Street furniture

Street furniture
City of Westminster
12 February 2007

The job of street furniture is to articulate the space between buildings: all it usually does today is to browbeat everything else in the view.1

So wrote Ian Nairn, observing England’s streets more than 50 years ago. It seems little has changed. Red postboxes and public phones may be the epitome of picture-postcard Englishness, but the country’s streetscapes continue to come under criticism for their excessive signs, obstructive rails, inappropriate lighting and complicated road markings.

In 2004, English Heritage launched a campaign to “save our streets”, ridding them of excessive furniture and making them friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. Working with the Department of Transport, English Heritage published manuals for eight English regions, setting out “principles of good practice in street management”.2 The organisation claims that following these guidelines will “return England’s streets to places where people want to be, where all street users are accommodated and where communities thrive as a result”.3

The campaign is supported by the Nation Federation of Women’s Institutes, who have been encouraging members to conduct audits, analysing which streets they think are the best and worst, and sending their findings to local councillors and newspapers.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England has a similar campaign, Clutter Challenge, which defies local highway authorities to “save the countryside from the creeping urbanisation of excessive signs, road markings and poorly designed street furniture”.4 The scheme has been endorsed by both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party.

English Heritage launched its Save Our Streets campaign on central London’s Great Portland Street. In a report on BBC Breakfast, its chief executive, Simon Thurley, described how the conservation area, with its predominantly Edwardian architecture, had become “a dumping ground”, pointing to a listed fountain, vandalised and surrounded by recycling bins, and John Soane’s Holy Trinity church, obscured by street signs and traffic lights. He laid the blame on Westmister council, who had been able to install this excessive furniture without any need for planning permission.5

The travel-book author Bill Bryson is a commissioner of English Heritage and the national champion of its Save Our Streets campaign. In contrast to his organisation’s sharp criticism of Westminster, Bryson complimented the council of its neighbouring borough Kensington and Chelsea on its redesign of Kensington High Street.6 The council won the Walking and Public Realm award at the London Transport Awards 2005, mainly for this scheme.

The design by Project Centre was praised for the way it has removed excessive clutter, including most guardrails; Terry Farrell described it as “the only properly designed street in the country for generations”.7 Kensington and Chelsea also plans to introduce Dutch-style “shared space” on Exhibition Road, where cars, cycles and pedestrians will cautiously intermingle in a streetscape totally free from obstructions and markings.

Across the river, Southwark council has promised to implement English Heritage’s guidelines, removing superfluous signs and furniture and introducing more stringent criteria for new signage. The council has asked Project Centre to remodel the Walworth Road, giving priority to pedestrians, bikes and public transport.

Westminster is, however, reluctant to make such commitments. New West End Company, a business-led regeneration body, appointed HOK International in 2003 to redesign the streetscape of central London’s entertainment district. Its idea of pedestrianising from Regent’s Park along Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus was welcomed by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, though not by the council.

Westminster did publish a report in October 2005, Vision for the West End, outlining various improvements for “London’s town centre”, before the influx of tourists during the Olympics.8 But these changes are yet to be implemented. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Commenting is closed for this article.