London is one of my favorite cities, for its architecture, art, culture, history, diversity, grit, humour…and I am entirely in love with how all of these come together in its public spaces. I was thinking about the place I love most, an impossible question really, and realized that for me, public space isn’t quite a distinct category of plaza or building or park, but involves the flows along the street connecting them together and making them both accessible to, and used by, a wide variety of people in different ways. To me the city as a network of transportation, walkable streets, plazas, parks, and the unfolding of vistas forms the perfect public space. So I decided to give just taste of how this works in London.
I started at Embankment Gardens. I love parks that are also gardens, combining beauty with grassy spaces to sit and lie in the sun. Even on a day of light rain and sunshine like yesterday, these are full of gorgeous flowers and people: families, groups of friends, elderly couples, young lovers. And the city has recently set up a number of ping pong tables, which were in great demand and produced immense joy and laughter.
Only a minute away you find Embankment Station, across the Thames is Southbank, the Tate Gallery, the London Eye, I could have gone there but they are too shiny and new for me, I like old things. So I turned right and headed up the hill along a narrow street full of people. You pass small lunch places with a wide variety of food and businesses on top, and an array of pubs. They’re a bit dodgy here really, but there are some really nice ones in the area. I could write a whole other blog on the joys of pubs, but we’re about to arrive at the main attraction. You pass alongside St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a beautiful church with some of the most amazing classical concerts you can find, at the top of broad steps that you can always sit on to rest and enjoy the view. Because across the road you come up to the National Gallery
An amazing art gallery. Like most of London’s museums it is free to the public, which allows you to wander in for an hour and wander out again, gradually working your way through the wonders of the world without getting gallery overload. There are plenty of places to sit, eat, and chat outside. And if you turn left you see the square proper.
Always full of people. Loads of places to sit, and more room to stand. Full of tourists and Londoners, a gathering site for marches and protests, and when it’s hot it’s always a pleasure to walk through the fountains. I’m not a huge fan of monumental sculpture, particularly those commemorating military victories, but the lions are immensely well-loved, and add a beautiful sense of play and delight.
There are always people clambering all over them, and personally speaking, there is no better view of London than from their backs! I believe that people should always be encouraged to clamber all over public sculpture, as well as admire it.
The art isn’t only formal here, in galleries or publicly commissioned huge bronze lions. It is also created by London citizens on the street, another of my favorite things, though buskers are far more regulated here than I would like. This is beautiful:
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in chalk, and quite extraordinary. And also in this little area just off to one side of the main square
Another art form and kids doing what they do best without getting harassed, while also fighting obesity in accordance to health mandates, and staying out of trouble. And you turn the corner here and you see another new London initiative
It allows you to rent a bike at any time and for any length of time, picking it up from a variety of locations around central London, and then returning it when done at any other location. It started two weeks ago, and you see people riding them everywhere now, something that makes me very happy. Particularly when they are businessmen in suits.
So for me? The best public spaces are well connected into transportation networks, and open and welcoming to everyone. They encourage you to walk, as much as to sit and enjoy. They are places you can play and interact with strangers. They are places different people can use in different ways. They are not found in isolation in a city, but form part of a walkable network of locations people want to visit: plazas, museums, concert venues, churches, and parks all forming part of the whole. And they are beautiful, if not breathtaking.
From Trafalgar square you can walk along main roads, or get lost in narrow winding lanes. Getting lost is another of my favourite things. Because you stumble across the unexpected, and so my last observation is just on the importance of the unexpected, in combination with colour and tradition, both are sure to bring a smile to anyone.
I even like that the rubbish wasn’t collected (though it will be soon, London is kept very clean!), since contrast adds so much spice to life. But these call boxes are very much still in use, sitting outside of the Bow Street Magistrates Court. A very famous place indeed for any lover of detective stories and police procedurals, and I was ridiculously and geekily excited to run into it, but that’s a whole new blog.