Tales of the City: A pedestrian vision of life

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Isn't there something about the phrase "tree-lined boulevards" that puts us on instant alert? Every time a city planner starts talking about the loveliness of a pedestrianised city, I reach for my Heckler & Koch. Any mention of a London street being transformed into a "promenade" brings me out in hives.

Isn't there something about the phrase "tree-lined boulevards" that puts us on instant alert? Every time a city planner starts talking about the loveliness of a pedestrianised city, I reach for my Heckler & Koch. Any mention of a London street being transformed into a "promenade" brings me out in hives.

So I'm not feeling too well at the news that Ken Livingstone's Transport for London is plotting to re-configure the centre of the Big Smoke into a series of walking zones. Oxford Street will become a series of "public squares" where traffic will give way to tourists. Regent Street will become a pedestrianised "corridor", stretching from the park to Piccadilly. Charing Cross Road will be re-born as a "grand avenue". All these hellish transformations are part of a plan developed by one Jan Gehl, who, having designed Copenhagen's dreary "Walking Street", checked out central London and concluded it was "a maze of obstacles, poor access and overcrowded streets for pedestrians and cyclists, with narrow footpaths, dangerous road crossings and a chronic shortage of seating".

OK, the centre of town isn't perfect. This doesn't mean the answer to its problems is to concrete over the main thoroughfares, bung in some spindly silver birches and tubs of aubretia, and pretend we're living in Cookham Dean. Read my lips, gentlemen. London is a capital city. It is not a village. It is not a bosky dell. It's a big, handsome, thundering great machine of activity, with lots of lovely shops and amusements along its sides for tourists to visit. When did we decide the machine's valves and circuits - that is, its roadways - could be tinkered with and closed off? And when did tourists become more important than the motorists who use the place all year round?

Pedestrianising the north side of Trafalgar Square was a process that took what seemed like years, that screwed up the traffic for miles around, and still reduces one's journey home to a slow crawl around the outskirts of the National Gallery. OK, Regent Street can sometimes seem hellishly full of buses and juggernauts grinding along slowly in the rain; but a Regent Street closed to traffic, its centre re-designed as a soul-deadening Euro-precinct, with steel seats and an off-the-peg arboretum, across which stroll foreign visitors wondering where London's famous "character" has gone? You don't have to be JG Ballard to resent the blandness of modern leisure parks and prefabricated play areas, nor to see that the city has a dirty, honking integrity about it that can't be paved over.

Planners love the idea of "boulevards", and invoke the name of Haussmann, who transformed central Paris into long, wide thoroughfares. But, as anyone who's recently been shopping at the Galeries Lafayette will attest, the Paris boulevards still carry traffic. Pedestrian zones, such as the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, are set well away from the centre of town, and are entirely static enclaves of peace and quiet.

Roads are for getting away down, not for becoming stuck in. Nervous citizens of Russia's former satellite states used to wonder if the lovely wide roads being built in their cities were to make sure there'd be nowhere for the proletariat to take cover when the machine-gun fire started. Conspiracy theorists might wonder why the mayor is so keen on depriving Londoners of roads that go in and out of town...

Oh all right. These are the fumings of a London motorist under another threat from a central authority. If the congestion charge won't keep the blighters out of town (you can hear them saying at City Hall), maybe closing the major roads to traffic will make them think again. Drivers are fed up with the stealthy war that's being waged against us. We think Transport for London should come clean and call itself No Transport For London. We are sick of being treated like pests, intruders, vandals, despoilers of Arcadia. And we're especially sick of the elevation of pedestrians. There are far too many of them cramming out Oxford Street already. Do we want to encourage more by paving the road? You think it's a coincidence that the dictionary defines "pedestrian" as "prosaic, uninspired, flat and commonplace". Is that the kind of London we want?

Dancing fool

I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Cornelius Horan, the former Catholic priest who enjoys disrupting sporting events and predicting the end of the world, often at the same time. He ran on to the track at Silverstone during the Grand Prix last year, and leapt out at the athletes in the men's marathon last Sunday, seizing the front runner, Vanderlei de Lima, and steering him into the crowd. For his pains, Horan got a suspended sentence, and told the Athens court he hoped he would be forgiven on Judgment Day.

Unlike the rest of the court, Horan confidently expects that day to be only a matter of weeks away. When arrested on the marathon track, he was wearing a cardboard breastplate bearing the legend "The Second Coming is Near, Says the Bible". Some people have suggested he is mentally unbalanced. I think they're wrong.

The newspapers describe Horan as wearing "his trademark green beret, a red kilt and green socks". For Heaven's sake. Do they not realise that the former Fr Horan is actually dressed in the garb of a traditional Irish step-dancer? It seems obvious to me that his sporting interventions and Day of Judgment proclamations are merely a mask for his ambitions to join Michael Flatley and his post- Riverdance troupe, a hoppin' and a-leapin' across glamorous arena stages from here to Sydney. Mind you, if God Almighty were to return to Earth, could Mr Flatley stand the competition?

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