top of page

The Make-Up of London

Terry Farrell, Principal Terry Farrell and Partners


I’ve put together here some images on a subject that we talk a lot about in the office which is community centres, villages, towns: what is the make-up of London and how does it arrive where it is?  What makes it this extraordinary city where people love to be?  Why is it that there is almost no plan in London yet by contrast, although there is so little planning or so much chaos, it is actually seen by so many people round the world as the most liveable city. It does make one fairly humble as a town planner. 


London is seen as highly liveable compared to most other metropolises in the world, and yet the influence of planning is almost at an urban design scale to begin with. It is not at  town planning scale because in a way London has never been a city and has very rarely had an overall over-arching government, a situation which continues today with boroughs with their powers and the GLA with its.


Looking at a map of about 1066 gives you a feeling about London. There doesn’t seem to be any clear overall centre. It is not like Paris, it is not a Roman walled big metropolitan area. It has a small Roman city in the centre of it but it doesn’t look like Paris or Rome or Berlin. It is spread out and that is part of the characteristic of London, this multi-meld.


We did a drawing of what we could make from that map as being the centres at that time. You can see Westminster and the City, but you can also see just how many villages there that we now consider being in London. On another map we can see those centres in 1866 and that appears more or less current.


So I was thinking to myself that London is unique. It went from a series of towns and villages, nodal points, country places to a metropolis without the intervening stage of being a city. It never saw itself as being a city. The land owners, the aristocrats, the monarchy, they all saw London as their second place or residence.  Because there has been peace for 1,000 years the British have never been urban in the European sense, where there was a need to get back to the city to trade, because elsewhere there was so much more flowing back and forth and wars and troubles and changes of boundaries of countries, so making cities much more important than countries. 


But here we have a city that went from country centres to a metropolis without having that civitas of a grand centre. Even the centre of London you can’t even point to in the same as way you can in a European city. I think that is very important to places like Archway which is one of those many villages and centres and this continues through to today. 


It is important to see this combination of place-making and roads, and that they are the two important things in terms of these nodal points. The roads and the place are the same thing until a certain stage in history.


There is this delicate balance between roads that travel through and security. Many a French town seen from the air, or small hamlet, isn’t a through road in the same sense because they have a wall round. They cluster together in a defensive way. In a British town the roads flow right through and the meeting place is right in the centre. The fact that everything flows through it is an advantage; that’s why the place is there, the node and a place to pass through are all one.  And then about 1950s, the roads got slightly bigger.


Compared to an 18th century road the size and scale wasn’t much different at the turn of the 20th century and the amount of traffic wasn’t much more than the 18th century, still substantially horse and cart. I can liken this movement through our nodal points as being almost hydraulic in nature.


The idea of traffic as hydraulic is quite an interesting comparison. Traffic is like a river and roads are like rivers. As the traffic gets bigger it erodes its bank and the more the banks get eroded there is a critical point at which sense of place, the actual reason why you would call this town, this village, begins to disappear. 


I work in Edinburgh a lot where I’m working helping them plan the new tram. The traffic in Edinburgh goes through several places by name, Piccadilly Place, Haymarket, names that are evocative of somewhere, but actually they’re not there any more. Like everywhere in the 20th century, gradually the banks were eroded and the very places that were the nodes and centres of our cities and towns, the banks were washed away and we lost the place at the very point where it was critical. 


It is surprising how long the sense of the node lasts. This is our sketch of the ones in London, some of the centres you would recognise as being the largest villages and small towns. You don’t know what to call them. You think they’re villages, on other hand they are named towns, Canning Town, Kentish Town. There’s Highgate Village, but Highgate Village and Hampstead Village are not that much different in size to Kentish Town so we mix and match the names towns and villages. 


We also have two places called cities – we have the City of London and the City of Westminster.  The City of London is the only one you can define because it is the only true continental village because it has the Roman enclosure, the Roman defence wall which is still seen today.  Indeed, the City of London is very much the Roman town but the City of Westminster most people don’t know where it begins and ends and is often now confused with the Borough. 


Boroughs don’t help at all because boroughs were drafted up for political reasons and don’t make any sense in terms of place-making. In fact one of my favourite things to point out is that when you look at the boroughs they stretch radially so Westminster, Camden, Islington, all those central boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea radiate out. This was deliberately done to capture some of the city core, i.e. offices, and what have you.  Some of the poorer districts just north of the Marylebone/Euston Road, there’s a whole batch of them right across the outer centre, then you move into the inner suburban areas of St Johns Wood, Barnsbury, Maida Vale and so on, and then to outer suburban, and each borough has a slice like through a tree and a bit of everything, which makes it a long placing right from the outset. 


How do we know when we are travelling through a borough we are not familiar with; how do you know you’re in Tower Hamlets or not Tower Hamlets?  But yet you have a fair idea if you’re in Kentish Town or Camden town simply because we know when the roads converge that is or was a place. 


I think this is very critical of the nature and character of London, and considering Archway along with all these other towns is critical to building and retaining and hanging on to communities, and I think its time has come to really rethink how many have been lost, how can you recreate them, and which of them have stood the test of time and been protected.


We’ve worked on town centres trying to work with communities, trying to look at what’s happened to town centres for quite some time, e.g. Wimbledon, Hammersmith. Hammersmith is a very interesting one. We worked with the GLC in the 1980s on Hammersmith.  Hammersmith was clearly the place where lots of roads came in and there was a village green and all the rest of it.  When it became the gyratory the town centre moved to King Street and if you ask somebody to show the centre of Hammersmith they’d point to somewhere else. 


Paddington is one I know very well, where my offices are. Back in the 18th/19th century there was a place called Paddington but it actually doesn’t exist any more. If you say, where’s Paddington they think it’s down where the station is, but it never was. About 1960 Paddington disappeared.  You may think that Archway has been trashed because of the roads, but Paddington doesn’t exist any more. 


So in the 20th century, by this hydraulic erosion, places actually got lost. Elephant and Castle mostly is linked with the shopping centre.  What is Elephant and Castle? You look out from any of your windows and you see roads that are going at considerable speed designed for traffic in the belief that traffic had to be handled in this way.


When I came back from doing architecture and urban design in America I worked for Carlton Cowan & Partners and they were making a study of traffic in towns. The projection they were making for car ownership for the year 2000 was almost absolutely on the nose. The amount of increase in traffic was right. They also did a series of studies of what would happen to towns and villages throughout Britain if you increased the traffic and catered for that traffic. The whole issue over the last 50 years has been about how much do you cater for the traffic. 


Just after the Second World War, the idea was of how to create efficiencies. A design of Elephant and Castle in 1943 is an extraordinary drawing by big players, Abercrombie and others with the GLA.  And there are motorways which are almost exactly right, the A1M, the M1, the M4, M3, they are all pretty right actually and the M11. Then there is the inner box. This is slightly later, about 1960. The one I find most gripping is the Abercrombie Plan because it is a very respected plan. 


You look at the road and the relationship between roads, the kind of psychology that was going on at the time that these road improvements were being made in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There is a road of four lanes each way with two lanes of service either side for access to the eight lanes. You only get on to that road intermittently around the inner ring road. And the road goes right through the middle of Camden Town, on the edge of Regents Park, down St Johns Wood Road where the cricket ground is. It’s like a combine harvester eight lanes wide going through London. Just the very idea is quite extraordinary.


Of course, what we all know now, is that as you drive these eight lanes all the way through all these nodal points the combine harvester means everything it goes through - Temple, Highgate Village, Regents Park - was all going to go.  Camden Town would have gone, even Holborn would have gone.


The plan for the Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road led eventually to the underpass. Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s they thought was the best option. It puts a clover leaf intersection at Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road which is as big as Spaghetti Junction.


But the plan had a very oddly British thing about it. It said that these roads were to be built as and when it became convenient. You can’t do this kind of thing casually; really you can’t build bits of a motorway, and not very much of this has been built at all. 


There are so many of these town centres that have gone the same way. In Old Street was a place that is now a roundabout. It is in the age of photography where all this happened so we can go back when there are aerial pictures there are street scenes of all these centres that have been treated in the same way throughout London. 


This is the one I know and this is where the Marylebone flyover crosses the Edgware Road now. An earlier photograph shows a man standing right on that spot. It is hard to believe that this got a Civic Trust award in 1964 but that was the climate we were in at that time. As a flyover it is probably one of the better ones. If it was somewhere out in Hertfordshire we would probably all admire it still, but in reality there are probably about 3 acres of this thing that goes above your head. 


Before the flyover there were three cinemas and the Metropol was the largest theatre in central London with 3,500 seats. They were all at a place called Paddington at an intersection. They all went in the lifetime of most people here because it was only some 40 something years ago - quite extraordinary really.


So Archway had in its heart the fear of that kind of climate back in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s post-war and the meaning of car ownership, the freedom to move and the efficiency of London competing with other cities. 


That approach was repeated at nodal points all round London. To understand what people were fearful of and what they thought they were doing then is part of helping understand how to put it back, and I believe that often quite simple moves will achieve that.


I did a lot of work at Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch and the Royal Parks and I observed that when they built the gyratories they marooned the big archway and monuments that were there, and the pedestrians had to go underground simply because gyratories don’t have traffic lights. For a gyratory to work you have to filter continuously. You can’t have continuous filtering and people crossing on pedestrian crossings. But the gyratories became so dense, so beyond everyone’s prediction of traffic usage, that they had to introduce traffic lights.


At that point the Royal Parks and myself argued and campaigned with Westminster and the GLA that now was the time to start to put back surface pedestrian crossings and eliminate all the underpasses. The underpasses were there because these were gyratories and because you had to have continuous filtering. So we campaigned with Westminster for surface crossings instead of railings which prevented you from crossing the street. 


As soon as we put pedestrian crossings in on the surface the lower part of Edgware Road, which was mainly Lebanese, Middle Eastern people, they all started crossing and the shops then started moving in and it was astonishing to see visually the community connection that happened in people’s minds as soon as they were crossing on the surface. You realised what a barrier there had been before that had happened. 


It is still very difficult to put Paddington back. Before the flyover to the M40 there was a town hall here, a church, a children’s hospital, alms houses. The hospital moved and became St Mary’s. The green which was Paddington Green a very famous old green from mediaeval times was reduced by 50%.

Can you imagine if that happened today?  This was in 1961 or something. 


When the Westway was brought in, the whole of the Marylebone/Euston Road was declared a through road. I’ve been doing work with students at Westminster and UCL on how much traffic there actually is on this through road and we worked out there are 10 times more people walking on the Marylebone/Euston Road than there are in the cars.  But in terms of surface the proportions are the other way around. If you look at the time the traffic is allowed to go through at the traffic light and the time the pedestrians are allowed, you realise pedestrians are allowed about 10% of the time as well.


It is by using these arguments that we have made considerable gains on just simple traffic logic at Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch Corner, and along the Marylebone/Euston Road, by saying there are more people waiting standing in the road than there are getting through the traffic.


Swiss Cottage is a gyratory. Hammersmith disappeared under the gyratory and has moved to King Street. South Kensington is the most extraordinary figure of eight gyratory. You could do a quite good grand prix round there. Vauxhall is just totally demolished, and so on. 


Archway is what we call a ‘lost town’. This is utterly wrong in many senses because it is still here but it doesn’t look as though it is still here. So we thought it could be interesting to look at which have survived and which haven’t.  Swiss Cottage are now beginning to rebuild their town centre.  Highbury Corner and Old Street have plans to get rid of the round-about. One of the most interesting ones is Aldgate. 


This is happening all over London. There are people saying that there are more people walking and local communities saying that those pioneers of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s were designing for people travelling through their place and not for them so they need to take their place back. And they can argue that with traffic logic and particularly argue pedestrian movement logic.


I mentioned the Paddington study and we have also been looking at where the Tottenham Court Road meets the Euston Road. We’ve now got TfL to agree for pedestrian crossings at two points to help the north-south permeability, which they’re building at the moment.


We have had extraordinary arguments in order to get them. One issue was the proximity of the crossing to the tunnel. We said why can’t we put a pedestrian crossing there, because our traffic engineers tell us that as you come out of the underpass there is enough time at 30 mph to see people crossing. The reply from the police was “no actually we’ve recorded people coming out of the underpass at 60/70 mph, particularly when it’s quieter later on. At that speed they wouldn’t have time to stop when they’re coming up the brow and see a pedestrian crossing.”  To which we replied that isn’t it illegal to travel at that speed.  “But we can’t stop them.”  “But if there were flashing lights and so on and you could have a command saying you are now exceeding the speed limit, cameras flash and the drivers slow down.” They said, “We can’t to do that because we haven’t got the money unless there’s been an accident.” 


Well fortunately or unfortunately somebody came off a motorbike travelling at 60 mph only a few weeks later and injured themselves very severely. The police said, “Aaah, now we can take action”. And now we can get our two pedestrian crossings.


This is an interesting lesson which all of these nodal points can learn from.  You can look at these intersections from logic rather than from traffic. Then if you’ve got the right traffic engineers, if you’ve got people to help you on your side, it’s almost like having two lawyers. You need your own traffic engineers to argue against those that are going by the rule book.


At the Marylebone/Euston Road underpass the first point I felt I should make is that the underpass doesn’t do anything. You stand round looking at something that someone spent huge amounts of money on in 1962, but you can’t increase the hydraulic flow of a road by making one bit of it wider. It’s a bit like making a bit of your hosepipe fatter and the rest is thin.  It doesn’t work.


Of course, the original plan was that there would be underpasses all along here.  As Abercrombie said that this plan should be implemented if convenient. Of course, they only put it in there. The reason its there is because property developers to the north paid for it as planning gain back in the 1960s. It was the only bit that was implemented. So the actual underpass at Euston Road doesn’t do anything.


And when the underpass was built it was then handed over to no doubt junior traffic engineers of the time. There are still wonderful traffic engineers today to help us, including on this project, but given this piece of tarmac to play with the engineers said that the buses should travel at 30 mph round the corner so that they don’t have to slow down and can keep to their business plan. So the layout is based on pavement curves wide enough to suit the buses.  


As soon as you have the curve going like that instead of the right angle you get everywhere else you separate the pedestrians much further and as a result the layout here includes 17 crossings. You just look further down the road to Baker Street there are six that do the same job.


So we said why don’t you design the other way round? So what we did, we designed for the pedestrians first. Most traffic schemes after the ‘60s and ‘70s designed the traffic and then put the town back around it. They designed schemes from their ideal rule book of traffic travelling at a certain speed and even little things, like a vent tower that could easily be moved, but they said not to move it, so they built round it. 


So we designed for pedestrians. There’s a tube station here at Warren Street, there’s a hospital there, there are two big developments of housing either side, there’s a lot of people passing here.  A lot of people are going to be at the tube station crossing. Why don’t we do the tightest crossing we can do based on Baker Street and elsewhere and let’s go in dead straight lines across. There are no islands to hold you, no pens - I love that traffic engineer’s name, ‘pedestrian pens’. Let’s bridge over the top of some of the underpass and see what we end up with and then give that to the traffic engineers and say right we went first this time, you go second.  Does it work? 


And they came back and said it works every bit as efficiently. We said that’s because it’s much tighter.  Because at the moment there’s so much going on it’s inefficient and our scheme works better. It also gained us an acre of land.  We’re not quite sure what to do with it. We thought maybe we’d extend the tube station, concourse, hospital, perhaps even a park. 


We did initially look at closing the underpass.  The problem there is, closing the underpass would have cost us £25 - £26 million. Doing our scheme costs £6 or £7 million and so it is now going to go ahead.  Some of the money is coming from Section 106, some of the money is coming from TfL, a bit from Camden and others should chip in.


It has been shown that if you have advertising on these spaces the whole thing could cost nothing - it could be paid for privately. I think this is quite interesting. As well as a lot of traffic there are also some good advertising positions. If you start off designing for pedestrians perhaps the community could design their own advertisings so it’s their kind of advertising, and they could get the whole thing for nothing. 


Designing for pedestrians first and then putting the traffic back in is a different way round from what anyone has done in London before or large cities. We are now looking at a similar way in Paddington and Swiss Cottage and we’re looking at Camden.


Sometimes, surprisingly in these schemes there are further possible improvements. The as at Euston Road/Tottenham Court Road also allows them to make Tottenham Court Road two-way and Gower Street two-way, which is an additional part of that scheme. It can’t be done immediately because St Giles Circus at the other end of Tottenham Court Road is such a mess that we have to sort that out so that the two-way traffic can get round there. That was a scheme done at the same time, contemporaneously with the Euston underpass. Undoing these knots is happening all round London.


So this is my message today. You are not on your own. There’s a lot of it going on and I think the idea of people and communities taking charge of their own bit of road territory is a fantastic piece of place making and it’s putting back very often what was there before.

bottom of page