Category Archives: London urban design

Greenwich landscape architecture urban design project 2011

The Isle of Dogs to Silvertown reach of the River Thames is becoming de-industrialised. This project looks 300 years back, 3 years forward, 30 years forward and 300 years forward. It has a musical theme, reflected in the cello playing, which envisages a succession of waterfront areas, with the tempo moving from fast to slow as the river flows east. The zones are linked by two greenway corridors: (1) a modulating waterfront greenway-blueway (2) an inland service corridor with a Highline-style greenway above, for sustainable green transport, shopping and leisure.
The project was done by University of Greenwich MA Landscape Architecture students in the autumn of 2011.

John Evelyn's garden at Sayes Court and the Convoys Wharf Urban Landscape Master Plan

John Evelyn's garden superimposed on plans of the Convoys Wharf site in the seventeenth century, the nineteenth century and, one hopes not, the twentyfirst century

Steen Eiler Rasmussen concluded the second edition of his brilliant book London: the Unique City with these prophetic words: ‘Thus the foolish mistakes of other countries are imported everywhere, and at the end of a few years all cities will be equally ugly and equally devoid of individuality. This is the bitter END’. So what would he think of the Hutchison Whampoa Master Plan for Convoys Wharf? He would detest it, utterly. The architects are Aedas, who claim that ‘ We provide international expertise with innate knowledge and understanding of local cultures’. Evidently, this expertise does not extend to the local culture of Deptford – unless they think it is the same as the culture of London/England/Europe or the World. The planning consultants, let it be recorded, is by bptw . Their website promises ‘responsible architecture executed with imagination’. Maybe the firm can do this. Maybe the client’s brief made it impossible at Convoys Wharf. Or maybe what the project required was a firm of Urban Landscape Designers, rather than a firm which sees its main business as architecture. The architecture makes one yearn for the imaginative approach one sees in Dubai. The spatial pattern resembles that of the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, the planting design is what Chris Baines calls ‘a green desert with lollipops’. I am not an admirer of the scheme – and I much regret that John Evelyn’s design for Sayes Court has been cast into what Leon Trotsky called ‘the dustbin of history’. It is a quotation which gives us a lead into the origins of the Convoys Wharf design. In days gone by it might have graced a Parisian banlieue (like Sarcelles), a suburb of East Berlin – or even Moscow itself. With specific regard to the Sayes Court Garden, we should remember that (1) Evelyn, beyond doubt, was the greatest English garden theorist of the seventeenth century (2) Evelyn played a key role in introducing Baroque ideas on garden design to London (3) the Convoys Wharf site would never have come into public ownership were it not for the generosity of John Evelyn (4) Sayes Court was very nearly the first property to be saved by the National Trust.
THEREFORE the Convoys Wharf site demands a context-sensitive urban landscape design.
Wikipamia shows the present condition of the Convoys Wharf site and the Sayes Court Estate. Also see the Convoys Wharf Planning Application Documents.

This drawing purports to show 'Landscape, Townscape and Visual Amenity' . Phooey

Healing hurts: past

The big picture of the London Riots is very disturbing. The burnt out shell of the 140 year old Reeves furniture store is symbolic of the losses London has suffered. “It is now likely that the damage which was ‘worse than the blitz’ would force the ravaged building to be demolished and rebuilt.” How to explain the mindless and pointless destruction and the reckless endangering of life supposedly by a twentyone year old?

So is it social division, or a bizarre new form of recreation to relieve ennui, the result of political correctness, a new phenomenon of virtual gangs or some other cause?

More importantly, how should London rebuilt to heal hurts past and with a renewed confidence as the Olympic city? And what lessons does the experiences in London hold for the sustainable urban design and planning of other complex global cities?

Olympic 2012 Park landscape and architecture

In 2005 I made my predictions and stated an intent to monitor the progress of the 2012 London Olympic Park. I took 500+ photographs of the site and hoped to follow the changes. This did not work, because they had to close off public access to the site, but I was kindly invited to view progress on 22.7.2011. The first point to strike me, on the jaw, was the total inability of the architects to work together. There is no relationship of any kind between the sports buildings. What, one might ask, can one expect of Zaha Hadid (Aquatics Centre), Michael Hopkins (Velopark), Populous (Olympic Stadium) or MAKE (Handball Arena)? This is an easy question to answer: I expected them to TALK to each other and to create a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, more than a bag of Liquorice Allsorts. I also expected the client to ensure that this conversation took place and had a fruitful outcome. But they didn’t. The landscape architects could have done the design co-ordination, had they been asked. Instead, they have designed a swathe of greenspace which can be expected to help in unifying the outdoor landscape. The underlying principles are ‘Bauhaus’: the outdoor form of the buildings reflects their internal function. The buildings have an outdoor setting which is more nature than garden (like the Meisterhäuser in Dessau). Someone, as yet unidentified, had the excellent idea of having acres and acres of wildflower meadow flowing around the buildings and along the river. It will be colourspace instead of greenspace and it will help distinguish the 2012 Olympic park from a 1980s British Garden Festival.
A very disappointing aspect of the Olympic 2012 Park is that the general public will have NO ACCESS in 2012. We Londoners have paid for many of the facilities. We will have our city greatly disrupted during the games. But there are no plans to let us see our park. Only the ticket holders will have this privilege – and a great many more people applied for tickets than have received tickets. A friend bid for £3000 of tickets and got none. After the Olympic Games end the plan is to keep the park closed and set about the task of transforming it for public access some time in 2013. I urge a re-consideration. They should open the park to FREE PUBLIC ACCESS FOR AT LEAST TEN DAYS AFTER THE END OF THE GAMES.
My 2005 comment on the prospects for the 2012 Olympic Park gave reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism. In July 2011 the site looked like a road widening scheme near an airport, so I can’t say. My guesses are (1) the wildflowers will be wonderful (2) the buildings, as individual objects, will be handsome (3) there is a risk of the end product resembling a collision between an airport and garden festival. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
The below photograph, also taken from outsidethe park, shows what might have been achieved inside the park if more of the vernacular Lea Valley could have been retained. My belief is that it could have been done and that it has not been done.

Is Forum Magnum the stupidest urban landscape design in London?

What should be done to improve the urban landscape design of this space?

I pass Forum Magnum Square quite often and took this photo to show it at a busy period: 5.30 pm on the afternoon of Sunday 26th June 2011. Forum Magnum Square is 100m from one of Europe’s largest tourist attractions. My180° photo was taken from the white cross in the centre of this map. London’s parks and open spaces were jammed with people. It was, for London, a hot day (27°) and people were seeking shade everywhere. I guess anyone can say why the space is empty. But what should be done? A biodiversity meadow? A beer garden? A tourist market? A food court? Another building? A fishing pond? A fernery? A monument to victims of torture? I think they should hold 2-stage competitions for the re-design of places like this: Stage 1 – to find an imaginative use; Stage 2 – design the space to accommodate the new use. In New York City they use incentive zoning to create POPS = Privately Owned Public Space. Great idea. Forum Magnum is Latin for Great Forum. A forum was a public square or marketplace in an ancient Roman city, also used for assemblies, public business and siting temples. Forum Magnum enjoys none of these functions. It is a great stupidity but is not great in any other way. Can anyone suggest an urban space in such great location which surpasses Forum Magnum square in stupidity?

Romantic new garden for the cafe in Chiswick Park?

New garden landscape for the cafe beside Chiswick House

Evidently, English Heritage staff have become avid followers of this blog. In August 2010, we criticised the new cafe for being in a sea of bitmac. Now it is surrounded (top photo) by an attractive surfacing with the friendly name of ‘tar and chips’. We therefore urge EH to take another step and implement the proposal in the lower photograph.
But when I visited the park today a nice man came running towards me and advised that if seen on my bike again the fine would be £8. I should not have made this comment in August 2010: ‘I have always had a soft spot for Chiswick House and Park: my Mum used to play there; it is a key project in William Kent’s design progress; it is the only park or garden in the world where a uniformed official has told me that “you can ride your bicycle here if you want to”‘.

Plans of Chiswick House in 1729 and 2010 (EH plan; NE orientation). The canal would be below the drawing and the new cafe above the drawing

Chiswick House Park as it was and as it is

Two days in the lives of two London trees in spring 2011

I was concluding that the leaves would never return to London’s trees when, in the snap of two fingers, the spring is rushing ahead. The above two photographs were taken two days apart, as March turned to April. The weather was much colder than usual before Christmas but since then has been relatively warm.

Three days more growth

The same scene three weeks later

Specialised public open space enriches urban landscape design

The ‘urban squatters’ skateboard park on the South bank in London is one of my favourite examples of a highly specialised, and unofficial, public open space. Benighted planners have as unimaginative an approach to POS as they do to education. It is ONE SIZE FITS ALL – a national curriculum and a national provision of ‘public open space’. The historic standard was ‘7 acres of open space/1000 people’, to go with a national diet of one glass of milk, four slices of bread, meat and two veg, with a fish on a Friday. Cooks have liberated us from wartime diets but wartime POS provision continues. ‘You can have any POS you want, so long as it is green’. But, as the video shows, London’s young, dynamic, agile and multi-ethnic youngsters have other ideas, other tastes, other skills and a harlequin love of coloured space. My conclusion is that the age of Generalised POS is over. The age of Specialised POS has begun. The above example cost the authorities nothing to make and costs them nothing to maintain. It is therefore more SUSTAINABLE than a stupid patch of neglected grass.
Notes (1) other examples of specialised POS welcome (2) I’m not sure but I think the urban space in the video is a consequence of the architecture professions onetime love of pilotis.

The London Tower: Home and Away.

Designing a city is a complex business. There are commercial and development pressures to be considered. But a city is more
than just a continual investment of capital and occupation of new space. It has an identity. Sometimes only a local one. But sometimes
a global one.

Sometimes a remembered one.

What gives a city its identity? Consider how much of your city can you change and still have your city recognised for the qualities that others
currently value. Ask yourself what attributes are different to other cities and what are the same.

Is going higher the best option? How should it be done? Why should it be done? And when should it be done?

If the skyline was to change which buildings would you miss?


Planning an urban landscape for London's economic and financial future

London has had many economic roles over the centuries and now hopes to settle down as a cultural capital and somewhere between ‘Europe’s financial centre’ and ‘the world’s financial centre’. This requires a planning and design response which is likely to include
(1) more large green buildings, because big firms have big space requirements
(2) more homes for young, rich and mobile people
(3) more urban public space of the highest quality and greatest variety: busy and quiet, large and small, glazed and unglazed, soft and hard, wild and cultured, space at ground level, above ground and below ground, space for shopping and space for prayer, space with quiet water, bright water, dark water, swimming water, boating water and living water, biodiversity, socially diverse space for each cultural group (listeners to Radios 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 etc) and social space for the particular interests of ethnic, work and leisure groups.
London’s new amenities could be provided on a spatterdash basis – or London could have an urban landscape plan. The Canary Wharf development on the Isle of Dogs was a key project. It points to what should be done, to how it should be done – and to where it should be done. London’s traditional rival is Paris, which has a bold plan, now over 300 years old, for projecting the axis of the Tuileries westward – to the Place de la Concorde, to the Arc de Triomphe, to La Défense and beyond. London has a modest plan for projecting Crossrail into the Thames Gateway. But London landscape planning lacks spatial imagination – and axes were a baroque idea.
London will require many new buildings. They should be of the best available quality – and they should be grouped to ‘define and contain’ new urban space of the best quality and variety. The urban space should be designed before the buildings. A great new urban landscape should be planned to run east from the Isle of Dogs. Olympia and York made a significant start when they commissioned Laurie Olin to plan Westferry Circus and the Canary Wharf central axis. Before this, the Isle of Dogs was being developed with small cheap buildings and a pitiful lack of long-term vision. The Hanna Olin plan was much better – but it was more of a plan for Visual Space than for Social Space or Ecological Space. The present period of relative economic stagnation is an opportunity to take a broad perspective on the eastward projection of London and its financial future. There should be a 3-year plan, a 30-year plan and a 300-year plan.
London should remember that ‘He that the beautiful and useful blends, Simplicity with greatness, gains all ends’. Urban designers, architects and landscape architects should plan a multi-functional urban landscape with the highest visual quality and as much sustainability as can be planned at this point in time, with conceptual principles prioritised over design deails.

Has London gotta lotta bottle? – or too many garks?

The Urban Dictionary gives these meanings for ‘bottle’:
1)Transparent Container, usually for liquids that is narrow, circular-based, mostly handle-less and with an ever-narrowing top, where the opening is found.
2) To hit someone on the head with a glass bottle, smashing the bottle in the process.
3) Guts or determination
4) Female with no volouptous features, in comparison to 1)
So ‘Yes’ for its urban space. But ‘No’ for its many garks.

A vacant London gark

London's Peace Garden and Democracy Village in Parliament Square UK

OK, it’s a mess.
But what should a ‘Parliament Square’ be used for? Parliament-related activities, obviously.
London’s Parliament Square is a traffic island. When not being used for protests, it is empty.
So why not designate Parliament Square as an area for political activity. The activity should be orderly, as in the Houses of Parliament, but there should be free speech, as in the Houses of Parliament. And there should be an Outdoor Speaker to give varied political groups chances to express their views.
We have had years of talk about pedestrianizing Parliament Square – and I favour the idea. But I don’t want the Square to become a sales venue for international coffee chains. Relating the use of outdoor space to the use of adjacent indoor space is often a good principle and this is a wonderful place to put it to the test.
The above photograph, taken today, is of the Peace Garden and Democracy Village in Parliament Square. The protest began on 1st May and the Mayor of London won a court injunction to get it removed last week. An appeal is expected and then the tents are likely to be removed. The handsome statue brooding over the scene is of Benjamin Disraeli. He is famous for his wit, for extending the franchise and for making Queen Victoria the Empress of India. What would he think of the current Afghan War and the protest? I guess he would be against the war, on pragramatic grounds, and against the protest, because it is a mess. But if it could be an orderly Garden Protest, I think he would regard it as an enrichment of our democracy, as would I.
The below photograph, also taken today, shows that London’s police force is a much more liberal institution than it used to be. Multi-everything is the new political correctness.

Melting away in time

Some predict that as the polar ice caps melt major cities such as London, New York and Bangkok will be flooded.

How are we to determine if such a future is in store? And how quickly it might become reality?

To understand the likelihood of such an event, and perhaps how quickly it might be likely to occur – some understanding of the historical  and contemporary geological setting of the cities is useful.

It is believed that the continent of Britain was formed some 200,000 years ago during a megaflood event.

What is happening today? Does the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano have any relevance for Londoners apart from air traffic disruption?

(Geology experts most welcome to comment!)

Brilliant design for public safety in London's Finsbury Park contrasts with horrific design in Germany

Safety conscious park design in London

Wonderfully safety conscious park design in London

Here are two great ideas for protecting the public from the natural hazards of life in parks. The left photograph is of the New River. It is more than 150mm deep and therefore a considerable risk to public health and safety. Trees can also be very dangerous if one tries to climb them and one has an accident. Thank goodness for London’s vigilant park managers. Sadly, the Germans have no idea how to protect the public from danger. As the below photograph shows, Germany has so much to learn from England. We hope and expect that the 2012 London Olympic Park will show how the 1972 Munich Olympiapark should have been designed. It was such a good idea to assess the quality of English landscape design – and then hire an American landscape architect to oversee the project. The Germans had to make do with local talent back in ’72. Phew. And isn’t it disgusting that nudity is permitted in German parks? One might as well start putting beer gardens in parks and allow people to have BBQs and eat sausages. It makes one so proud to be unenlightened – but I am not that “one”.
Dangerous behaviour in Munich's Englischer Garten

Dangerous behaviour in Munich's Englischer Garten


The River Thames in London may soon have safe swimming beaches

A brave girl going for a swim in the River Thames near St Paul's Cathedral in Central London

A brave girl going for a swim in the River Thames near St Paul's Cathedral in Central London

I guess she is going to be OK. If wild swimming takes place in the River Thames upstream, as it does, then the biological hazard should be less in the tidal Thames – because the water is salty and salt is a disinfectant. ‘The discovery of a colony of short-snouted seahorses (Hippocampus hippocampus) living in the Thames means that the London river is becoming cleaner, conservationists said…Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have discovered five seahorses during routine conservation surveys in the Thames estuary in the past 18 months, evidence which they say indicates that a breeding population exists.’ The River Thames Website explains the position as follows: ‘The water quality is very good and in fact the tidal Thames is now acknowledged to be one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world’. Thames water is pleasantly warmer than sea water with about 75% of its ‘thermal pollution’ coming from power stations. One man’s thermal pollution is one girl’s heated water. There is also a good supply of mud for her fair skin and she will be able to save money on spa treatments and make a sustainable contribution to combating climate change. One thing which does worry me though is whether she has a sufficient layer of Factor 30 sun screen. If the brave girl is poisoned there will be a public outcry and the River Thames Cleanup, underway since the 1960s, wll then be driven by a popular outcry. I regret that it takes a tragedy to effect reform but as Tertullian remarked, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.

Peak Oil Group Taskforce and the need to plan for greener transport – urban design with veloways and cycletubes?

Planning cycle routes is the healthiest, fastest, cheapest, greenest and most ecological approach to greener rural and urban transport in the coming age of Peak Oil

Planning cycle routes is the healthiest, fastest, cheapest, greenest and most ecological approach to greener rural and urban transport in the coming age of Peak Oil

When I heard that the UK’s Peak Oil Group Taskforce is calling for greener transport, I thought at once of leafy lanes in country areas joined to panoramic cycletubes in urban areas. No such luck. In the greasy shell of a small nut, what they want is taxpayer subsidies for public transport engineering and the ‘ongoing introduction of lower carbon technology and trials of sustainable bio fuels’. There is no mention of the Great Green Machine – the bicycle – in their shamefully self-serving report. The above photograph is of the Eastway Cycle Circuit before it was bulldozed to make way for London’s 2012 Olympics.

Comment on the landscape aspects of the Mayor’s London Plan 2009


Thames Area Strategy zones from the 2009-10 Mayor's London Plan

Thames Area Strategy zones from the 2009-10 Mayor’s London Plan





You can download the .pdf and comment the draft of Mayor Boris Johnson’s London Plan 2009.  The most interesting chapters, for me, are Chapter 6 on Transport and  Chapter 7 on London’s Living Spaces and Places. The Gardenvisit website has a historical analysis of previous Open Space Plans for London and I have a special interest in Boris’s plan because he is the only politician I have ever voted for who has been elected. Briefly, my comments on the 2009 draft of the London Plan are as follows.

  • The section on Cycling is very welcome – and Boris won my vote by supporting this cause. I hope I live  long enough to ride into the capital on a Cycle Super Highway, but since Ken Livingstone promised something similar when he was first elected I am maintaining a healthy skepticism. The policy that ‘to bring about a significant increase in cycling in London, so that it accounts for at least 5 per cent of modal share by 2026’ is insufficiently ambitious. ‘In 2003 fully 36% cycled to workplaces in Copenhagen whereas only 27% drove to work’.
  • The Blue Ribbon Strategy, also introduced by Livingstone, is very wise and very welcome. But it needs some tough political muscle behind it.
  • The Walking Strategy, based on my 1992 Green Strategy for London, is supported by Boris as it was by Ken, with thanks to them both.
  • The plan for a Hierarchy of Open Space in London is as irrelevant today as when it was first advanced by the GLC in 1969. I can only think that it survives because there is standard textbook a Town and Country Planning which supports this kind of absurdity.
  • The Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land ideas are supported for the very good reason that there would be a public outcry if they were not supported. The fact that they have no obvious affect on planning decisions scarcely matters.
  • The Biodiversity Strategy is welcome. But there should also be a strategy for the diversification of open space types. London has far too much generalized public open space and not nearly enough specialized public open space. See blog comment on Urban parks, POS and landscape architecture.
  • The introduction of Thames Policy Areas, based on Thames landscape strategy, is welcome but does not go far enough. The Thames needs a Scenic Quality Appraisal and then zoning to show (1) zones where there should be a presumption in favour of conserving the existing character (2) zones where there should be a presumption in favour of changing the existing character – because the scenic quality is low. See blog comment on the Millennium London Eye.
  • An All London Green Grid became a supplement to the plan in 2011-2012


1) The 2009 London Plan is qualitatively inferior to the 1943 Open Space Chapter of the Abercrombie Plan for London. The latter is obsolete in most respects but it had the great merit of taking a simple, clear and idealistic view of the problems and the opportunities. Abercrombie was a member of the Institute of Landscape Architects and had a deep understanding of the subject.

2) If the Greater London Authority is unable to afford the cost of expert landscape consultants, I modestly point them to the  Green Strategy I prepared for the London Planning Advisory Committee in 1992. The Mayor’s London Plan is over halfway to adopting the principle of a series of overlapping green networks (for Rivers, Walks, Cycling, and Habitats). These layers should now be INTEGRATED  on a Londonwide basis.

3) Town planners should not have responsibility for landscape and open space planning unless they also hold professional qualifications in landscape architecture. I do not know who wrote the landscape sections of the 2009 Draft but they do not read like the work of imaginative, well-educated and influential landscape planners.


Is the Millennium London Eye a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

The The Merlin Entertainments London Eye makes Central London resemble a Fun Fair

Following in the footsteps of Britain’s most quoted historians (W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman) we should ask: is the London Eye is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

  • 30m people have ridden in the Eye (@ £17.5 each =£525m) and the owners pay the South Bank Centre £2.5m/year to rent a tiny strip of land. It thus enriches London and Londoners. This is a Good Thing.
  • The London Eye makes Central London resemble a Theme Park: County Hall and the Palace of Westminster have lost their dignity and now resemble toys in a model village. This is a Bad Thing.
  • The London Eye was originally given planning permission for 5 years but was then made permanent, thus enriching the owners at the expense of the public good. This was a Bad Thing.

On balance the London Eye is therefore a Bad Thing and Lord Rogers was  wrong. He declared “The Eye has done for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris”. Lord Rogers is a decent architect but has little understanding or urban design and no understandisng of landscape architecture or geography. The Eiffel Tower does  not dominate the historic core of Paris.
The London Eye should be moved downstream of Tower Bridge, to a site which would not be dwarfed by its scale (eg Chamber’s Wharf). It should also be hoisted by 30m (from 135 metres to 165 metres so that it is higher than the Star of Nanchang (160 m). This would be a Very Good Thing.

Seen from St James Park, the London Eye makes Whitehall resemble a themed hotel in Disneyland

Seen from St James Park, the London Eye makes Whitehall resemble a themed hotel in Disneyland

Loampit Vale Redevelopment in Lewisham

Its ugly and its un-London.

Its ugly and its un-London.

The UK Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) was launched in ill-omened year: 1914. But it was founded by idealists and played an honourable role, until another year of destiny: 1947. Effectively, it then split. One portion became an arm of government, forever beholden to the ugliness of local government in the UK. The other portion, which has grown in size, became an arm of the property development industry. The idealists left.

The above image of a ‘regeneration’ proposal in Lewisham, South London, shows the result. There is a lot of patter about sustainability etc but the design is 1930s Corbusian with a sprinkling of rancid green sauce. The developers get a fat profit; the local council gets more tax income; the people get an ugly and badly designed project: 98% of respondents to a consultation were against the proposal. If Steen Eiler Rasmussen, author of London the unique city, could give an opinion he would surely sign it ‘Disappointed, Disgusted and Revolted of Copenhagen’. He believed London unique among world cities because such a high proportion of its residents have their own gardens and do NOT live in flats. Rasmussen also loved London’s parks and would be horrified the social uselessness of the proposed ground level space in Lewisham. The design is context-insensitive to a high degree. Poor old Lewisham. Poor old London. Poor old England.