Summary Report by Eric Pisani (MSc student at UCL)
On Friday 22 June, we visited Exhibition Road in South Kensington, a street that runs through the heart of one of London’s most important cultural districts. The street is home to three national museums, Imperial College London, and other major institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society. It has recently undergone an extensive redesign, completed in October 2011, where a ‘single surface’ design approach was applied.
For the walk, we split off into two groups, with mine led by Peter Weeden, the Project Supervisor with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Peter was quick to note that the redesign did not take a complete ‘shared space’ approach (as has been commonly said in the media), but rather creates a single surface– a roadway free of kerbs, changes in level, and formal markings between areas of pedestrian and vehicular traffic (although through subtle visual clues, pedestrians are encouraged to use the west side of the street across most of the length). The design also follows the concept of ‘decluttering’, involving removing excessive street furniture, utilities, and signage from the streetscape to open the space up. The idea seemed to work, as I really noticed the grand architecture of the buildings and had a feeling that I had lots of room to move about. Along the main section of the road, in the absence of formalized crossings, pedestrians can cross at any point, which brings an element of freedom to the street (although you still have to be wary of traffic – the street is not fully pedestrianized)! The ‘X’ shaped pavement pattern almost seems to encourage this.
We learned from Peter about the innovative target cost contract that was used for the project. The contract was based on two figures: a target price and a cap price. The cap was the maximum that would be paid for the work by the authorities. The target was a lower figure that both the contractors and authorities aimed to meet, with financial incentives: if the contractor met the target, savings from the cap are shared equally between the local authority and the contractor, and the same applies for added cost if the target is exceeded, but only up to the cap price. This kind of contract gives certainty about total cost, and shares risks and benefits fairly between involved parties. Peter returned to this point several times along the walk, stating its importance to the project’s success and being delivered on time and on budget. I left with an understanding that good design needs to be coupled with sound implementation strategy in order to be realized effectively.
The visit was very informative, and since I will be including a case study of Exhibition Road in my dissertation on sustainable street design, it was very valuable personally. While I think the redesign undoubtedly creates an improved pedestrian realm and brings an innovative, attractive treatment to an important public space in London, I wonder if the redesign has made positive impacts in terms of sustainability. Has the redesign resulted in a more sustainable place and encouraged sustainable transport? In several areas, it would appear so. The street is heavily used by pedestrians for a range of activities, from passing through to sitting to visiting the attractions. The cafes to the south end are bustling. Street tenants were readily consulted, and were able to influence changes in the design. Accessibility was considered through conversation with the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (although they did force a judicial review of the scheme, arguing the design is unattractive for blind persons). The natural stone setts used are extremely durable, harder than concrete, and don’t require any coating. The unique character of the area, with its nationally important museums and cultural institutions, was highlighted, preserved and enhanced by the quality of the design. There was no net loss of trees. The street design also addresses sustainable transport, most notably walking but also cycling with the three Barclays Cycle Hire stations located along the road and all-day bus service (Route 360).
Peter was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, and was able to answer all of the questions posed to him – except, notably, “What would you have done differently, looking back on the project?” as he believes it was a great success, especially the contract scheme. He said he would have to get back to the person on what could be improved, as nothing came to him on the spot! A question going forward might be how cyclists perceive the street and use it – would the single surface encourage them to use the whole width of the road, potentially conflicting with the large numbers of pedestrians on the west side, or would they stick with car traffic on the east side? On-going monitoring of the scheme’s safety record and perception by blind persons are also some concerns.