human barricade of protestors blocking the south end of the bridge and a lorry blocking lanes to the north, you’ll find an enclave with the atmosphere of a village fete or market square. Large pine trees and small potted plants, hay bales and pop-up gazebos create informal zones that are populated with picnics and bubbling with music and activity.
Walking the bridge in the morning, there were dozens of grandmothers at work – one peels onions for a large pot of something cooking, another holds up a pizza box on which the word ‘induction’ has been scrawled alongside a list of timings for meetings at the welcome tent. There are separate bins for food and waste, and people can sign up for duties including sanitation. Inside a circle of hay bales, a parent-and-toddler group is making a craft. It is hard to imagine Heatherwick’s bridge ever being this fun.
Returning late at night, the bridge is full of free music. Cleverly, the lorry, which barricades the traffic, has had its tarpaulin on the far side peeled back, and has been transformed into a stage facing out, which both protects the ‘neighbourhood’ from noise, creates a sense of enclosure and functions as a bandstand. Protestors sit on the tarmac here, listening to speeches and live music through the night. A young woman waters and tends the plants, another sweeps. The bridge is remarkably clean, apart from the colourful chalk drawings made by children. Further towards the north end of the bridge on the vast, open, empty road is a skate ramp, where teenagers do tricks and children scoot.
Extinction Rebellion temporarily lost hold of Parliament Square, before a samba band turned up and attracted a crowd. Another lesson: boring places need exceptional interventions to activate them
On either side of all this activity, the existing cycle lanes have been kept clear to allow people to cycle across the bridge, and the pavements are also free, so that commuters in a rush or tourists can still get through unimpeded. This works amazingly well, as this also keeps the views over the Thames clear. It also reverses the typical speeds of travel – slow in the middle, fast on the edge.
I see two wheelchairs, a mobility scooter and many parents with pushchairs enjoying the empty road – it makes me realise how horribly bumpy and uncomfortable pedestrian paving is typically, with curbs to navigate, too. It’s also a much more accessible bridge than the pedestrian crossings at Hungerford Bridge nearby, which features a two-storey staircase from the Embankment and stinky lifts.
2. Oxford Circus makes a brilliant 24-hour nightclub while Parliament Square lacks a sense of place
Despite dubious complaints from the New West End Company that protests have cost them £12m in lost sales, I can’t help but think it is just jealous of this genius ‘activation’. Had it been led by H&M, they’d be singing its praises. Oxford Circus has never looked so cool as it does with an enormous hot-pink sailboat DJ booth in the middle. There are hammocks slung between traffic lights and people staying out all night.
This site is not as cosy as the bridge – its piazza shape makes it a performance space, which is why it works as a dancefloor. There are fewer trees and plants here, too. The protest here is less ‘all-ages’ – mostly young people here to party, and at 10pm they are already dancing around the DJ boat. Tents block the four arteries, while the pavements outside the shops are kept clear and again, all of the action is on the road.
Oxford Street has its issues, even when closed to traffic. Shoppers wish to look in the windows, so they stick to the crowded pavement. Where should the bikes go? I find myself cycling down the middle of the road, away from pedestrians that nip onto the street to skirt around shoppers. Would the centre be the best place for a cycle lane on a pedestrianised Oxford Street, with slow-zones nearer shops?
On Waterloo Bridge, I see a person in a wheelchair and a parent with a pushchair choosing to wheel down the road. There are no curbs, it’s smooth, and there’s room to manoeuvre. Pushchairs and wheelchairs don’t turn on a dime and having to dodge around pedestrians is exhausting or slow. Maybe they would benefit from a mobility lane – one for cyclists, and distinct one for wheelchairs and pushchairs? Or, better yet, just smoother, wider pavements.
Cycle down to Parliament Square, and with the traffic peeled away, this is still a problematic place for London. It sprawls with a dull green at its heart surrounded by tentacles of traffic that crowd pedestrians onto pavements with awkward, dangerous crossings. The only improvement Extinction Rebellion has made is removing the traffic.
This is an uncomfortable square, an eddy cut off from the river. The protest hasn’t managed to transform it. Last night, police swarmed the site and made numerous arrests, and Extinction Rebellion temporarily lost hold of these streets, before a samba band turned up and attracted a crowd. Another lesson: boring places need exceptional interventions to activate them.
Had this genius ‘activation’ been led by H&M, the New West End Company would be singing its praises. Oxford Circus has never looked so cool as with a hot-pink sailboat DJ booth in the middle
There’s nothing to look at in Parliament Square apart from the parliament buildings, and there’s nowhere to stand to view them properly, and its not the best view of Westminster Abbey either. There’s also an odd acoustic, noise is lost in the open space, perhaps broken up by the gothic architecture. The cacophony fails to make much of an impact.
I did witness something exceptional in a small group of protesters sitting on the road near St Margaret’s Church, wrapped tightly in a banner and singing quiet, mournful songs. Haunting and beautiful, it was interesting to note that this occurred on the outskirts of the square.
3. Temporary closures are valuable testing grounds and streets are always nicer without cars
Look how easily we are able to test out this pedestrianisation – with some hay bales, potted trees, gazebos, an old boat, a lorry, a skate ramp and some chalk – and how quickly citizens adapt and take the space. So many people have taken to Twitter to express their love of walking in a traffic-free London. It makes you wonder if the temporary closure of Oxford Street would have changed the outcome of its consultation by allowing the public to experience pedestrianisation first hand. This week should be reviewed to inform the design. The hammocks are a nice touch.
Walking from the Marble Arch site down Oxford Street, it strikes me how much more comfortable it is to have the luxury of the road as a public space. It doesn’t need to be torn up and rejigged either, removing the cars is enough. But where pedestrianisation and protest ends, we are squeezed back onto the pavements. The desire to linger, encouraged by the airiness of the road, evaporates. We press on towards the tube station. It’s unpleasant.
The daytime and nighttime activity in these zones would be interesting to study as well – they could suggest a mixed approach, where vehicle traffic is permitted overnight during quiet hours, to allow for deliveries and ensure people feel safe getting home late at night, but give the city to the citizens during active hours. The protest sites show how easily places can appear. Can we use more temporary interventions in the city?
Finally, my preliminary musings are just that – preliminary – and come with caveats. Most of the protesters are privileged enough not to worry about the financial, emotional or legal implications of their actions. As a result, this is not a socio-economically diverse crowd. That’s not a criticism: politicians, and indeed the prime minister, are privileged, too. But these observations should be considered in that context. There have been studies that show that certain communities prefer manicured gardens to wild ones, and certainly some groups might find these ramshackle pop-ups unappealing. Nevertheless, lessons can be learned.
As for climate change, I support this non-violent movement to raise awareness of an issue heavily underplayed, not least by the real estate development community, which has influence, creates vast amounts of carbon and carries significant risk. The traffic disruption is a minor inconvenience when faced with the sixth extinction. If you have doubts, please educate yourself. Whatever I thought I knew about global warming, it’s worse. Raising awareness is our collective responsibility – as is change.