Create Streets is a vital think tank and social enterprise that was founded three years ago. It puts forward the basic idea that new homes should be beautiful – rather than units in brutalist concrete blocks. This is not merely a laudable objective in itself. It is also a means to make it acceptable for the new housing to be built that is so strongly needed. However in their latest work Create Streets offers some thoughts on the sort of streets where such homes should be located. They propose that we should have boulevards in London.

The point of a boulevard is that while it allows people to get from A to B it is also a nice place to be in itself. Transport for London claim that they are all for it:

“Successful city hubs/boulevards should provide vibrant focal points for business and culture. They should reduce the impact of high traffic volumes while accommodating high pedestrian flows, bus access and essential traffic.”

But do TfL really grasp the point about beauty? Create Streets have doubts:

“Paris is famous for its boulevards, which also feature midrise housing that gives central Paris a very high density. However, the boulevard as defined by TfL doesn’t always quite measure up. Some of the examples of boulevards in London they give are Euston Road, Kingston Town Centre and Elephant and Castle. These are very important for transport, but potentially also destinations, and places to live, love and admire in themselves. Are they serving that role at present? And why not ‘upgrade’ miles of arterial road into boulevards? It may not be possible everywhere but, we believe, it will be possible quite a lot.”

The authors, Kieran Toms and Nicholas Boys Smith, add that “the potential for more homes, more height, for more flats above shops, more sense of place is clearly non trivial.” 

There is inevitably a friction with making arterial roads into boulevards and the volume of traffic they can cope with.

“Many roads that once could have been described as boulevards are now very different. Finchley Road in north London is one. As these photos of the road in the mid-1960s and in 2016 show, it used to have a very different feel even 50 years ago. Now, instead of the large, wide, attractive pavements of the past, the carriageway has been widened and more and more traffic lanes have been put in. The constant and dominating roar of traffic overshadows any other interesting aspect of the street. As multiple research demonstrates overly heavy traffic can have a major impact on community cohesion.

“We can see that even roads that might qualify as London boulevards tend to lack any real place-making infrastructure or characteristics. 2016’s Finchley Road, despite the retention of the architecturally striking facades, is not a particularly desirable place to live. However, the housing pressure in London means that a place like Finchley Road could still be vulnerable to a new development that could drastically alter the existing qualities of the street (the red-brick upper storeys) without tackling the actual problem of the street, namely the erosion of the attraction of Finchley road as a place to be on the ground level and in the road.”

Planting more street trees is one way of making a difference:

“As Boris Johnson rightly recognised, street trees are a wellbeing and city micro-climate ‘no brainer’. Evidence links their presence to safer-driving, fewer accidents and better air quality. They moderate heating and cooling energy use. And people aesthetically prefer streets with trees in them. Above all, and perhaps astonishingly in the complexity of human life, street trees have a measurable effect on human health even taking into account income, age and education. Our forthcoming report, The Wellbeing of Place, will provide an up to date summary of the evidence. Recently London has been planting far more trees – the Greater London Authority alone has supported the planting of 20,000 over the last eight years, possibly one of Mayor Johnson’s greatest and least appreciated achievements. But there is far more that could and should be done. Traffic engineers often dislike trees along busy roads. Sometimes with good reason; often without. Based on a quick scan London’s arterial roads will need and could take many thousands more if they are to be places to be and to live as well as places to travel through.”

Narrower roads would be difficult. Taking out a lane of traffic to allow for trees to be grown along the middle of the road or for wider pavements or modest tram schemes would be contentious.

Once answer may be for more traffic to go along tunnels – for instance along Park Lane or replacing the Hammersmith Flyover and a stretch of the Great West Road with a tunnel.

The report adds:

“Ultimately a debate would need to be had about the future of our streets: what are they for? Although boulevards have an important movement function, in the 21st century we could be changing the way we think about movement. Boulevards will not be able to prioritise the car above everything else. Where possible (it won’t be everywhere of course) trams, cycle lanes and express buses should dominate the movement function of these boulevards, along with ample pedestrian space, both for purposeful journeys and more leisurely meandering in a pleasant urban environment for the people who will live there.

“To do this we would need to think more strategically about what goes on under our roads. Urban Design Group Director Robert Huxford, speaking at a recent Energy Utilities Industry Conference, has called for a better design and management of the space underneath our streets. Huxford pointed out the wastefulness of the current practice: at the moment the approach is “taking a sophisticated and complex array of high pressure gas pipes, high tension cables, coaxial cables, copper wire; optical fibre, water mains and distribution pipes, and numerous connections to properties; burying them in soil, then sealing them in with a surface that is supposed to bear the weight of a 40 tonne heavy goods vehicle, and then when something goes wrong just digging everything up again.”

“This means that streets are being permanently dug up, which impacts on our ability to make high quality street surfaces – for one thing the financial cost grows. Huxford believes that we could look to the Georgian era as a model. Back then, town-houses and streets were designed as one, with utilities designed-in. Some of the biggest costs of implementing Trams, for example, come from moving utilities around. But we can also look elsewhere not only in time but in space: in Barcelona they have a series of underground waste disposal systems, in Copenhagen integrated drainage A more strategic longer term approach to this important but often overlooked element of our streets could bring multiple benefits.”

This is difficult territory for Conservatives with our values of individual freedom and aspiration. We champion home ownership, traditional architecture and the community spirit that goes with it and also the independence of private transport. We want people to have attractive homes to live in. We also want people to be able to drive about without getting stuck in jams. Then wouldn’t it be more congenial to drive through a boulevard than a concrete jungle?

There is some tricky detail to work out. There are interests to be balanced. Costs to be met. But this is an agenda that should be pursued.