Government is working hard to improve the setting, security and accessibility of ‘Constitutional London’ – the iconic parts of Westminster known to visitors across the world.
So said Dr Janet Young, Government Chief Property Officer at a special breakfast talk on the subject at NLA last week, in association with BCO.
The Government Estate Strategy 2018 published in July aims to improve the experience of those who visit the heart of Westminster, said Young. ‘The main thrust is that the public estate should be for public benefit’, she said, generating value for public benefit and driving growth and opportunity. One of the elements is to release surplus public assets as land for housing, while a locational theme aims to benefit the regions by moving more government jobs outside the capital. But there is also, said Young, an important focus on how buildings are an ‘enabler for productivity and public service’, while landmark buildings tell an important story about democracy to the public.
Public realm in that area - between Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square is of key importance, with action being taken to make it more welcoming, secure and accessible to all, partially as a result of a series of design charrettes held last year between the Cabinet Office and NLA. The Westminster Ceremonial Streetscape project in particular looks at improving the safety of Whitehall and prevention of vehicle-based attacks with temporary barriers that will be replaced by more suitable contextual permanent elements next year, according to Heidi Boutcher, Security Coordinator - Major Events, Metropolitan Police. ‘Three years ago we started looking at how to make security barriers beautiful to match the environment’, she said. ‘We have since engaged with over 200 stakeholders to implement these measures in 27 locations.’
Another key project for the area is the competition-winning Holocaust memorial in Victoria Gardens for which a team including Adjaye Architects and Ron Arad is working on implementation with a planning application. Parliament Square, meanwhile, is also the subject of scrutiny, not least as a place for legitimate protest, an important part of the nation’s make-up.
‘There is a real opportunity for us collectively to demonstrate the positive impact we can make’, said Young, ‘in what’s a really important part of the public realm in London’.
DSDHA director Deborah Saunt was one of the key participants of the two-day workshop involving multiple stakeholders that looked to improve the area for tourists and Londoners alike. ‘It was a really exciting opportunity to stand back with 25 other professionals and look at this extraordinary location in the centre of London’, said Saunt, adding that they were ‘completely outnumbered’ by some 60 stakeholders. The area, described by the Mall, Birdcage Walk and the river was investigated, with a view to ‘detuning’ Parliament Square and giving it back to the people. The group did a great deal of fieldwork walking the area and reporting back to their Admiralty Arch base. The area immersed all the teams, drawing them but also frustrating them, said Saunt, with 700 events taking place every year that need to be safeguarded. It is also a ‘statue saturation area’, said Saunt. Bringing nature and the river together was ‘crucial’, said Saunt, in helping to reorder the public’s perception of getting around the place and make for a more walkable city. ‘We’re looking at making those connections east west but also north south’, said Saunt. Smart technology as used in the Olympics could also aid the traffic scenario, with an idea to create a series of linked public spaces or ‘rooms’ and pause points along Whitehall for when it is most busy, and make Embankment work harder to allow flows of traffic. Finally, more and better wayfinding is also required, with more interpretation. ‘It’s very much a live project and we hope to get some macro benefits’, she said.
An exhibition of the design charrette work is currently on display at the NLA galleries.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly