Trafalgar Square

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Trafalgar Square – one of the most famous public arenas in the western world. It is one of those names, like the Spanish Steps, the Champs Elysee, St Mark’s Piazza, Piccadilly Circus, Times Square and Central Park, that world travelers knowingly nod their heads at the mere mention, and even non-travelers have heard of. They’re what we might term ‘people places’, where tourists and locals alike flock to use on nice summers days and even grotty winter days alike. They’re famous for being famous – a bit like Kim Karshardian, or perhaps even Rachel Hunter, but with a lot more worthy credit to it’s name.

Trafalgar Square has a fascinating back history – originally the site of the King’s royal Mews for the keeping of the royal falcons, and then later some royal stables attached to a sumptuous palace, before being demolished and made available as a public square, it sits in the centre of the City of Westminster, and is the focus of a number of roads leading to and from the City of London. At the bottom of Trafalgar Square is Whitehall, which leads directly to the Palace of Westminster and the seat of British power for the last thousand years or more. At the top of the Square is the National Gallery, a badly designed and slightly squashed but none-the-less well-attended tourist attraction consisting of one of the world’s greatest collections of art, and home to about many many millions of visitors each year.

Just to one side is St Martin’s Lane, starting off from the ancient church of St Martin in the Fields, one of the really beautiful Wren churches in London that is the model for all of America’s Episcopalian church temples – and interestingly, it is also the church that the Royal family attend whilst the Queen is resident in London. Westminster Abbey is much too drafty – this St Martin’s is nice and homely.

Opposite St Martin’s on the other side of the Square is Canada House, while South Africa House sits nearby the church, and New Zealand House is just out of the square, but still visible – towering above the rooftops courtesy of RMJM’s 1960s modernist design. In the centre of course stands Admiral Nelson on his tall elegant column, surrounded by 4 giant bronze lions, and flanked by pools and fountains. This square is the centre not just of the Commonwealth, but of Royalty, Art, and History as well.

The point we’re making here is that Trafalgar Square is at the centre of it all in London – and for the last few hundred years, it has been surrounded by traffic in a whirling storm of cars and buses, non stop and bumper to bumper, except in the case of civil unrest, such as the Poll Tax riots, when the Police tried to corner protesters in the Square – only with so many side roads, the crowd seeped out of the Square and up into the nearby West End shops.

Typically however, in the dying days of the last millennium, tourists would pour out of the National Gallery, and get promptly nearly run over by a bus or a taxi while trying to cross the road to gain access to Trafalgar Square, to feed the pesky pigeons or sit on the giant lions’ backs. Despite an outpouring of thousands of people each day wanting to gain access to the centre, a steady stream of traffic from the 3-4 lanes of cars circling the perimeter made the Square inhospitable and one of the most unfriendly places to be in the whole city: in effect, the square had become nothing more than a giant traffic island in the middle of a large municipal roundabout.

A place only to feed the pigeons – the flying rats of the sky – and breathe in petrol fumes. But what could be done? The needs of the city and the cars of its citizens must come first! There is nothing you can do about a roundabout – traffic MUST Go Round!

Not necessarily so, it seems. In the late 1990s Sir Norman Foster started a project called “World Squares for All”, which involved looking at prominent pieces of pedestrian real estate, such as Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square. Foster and Partners were concerned that the rights of traffic was always coming first, and that it was time to fight back against the traffic planners, and start planning for pedestrian rights instead. Extensive design options were looked at for a number of months, to see what would happen when one side was blocked off from traffic.

A London university school of Architecture, the Bartlett, had developed a spatial planning software tool using a process called Space Syntax, and the traffic flows were analysed and connection paths established.

It was established that if connections could be increased into and across the Square, not only would the tourist pedestrian experience improve, but amazingly, so would the traffic flow too.

After a couple of years of planning, including smoothing things over with over 200 user groups such as the Taxi Federation, London Transport, the Pigeon Fanciers Group, etc, something radical was achieved: the stopping of the Right Royal Roundabout. For the first time in over 300 years, traffic was blocked off from the northern end, outside the National Gallery, and tourists and Londoners alike were allowed to walk freely into Trafalgar Square.

So: what was gained? It has been a fantastic result. Less corners, less intersections, equaled less traffic congestion. Less roads equaled less cars, and conversely, more people space. Less pigeons equals less mess, but that’s not the real reason they banned feeding pigeons in the park. Most of all, more space for people and more public parks for people, equals a far more enjoyable experience for all concerned.


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4 Responses to “Trafalgar Square”

  1. Guy Says:

    I remember the day that it was announced that this scheme would go ahead – the press was still very skeptical that such a thing could work – I suggested to David Rosenberg, the young architect running the project, that we rush down to Trafalgar Square that night and start coneing off the traffic. Of course nothing works quite that fast in the traffic management world, but when it eventually did happen, I think people were amazed that it worked as well and as smoothly as it did.

  2. tomek Says:

    What an awesome post. Thanks for spending the time to write about this. If closing off roads is good enough for London is sure is good enough for good ol’ Wellington.

    I was quite disappointed when I visited the works at lower Cuba Street recently and discovered a forest of signal post and pillars at the intersection with Wakefield St. It would have been so much cheaper to continue the paving across to the other side of Wakefield and change the speed limit from MFC to Victoria St down to 40kph. No light would be necessary and there would be some nice continuity inviting people to cross the road. As it is the Civic Square is still an island with no bridges.

    cheers,
    -tomek

  3. loihoang Says:

    Please let me know how many Lion Statues located at Trafalgar Square. Thanks.

  4. Guy Says:

    Four. Why do you ask?

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