Congestion reigns in the City of London. As the district faces a new construction boom and a projected rise in population, how can quality of life be improved for the people who work and live there? Dan Ringelstein, director of SOM’s City Design Practice in London, proposes a way forward.
The City of London—the district known as the Square Mile, or simply “the City”—is the bustling center of commerce in the UK capital. The place where London was founded nearly two millennia ago on the north bank of the River Thames is now a global hub of business and finance. Today, as a new construction boom redraws London’s skyline, the City is undergoing yet another transformation.
This latest wave of development brings greater density — and increased pressure on the City’s already congested roadways. Comfort, health, and well-being for people at street level are under threat. In the streets around the Eastern Cluster, where some of London’s tallest towers are rising cheek by jowl, the daytime population is expected to increase significantly within the next 10 to 15 years.
Now is the time to make smart planning decisions to improve quality of life for the people who work and live here. By using new technology and data to analyze the impact of what we build, we have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the City of London’s future.
In May 2017, we were invited to participate in the City of London “Hackathon,” an ideas competition that brought together design professionals to help solve the district’s congestion problems. SOM teamed up with Meiring Beyers, co-founder of the environmental consultancy Klimaat, and Can Khoo, a data analyst. We combined our expertise — in design, science, and high-performance computing — to create a holistic vision for the City as a vibrant and livable place.
Despite its traffic congestion, one of the great advantages of the Square Mile is that it is very walkable. Its nickname gives an accurate assessment of its dimensions: a compact zone in which it’s quite possible to travel on foot from one end to the other.
Our team was interested in understanding “flow,” a concept that we considered in a broad sense — the passage of people, light, greenery, and air through the city. By optimizing these flows, we can reduce traffic congestion and liberate space for people. At the same time, we can improve quality of life by reducing air pollution and creating a network of green spaces for all Londoners to explore and enjoy.
We can start with five strategies:
1. Rethink Urban Corridors: The Best Space Goes to People
To better understand the City today, we began by mapping and analyzing a representative area of one square kilometer. What we found was surprising. Even at the dense center of London, there is a remarkable amount of unbuilt space. In the zone we surveyed, more than 60% of the ground area is unoccupied by built form, and most of that area comprises streets and pedestrian pavements. Only a small portion (less than 15 percent) of the City is dedicated to parks and open space.
Most of the City’s unbuilt space is dedicated to the movement of vehicles. This is an incredible untapped resource. We believe that the best space should go to people — and we must prioritize the movement of pedestrians and cyclists over trucks, buses, and cars.
London’s congestion charge has already limited the number of private vehicles on the City’s streets. But scores of buses pass through the area, following routes that mirror the Tube network. Very few bus passengers, however, continue their journey through the City on their way to other places in London. By rethinking bus routes and reducing journeys that parallel the Underground lines, we could relieve road congestion in the City and potentially return a remarkable amount of space to the public realm. We could expand paved walkways and even transform certain corridors into fully pedestrianized zones.
2. Move People from Arteries to Capillaries
Most City workers arrive into the core area by either rail or Tube. Four major rail stations and four major tube interchanges serve the City, from which the majority of people can reach their final destination within a five-minute walk.
In the busy major roadways of the City, bus routes, cycling routes, and pedestrian crowds overlap at peak hours. By contrast, its smaller streets and alleys are less used. This is often a question of orientation and wayfinding: many people don’t understand the alternative these meandering backstreets offer for their daily commute. We see an opportunity to improve circulation in the City by redistributing flows of people from congested “arteries” towards the extensive network of narrower “capillaries.”
A coherent wayfinding system would allow pedestrians to better navigate the existing street network. With new and improved signage, we could implement a “Green Alleys and Streets” program to encourage people to use these alternative routes. Potted plants and trees, combined with expanded walkways in certain areas, could also establish a new green network for the City. More intuitive pedestrian corridors would emerge, linking existing parks and public spaces, allowing people to find their way naturally between points of interest.
3: Develop Nimble Transport Alternatives
While pedestrians should take priority, walking should not be the only way to get around. And if major bus routes running through the City could be restructured, a finer-grained transport network could replace bus services to provide inclusive access to the City. In order to reduce road space, we must look ahead to the next generation of transit technology — in particular, the development of “microtransit” systems. Autonomous electric vehicles, shuttles, and minibuses are a few of the possible transit modes nimble enough to negotiate the City’s tight network of streets. These vehicles can easily coexist with bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, offering Londoners a number of choices for mobility.
4. Harness the Power of Data
A wealth of data is routinely collected on every conceivable topic that affects urban life — traffic, noise, pollution, wind, and daylight, to name a few. But rarely are all of these factors considered together. Instead of looking at data sets in isolation, we should look at how these factors combine to affect quality of life. New tools and cloud-based computing power can provide city planners, architects, and public realm designers with a new arsenal of real-time information on dynamic conditions that affect the built environment. We can use this knowledge to inform where, what, and how we build.
5. Design the City’s Microclimate
Empowered with new tools and a more rapid and free flow of information, designers and planners can influence and inform the evolution of the City’s future microclimate. Consider the wind-tunnel effect for example — a common experience on city streets, often made worse when tall buildings are clustered together. With advanced computer modeling, we can predict how the shape and size of a new building will affect wind forces in public places.
But we can look at other factors, too — how much direct sunlight reaches the pavement, how much sky will be visible, and how proposed buildings will alter the experience of the streetscape. And, by combining several layers of information, we can measure the projected “thermal comfort” of an urban space relative to seasonal temperature, exposure to direct sunlight, and the cooling effects of predominant winds.
Using this information during the design process, we can ensure that what we build in the future is finely tuned to the environment. We can also analyze existing urban spaces of comfort to be protected, and retrofit those that don’t perform as well. These new tools can remove the guesswork: we can make confident decisions that will improve urban quality of life.
Planning the Future
Some of these strategies can be implemented now, while others can inform long-range goals. All of them together can improve quality of life in the City. We propose a gradual timeline, starting with “test bed” interventions that can be made in the next five years, in limited zones of the City. Later, these efforts can be expanded more broadly. Eventually, the City of London can become a more livable place that is inviting for workers, visitors, and future residents alike.
While we focused on the City of London as our initial study area for examining these strategies, they can be applied in a much wider context, both in London and beyond. With the tools at hand to build smarter cities, it’s time to build upon what already makes our cities successful. We should embrace urban growth, use advanced strategies to manage increased density, and in doing so, create better places to work and live in the next century.
This vision for the City of London is the product of a collaborative effort. Our team included:
Meiring Beyers, co-founder, Klimaat
Can Khoo, Data Analyst
Mina Hasman, Architect, SOM
Dan Ringelstein, Director, SOM City Design Practice
Philip Enquist, Partner, SOM City Design Practice
Douglas Voigt, Partner, SOM City Design Practice
SOM’s City Design Practice focuses on the biggest challenges that urban areas around the world are facing. Explore more ideas here: