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Khan's transport strategy should reflect London's polycentric shift

Peter Murray
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London’s development needs to move away from the historically favoured wealthy central core, says NLA chair Peter Murray

London is not just a city of villages, it is also a city of towns. The capital’s many-centred nature is celebrated in a new study by New London Architecture, London’s Towns: Shaping the Polycentric City, which calls on mayor Sadiq Khan to reflect this polycentricity and integrate more orbital transport links in his new Mayoral Transport Strategy.

As urban populations around the world are growing, city planners are moving away from the idea of conurbations focused on a single central core. Sydney, Toronto and Paris are developing mixed-use centres on the periphery. If Khan is to deliver his strategy of ‘good growth’, he needs to do the same.

Historically London’s planning has favoured the wealthy core. Roman roads connected the protected centre of Londinium to the regions. The Victorian railways drove right into the heart of the city, boosting the economy of the core. This radial infrastructure created a pattern of centrist planning that defines the city to this day. The Underground system, except for the Circle Line, reinforced this, turning the outer towns into dormitories. Orbital movement was rarely seen as a priority.

It is essential that transport infrastructure encourages orbital connections as well as radial

More recently, mayoral policies have favoured the centre. Ken Livingstone was nicknamed the Zone One Mayor because of his focus on the central boroughs. Boris Johnson increased the area of the Central Activity Zone (CAZ). All this flies in the face of one of the most dramatic transformations in London’s movement patterns – when the London Overground orbital rail links were linked to connected centres such as Dalston, Canada Water, Peckham, Willesden and Gospel Oak.

London overground as a circle.svg

London overground as a circle.svg

Source: Briantist

Over the last 20 years the edges of the centre have spread. The high cost of accommodation has made outer areas more attractive as places to live and new infrastructure has transformed the viability of new developments. Thus we see major growth taking place in areas like Stratford, Thamesmead, Barking, Croydon, Nine Elms, White City, Hounslow, Ealing, Cricklewood, Haringey and Walthamstow.

As this happens, it is essential that transport infrastructure encourages orbital connections as well as radial. While the private car is the major means of travel in most of outer London, this is likely to change in the future with on-demand bus systems and shared autonomous vehicles and as the mayor encourages Londoners to move to active travel – Khan’s Transport Strategy calls for a major increase in walking and cycling co-ordinated with public transport.

The orbital pattern of Uber trips shows that there is a demand for movement between centres from people who do not own a car. The improvement of cycling infrastructure in outer London will increase bicycle use, while the take-up of electric bikes will encourage people to travel longer distances on two wheels.

Although the centre remains the key economic driver of the capital, developments with a focus on mixed-use neighbourhoods, on placemaking and a reduction in commuting are increasingly significant. In the mayor’s policy document A City for All Londoners, which forms the basis of his revised London Plan to be published on 29 November 29, Khan set out his thinking about ‘planning that intensifies and maximises mixed-use development while retaining the character of existing communities’. It is important that these communities are connected with each other as well as to the centre.

Peter Murray is chair of New London Architecture 

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