The road to chaos
Strolling around South Kensington recently, I came across Egerton Crescent, close by the Tube station. It was like walking back in time. Here was the London street as it used to be: York paving stones, well-worn, little or no street furniture, simple street-lighting.This was the sort of discreet, unfussy elegance for which all Britain's streets were once famous.
Unfortunately, simplicity and utility are qualities which have all but disappeared in recent years. Future historians of public taste will wonder how our streets descended into their current jumbled mess with almost no public comment.
Britain's once-elegant streets are now blighted by forests of enormous and multicoloured street signs carrying instructions to motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, the disabled, tourists, shoppers, dog-owners, lorry, bus and taxi-drivers. Our streets have become multi-textured, multi-patterned, dogs'dinners.
Therefore the new report by English Heritage, Streets For All, is welcome. It sets out to repair some of the damage done to the visual environment in London in particular, though its recommendations go beyond the capital.
While not dealing with the causes of our present malaise, it does identify the problem as having begun about 20 years ago. Those people old enough to remember the '80s will call to mind some of the radical changes which were a regular feature of that era and the effect that these changes had at a purely visual level. The deregulation of public transport for example, led to the proliferation of private bus companies with incongruous liveries replacing the uniform red of London Transport. While the red telephone box survived the privatisation of telecommunications, it did lead to a jumble of rival booths appearing on the streets, all with their own clashing colours and designs.So the first blow to the visual order could be said to have come from the movement towards deregulation. Instead of wellorganised and managed public services, the street became a free-for-all of competing private interests.
The '90s did not bring a reversal of policy but a complementary movement which appeared to go in the opposite direction. From deregulation to increased regulation - not so much of private companies, but of people's behaviour. Some of the time, the motivation was genuine enough: streets were seen as having been dominated by the motor car for too long, and it was seen to be time to give cyclists and pedestrians a piece of the action.
But the shift in emphasis led to visual chaos. Traffic calming measures, the spread of signs, road humps, speed tables, chicanes, and kerb projections have made an eyesore of large areas of our cities.
Pedestrian guardrails seem to get longer every year, and as the report points out, create not just a hostile barrier between motorist and pedestrian, but act as a prop against which more junk and clutter gathers. Recycling bins, one of the worst polluters of the visual environment, now scar the streets of all cities and towns.
Cycle lanes, which stop as abruptly as they start, must be one of the most irrational concoctions ever inflicted on the streets, their lurid green colour jarring only slightly less than the reddish-brown bus lane. Then there is pedestrianisation, which started in earnest in the late-80s, and which in almost every case manages to make an area both sterile and derelict.
It is these two trends, the deregulation ofwhat should be regulated and the regulation of what should in most cases be left alone, which have led to the terrible visual chaos which has engulfed London and other British streets in recent years.
Streets For All places particular emphasis on questions of design in the restoration of visual order. This emphasis is both its strength and its weakness. Nearly all the design suggestions seem good and sensible.But the problem is not one of design. It is the result of treating the street not as a utility to be managed, but as an excuse for the pursuit of other political and ideological ends.
There is also a dynamic at work in the human-aesthetic dimension.When a road is going in both directions, its movements correspond to the normal ebb and flow of human activity - we go back and forth in our daily lives.A road that only goes in one direction is an absurdity from the human point of view. One-way streets, for example, set up an aggravation between traffic and pedestrian, leading to guardrails, bollards and raised kerbs, which maintains and reinforces the antipathy between the two.
The aesthetic of the road is important.
Form should always be subordinated to the function, or to put it another way, the aesthetic form of the road, pavement and street furniture should reflect its essential nature as much as possible.
We do not need to have every twist and turn of our behaviour signposted - because life is not as difficult as wayfinding consultants would have us believe.
Mark Ryan is the creative director of the Institute of Ideas, tel 020 7269 9220.
Streets for All is a free publication and is available from English Heritage, tel 01793 414910