INWED20: Reflections on the shaping of London’s streets

The theme for #INWED2020 is Shaping the World. This is the first (of three) of our #INWED20 posts.

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Shaping the world?

Reflections on the shaping of London’s streets

Dana Skelley OBE – Chair of the Brunel Museum Board of Trustees has spent her career as an engineer and leader. She has written this article in celebration of INWED.

I’d like to start by reflecting on the street, the road, the thoroughfare. It is everywhere in our culture. It is more than a place to be or a means of getting from A to B.

It is in literature, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’,

It is in history, ‘All roads lead to Rome’,

It is in music, ‘Penny Lane’…

The important point is that the street, the road, the lane is an important aspect of our cultural consciousness. It is more than just a product or an asset.

Streets and roads are the lifeblood of any city. Used every day, at every time of day: referenced in art, literature, cinema, history, of course the primary purposes are to get to and from work or school, to shop, to do business, to visit, to enjoy all the city has to offer.

They are also the veins and arteries through which goods and services flow to keep the city functioning.

Reflecting on London: working well, streets and roads keep London thriving. But when they are clogged up and overcrowded, the city’s culture, health, economy and environment all suffer.

If we start by looking back at what we have inherited in London to provide some context for the challenges that we meet everyday in the Capital.

The London street network is the result of over 2,000 years of continuous habitation which means that London’s roads are sometimes organic and other times far more organised.

Still traceable today are some of the great paved highways of Roman Britain (A1 for instance), built for moving troops and supplies across the province.

The medieval expansion of the City of London as a major trading and commercial centre resulted in a densely built network of narrow alleys, passages and lanes, crammed with shops, houses and markets.  This medieval pattern gave rise to one of the ancient liveries, the Worshipful Company of Paviors and their responsibilities for the state of the carriageways and hygiene.

Interestingly, London’s drive for commerce first was visible even in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666, when formal plans for rebuilding were rejected in favour of maintaining the mediaeval street pattern to aid rapid reconstruction.

Until 1888, when local authorities were given responsibility for public roads, outside of the Square Mile the infrequent and often ineffective maintenance of highways by parishes meant that major roads were almost impassable much of the time. The massive increase in traffic generated by the Industrial Revolution demanded a much more reliable system. This was partly met by turnpikes that were privately run and financed by tolls collected from users. But the prevalence of horse-drawn vehicles and carts created its own problems, as London’s streets were piled high with manure.

In many respects these problems and solutions are the same we face today – although manure less so…perhaps replaced by pollution from NOX and CO2.

Horse manure certainly was a problem, but not the only pollutant.  The dry London summer of 1858, which was unaffectionately known as the Great Stink, was caused by neglect of the entire street and sanitation system. The River Thames at Westminster was so smelly from human sewage pouring straight into it that the atmosphere in the Houses of Parliament became intolerable.

At this time, the street was a cause of taxation (a penny in the pound to build the new sewer system) and also an inspiration…

It certainly inspired Joseph Bazalgette to put forward a plan for a new sewer flowing from west to east into which all the existing sewage channels would empty, rather than into the river.

He designed the Embankment as we know it. This cultural attraction we experience is much more than a thoroughfare.  The design was driven by needing walls close to the low-water mark and infill of the the area behind. This created space not only for the sewer but also for a road and for the new, partially underground, District Line. Stretches of garden were created along the Embankment, using subsoil and topsoil excavated to build the railway.

Joseph’s sewer network for central London was instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics, while beginning the cleansing of the River Thames. It was also instrumental in the development of a concept and aesthetic of a designed look and feel to street and place that, perhaps, hadn’t been seen since the Romans and their Fora, or great town squares.

London was of course a world leader in infrastructure innovation at this time as reflected by the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ The Brunel Thames Tunnel – the first under water tunnel in the world. In spite of its difficulties during construction, hundreds of thousands of Victorian Londoners flocked to see it when it opened – stunned that they were walking under a river! Under water streets! What next?

Along with other towns and cities, the industrial revolution caused a massive increase in traffic and eventually a shift from horse-drawn vehicles and carts to motor transport. This step change in volume and technology demanded a more reliable system.

We start to see traffic management at the end of 19th century with the introduction of traffic signals – it is worth noting that innovation came at a price here as these signals were gas powered, and during the first installation exploded and killed a policeman.

The increasing dominance of the motor car in the 20th Century led to a step change for road engineering and urban planning whereby strategic planning started to develop. First a notable revised roads plan after World War I, and later Abercrombie’s ambitious citywide reconstruction plans after World War II. However, this approach reached its zenith and decline with the proposed ringways around the capital, planned in the 1960s but abandoned due to local opposition, spiraling costs and the new phenomenon of blight.

Note the response to the technology of the motor car came after the fact – it is always difficult, if not impossible, to predict how technology will eventually roll out in terms of preferred usage. We might think of Uber as a consequence of the military GPS technology that was developed in the nineties…

Following the 1963 Buchanan report ‘Traffic in Towns’ and the work of designers and thinkers, there has been a radical shift in attitudes to roads and placemaking across the capital. Today, we are more conscious of the need to balance the roles of roads as placements of movement and places of social interaction. Again, we must defer to the needs of people and their usage of these spaces and their cultural importance too.

Streets are essential components in the urban fabric, they are places in themselves, they are the most immediate and interactive part of the urban realm and we encounter them every day. Let us now look at the present and what streets are for.

Words such as road (from the Anglo-Saxon ride) suggest movement from one place to another, the word street (from the Latin sternere, meaning to pave) suggests an area for public use but not exclusively devoted to circulation. The street is, by definition, a multi-functional space, providing enclosure and activity as well as movement. Its main functions are:

  • Circulation, for vehicles and pedestrians;
  • Access to buildings, and the provision of light and ventilation for buildings;
  • A route for utilities;
  • Storage space, especially for vehicles;
  • Public space for human interaction and sociability; everything from parades to protests to chance encounters – in other words cultural usage; the stuff of people.

Virtually all streets in urban areas perform all of these functions, and often the balance between them will vary along the length of the street.

One of the main functions of the street is as a conduit for utilities – drainage, water, gas, electricity and telecommunications.

Statutory undertakers have acquired the right to lay their services in the adopted highway, and to dig up the street without the need for planning.

This privilege also extends to above ground installations such as telephone lines and pillar boxes.

With the deregulation of telecommunications in 1987, and the proliferation of cable and IT companies, this places extreme demands on many urban streets.

The street has become the workhorse on which the servicing of towns and cities relies.

These complex relationships sometimes mean compromise.

A small example of this is the telephone box. These assets were once critical to our ability to communicate but now almost everyone has a mobile phone so telephone boxes are often redundant. They are a vestigial structure of the road network and apart from the heritage value placed on the old T series telephone boxes, are more commonly seen as decrepit and neglected; filled with calling cards and the stench of urine.

But, due to legislative rights, getting telecommunications owners to agree to remove a telephone box is nigh on impossible and so many remain; a blight on the streetscape.

Sometimes the congestion levels and street use that we see are within our control and other times they are the result of social and economic factors even at a global level, that have been beyond our ability to plan for.

For instance, over the last ten years there has been a spike in delivery vehicles in central London as more and more people are shopping online and having items sent to their workplaces. London’s problem with online delivery vans isn’t just that there are too many of them. It’s where they are: delivering to people’s workplaces in the city during the day rather than to their homes in the evening.

The advent of Uber has revolutionised the private hire industry but it has also meant that there are more cars on the road, particularly in central London. Neither of these innovations were predicted by planners, and there are sure to be other technological and social revolutions which we won’t be able to predict.

The nature of our city streets has been changing before our very eyes in London to adapt to changing behaviours and consumption and culture – first of all in recent years it has been it has been for the bicycle.

Now of course, it is the Covid_19 pandemic that is impacting on our street environment.

We have seen huge benefits in air quality improvement brought on by lockdown. Towns and cities are looking at ways to accommodate wider footways and more cycle facilities. The future level of use of public transport is unclear, as is the use of the car – the historic development of the car has been influenced by technology – maybe now the focus must be on the user and user needs rather than technological development.

A survey by Systra found that public transport demand could reduce by a fifth following the lifting of restrictions – maybe large scale use of electric scooters would enable many more people to make short trips by an alternative means – but this is one that has yet to be regulated for or guidelines published…

Maybe they will be permitted to use cycle lanes in future.

Either way, the fact of the matter is that streets and roads make up 80% of London’s public space. Traditionally in London more than 80% of all journeys are made entirely by road, and over 90% of all freight is transported this way. This creates a continual challenge for an urban road network that was originally designed for horse and cart. Our streets and roads, and the way we manage them, must respond to these changes.

Spaces and streets outside major transport hubs, such as King’s Cross, are being transformed to create public spaces that act as seamlessly as public squares as they do a major transportation interchange.

How do we position ourselves now and for the future?

There is a growing realisation that we need to change the way we think about our streets – while 20th Century policies focused on the speed of vehicular movement, today we place more significance on safety, health and wellbeing while still permitting the wheels of commerce to function efficiently.

This requires imaginative thinking and approaches to planning. Streets are for people and we all have a right to be safe there. We owe it to present and future generations to create well-designed places that will serve the needs of the local community culturally, commercially and with care.

Experience suggests that many of the street patterns, designs and usage facilities built today will last for, maybe, hundreds of years – streets will always be the arteries and cultural canvas of our communities.

Watch this space (!) for how we plan to transform the Brunel Museum’s outdoor space for the benefit of our community and improve the local cultural canvas…


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