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Having never been more important than in the past year, London’s outside spaces are evolving for the better. Patricia Nicol explores the green and pleasant land being created in our streets and meets the people with the big ideas behind it

One of the more eccentric experiences being offered to Londoners this summer is an ascent of Marble Arch Hill. A 25 metre-high staircase festooned in sustainable vegetation, this temporary structure is due to open near Marble Arch, just as England (hopefully) opens up more fully in late June. Playful but purposeful, Westminster Council has commissioned the ‘Hill’ from Dutch super-architect MVRDV in an effort to both draw visitors back to London’s beleaguered shopping districts and rejuvenate an underused heritage site girded by roads.

ith a premium on London’s public spaces it will be exhilarating to have a new venue to explore — especially one endorsed at a planning meeting as ‘totally bonkers’. ‘At least for the next year or so, the outside is going to be the new virtual,’ says Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture and founder of the London Festival of Architecture.

When most Londoners think of public space it is as the lungs of the city: south London’s commons; Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill; the 10 Royal Parks including Greenwich Park in the south-east, Richmond Park to the south-west and Hyde Park at the centre. Compared with other ‘mature’ European cities, we are lucky: London has more than 3,000 parks and 47 per cent of the city is classed as ‘green’. Since 2019, it has been a National Park City.

But actually, London’s greatest expanse of public space is our streets and it is on them where the pandemic has spurred a quiet revolution. Over the past year, urban planners have seized the opportunity of most people working from home to fast-track long-term, environmentally driven plans. They have put in 100km of cycle ways; widened many pavements; pedestrianised areas to create ‘mini-Hollands’ and introduced (often controversial) low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Certain schemes are short-term responses to social-distancing measures or experimental pilots taking advantage of temporary traffic patterns. However, some of the biggest plans, such as the pedestrian-first proposals for Oxford Circus and Bank Junction, reflect a fundamental shift in attitudes.

All the marbles: Westminster Council’s Marble Arch Hill installation, off Oxford
Street

“the last year has underlined how important open and green space is as a public good”

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“Lots of different kinds of people can use the same space but keep a distance from each other; a balance of conviviality and co-existence”

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“‘I go out at the weekend and it’s fantastic to see — like Barcelona!”

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