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.

8 thoughts on “Planning an urban landscape for London's economic and financial future

  1. Poppy

    I am not a Londoner and I am too young to have a independent idea, so what I say is just some personal feelings. During the past 15 months I have lived in this city, I found that the urban plan of London is great, for example, the transportation of London is quite developed and the public parks are more public than Chinese ones at least. However, when we had the London Trip in London the first semester in the University, I was a little bit disappointed by the new landscape design in London. Because few new landscape I saw in central London can be “interesting”. Sometimes, I did not feel that I was in a foreign country. When my Dad asked that how London is. My answer is that, Dad,please go to central Tianjin, then walk to the riverside, you will see the similar landscapes there, London eye( Tianjin eye), high skyscrapers, all kinds of Bridges, commercial districts landscape. I clearly know that the landscape in my hometown were learned (copied) from somewhere. Therefore, at the begining, I was not happy to SEE the landscape here.

    I even asked myself that ” what is a good landscape architect?” “As crazy as one can” might be a good answer, because if a designer is a crazy one and has crazy idea. His/her works will be different from others at least. It sounds that the artists will be the best group to build more intersting landscape. Definitely, they have more interesting and crazy idea then landscape architects! But I still feel that I was wrong idea. Because, this opinion would focus on “visual landscape of small spaces which can be felt (felt by myself).

    Then I heard the word “LINK” in our studio one day, which is a word said by the external examiner from LI. (They judged the Dip LA students). They though that our works need to link to different kinds of spaces and cannot be a sigle one.I was happy with this word,but confusing with this word. What is the meaning of LINK? where is the link and where will this link go to ?
    These days,I found that maybe the meaning of link menas the to build the whole public open spaces (POS)?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Thank you for your comment. You are right that London is not a very interesting city for adventurous modern landscape design. It is a city which has evolved slowly over 2000 years. There have been some periods of faster change but most of the changes have been slow. The city was half asleep for much of the twentieth century and the people probably do not want dramatic change.
    With regard to links, you have asked the right question and given the right answer. Many planners and designers just think everything should be ‘linked’. But this is pointless. From a functional point of view it is only worth linking origins to destinations. Visul links are another matter and have their own logic.
    As for crazy ideas, too many of they are only crazy, and craziness is rarely enough.

  3. Christine

    Fortuneately the suburbs of London still retains something of their collection of villages identity which makes them each unique in character and history worth visiting in their own right.

    As for London city, something of the richness of its evolution is retained too. For example, Carnaby Street is not just a street with a name… ]; nor is Fleet Street [ ] or Downing Street. [ ]

    I cannot think of another city in the world where it is possible to do what I have just done.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    London is a product of its system of government. Like the English language this is a blend of Germanic and Latin strands. Germanic culture, according to Tacitus, was tribal- and community-based. Latin invasions (Roman and then Norman French) brought elements of an East Mediterannean palace-and-empire culture. The result was parliamentary sovereignty and a city form which ‘glorifies’ communities of people ie the village identities shown in Abercrombie’s justly famous social plan of 1944. So I agree that the ‘glory’ of London is in its many parts. It does not have and should not have and, I assume, will not have the unity or splendour of its famous rival: Paris.

  5. Christine

    Dare I say it Paris and London are as different as well…the chalk hills of Dover and the soft cheese of France!

    It is a not generally a useful comparison. London does ‘pomp and ceremony’ like nobody else (except…umm…the Vatican!). [ ]. Paris is ‘romance and chic’ all the way. [ ]

    A little history is useful. To begin…

    London’s genesis was on the Northbank. This must be the heart of the city. It is not at all regular in form like the grided cities of New York and Melbourne. It is interesting to think that in the 1600s London was still a relatively compact city and nobles came to London from across England for court business or for the social season.

    The Great Fire of London of 1666 probably did for the medieval city of London what Napoleon did for medieval Paris. By 1700 London had overtaken Amsterdam as the world’s financial centre and Lloyd’s of London had been established.

    It is interesting to consider that the limits of a city’s population was determined by the death rate: and drinking tea was seen to be the decisive factor in London’s favour! [ ]

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    London and Paris are indeed different. But why? Is the explanation ‘tradidion’, politics, culture, religion, geography, imigration policy, tea drinking, ethnicity … or what? ‘All of them’ is a tempting answer but does not take us far and is not much of a guide to urban design decision making. Incidentally, I think far more Londoners think ‘I wish our city was more like Paris’ than Parisians who think ‘I wish our city was more like London’. Though I also think that more Parisians move to London (for jobs) than vice versa.

  7. christine

    Food for thought…
    [ ]

    It is interesting in earlier times that safety, sanitation and disease determined the population limits of cities and influenced perceptions of density historically. These were the concerns underpinning modernism.

    Recent considerations influencing early debates on low density (urban sprawl) were the availability of land, the cost of development (affordability and profitability) and the social desirability of alternative lifestyle choices. In short social and economic concerns.

    Emerging issues are the alternative uses of land (for agriculture, conservation etc), efficiencies in transportation, the ecological cost of population and greenhouse gas emissions. That is ecological concerns are gradually become a higher priority than economic and social concerns.

    The question of density and how to develop cities needs to be asked afresh.

    However, in asking the question again, the framework needs to be the social history, geography and physical form of each unique city.

  8. Rajan Mistry

    The Olympics coming to London should be an interesting addition to the overall scheme of the city, though I hear many complaints of the urban and architectural designs. Being spread through five boroughs, it gives a unique potential for the transitional spaces between these zones. However, as was said in a post above, today’s concerns are indeed more eco-centric and drinking tea isn’t going to get Londoners very far in this situation.

    Architecturally speaking, the most ecologically sound option is to not build anything at all seeing as how construction is extremely wasteful and damaging to our natural systems. With a steadfast vision on what is the premier urban landscape scheme, the city, in my opinion, — and this goes for many cities — should develop a dense core of buildings, and retract its limbs of sprawl to increase the space that can be allocated for a return to landscape and natural life. If we put a city into a context where it does not need new construction by overaccomodating its residential and commercial needs within the core, we can minimise future constructions.

    But then we have to deal with the fact that people aren’t going to just hand over the property, so,… well… it’s gonna take a while.


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