Perspectives Post Pandemic Design

Lessons for post-pandemic public realm design

Associate Partner Sheena Bell explores how the current pandemic could provide an opportunity to adapt and change our towns and cities for the better.

The Cholera epidemic of the 1850s hastened the long-overdue public health improvements needed to deal with London’s growing population and provides valuable lessons today on how our towns and cities might use the current COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to adapt and change for the better.

Back then the urban poor were crammed into crowded and insanitary conditions with raw sewage flowing into the Thames. However Cholera was not selective, rich people were dying as well as the poor and when the great Palace of Westminster in the hot summer of 1858 was clothed in a great stink, MP’s had had enough, no longer could this be neglected; they declared that something must be done!

Working on the current Thames Tideway Super Sewer scheme in central London (with architects Hawkins\Brown, engineers Aecom and contractor Ferrovial Laing O'Rourke for client Tideway), I have come to fully appreciate the brilliance of the visionary engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who was appointed by parliament to sort out the sewage system. Seizing the opportunity, Joseph not only created a new sewage system but also re-profiled the river banks to create elegant, tree-lined embankments for people to take their daily promenade along, as well as creating a covered railway beneath- now of course part of the circle line.

Today, the excess capacity Bazalgette built into the sewer over 150 years ago is exhausted and his work serves as inspiration for the series of spaces being created as part of the new super sewer not just along the river, but actually on it. When completed, Londoners will be able to enjoy what is London’s largest open space, the River Thames, from a new series of platforms literally on the river, enabling them to get close to the water, escape the bustle of the city, enjoy its restorative effects, and even dip a toe in!

Thames Tideway Project in London © Hawkins\Brown
New public spaces along the River Thames © Hawkins\Brown

So, how can we use the opportunities presented by the current crisis, as Bazalgette did 150 years ago, to further accelerate the measures that we know are needed to deal with not only the short-term crisis of COVID but also the looming long-term challenges of climate change?

Over the last few months of lockdown, with social activities and movement restricted, people more than ever have appreciated the green spaces and streets in their local neighbourhoods, the mental respite brought by the joy of walking and safe cycling around the quiet unpolluted streets, with the usual traffic suppressed and bird song finally audible. Many of us do not want to go back to how things were.

At Goldsworth Road in Woking, Gillespies is working with architects JTP and client EcoWorld to develop a scheme that seeks to show a new way of doing things, by transforming the current traffic-dominated drab asphalt street into a true ‘Green Street’ with plenty of space for nature and for people. The landscape design in this scheme is working hard at multiple levels with wide generous paths for people and bikes, encouraging residents in the development - which is located 5 minutes from Woking railway station - to make that shift away from cars for short journeys.

A new green street at Goldsworth Road in Woking © Gillespies

The new Green Street will incorporate quiet spaces for people to sit and rest, as well as playful features for children to balance on and enjoy. A blurring of boundaries between inside and outside space means that ground-floor uses have space to spill outside. Large canopied trees sit within rain gardens planted with naturalistic mixes of grasses and perennials providing shade in summer, habitat for wildlife, and collect run-off from the adjacent hard surfaces. Green walls connect the green at street level up to the podium and roof level gardens and into the wider green infrastructure network along the adjacent railway embankment.

This scheme demonstrates what can be done in even the most unpromising situations. With public awareness of the health issues at the forefront and a real appetite for change amongst the public and politicians, now is the time for design professionals to lead the way and show how we can make the big, long-term changes to our towns and cities we know are so badly needed.