No shortage of planning, but where's the care and imagination?
PUBLISHED: 14:14 23 May 2007 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 September 2010
DAVID REED bemoans Camden's dull street level planning Camden has lots of great things going for it: a lively music scene, many quirky and talented people, several great pubs, and some wonderful parks. But at street level — where we all live — most of Camden is dismal, despite the council s three-year-old bou
Camden has lots of great things going for it: a lively music scene, many quirky and talented people, several great pubs, and some wonderful parks.
But at street level - where we all live - most of Camden is dismal, despite the council's three-year-old boulevard project, aimed at improving matters. There have been some good developments as a result of this work, but a look around the Swiss Cottage/Finchley Road area suggests there is much still to be done.
For example, why does no-one appear to have any responsibility for the planting close to Barclays Bank on the western side of the Finchley Road at Swiss Cottage? For decades this has contained nothing except dumped rubbish, bottles and cans, always with plastic bags hanging in tatters from the few shrubs and stunted trees which have accidentally taken root there?
Or how about the little section on the other side of the road, at the junction of College Crescent and the Finchley Road? At present this is a messy, half-designed triangle of paving and steps containing a phone box - often with its windows kicked in - some sort of electricity or telephone junction box, and a rubbish bin, all randomly positioned in the space, alongside municipal planting distinguished only by its mundane awfulness.
With a tiny amount of thought, this could have been a delightful mini-piazza with a decent seating area and a couple of ornamental trees and shrubs, not the ugly, cluttered little space it is now.
Southwark seems to be able to do better, witness the interesting design of a small open space near my former workplace. Coincidentally, this uses more or less the same materials, but in an interesting way.
The section of Eton Avenue in front of the Central School of Speech and Drama has been disgusting for decades, despite the recent works. It is framed by tatty fencing and overshadowed by the unfinished back-end of an earlier Central School building project, decaying portable buildings (multi-storey!), and even a rusting shipping container!
The school has had a massive shiny new building for over a year now, so there is no justification for these temporary structures. These ugly items have been there for decades - certainly since I moved into Swiss Cottage a quarter of a century ago - how long will it be before they are removed and the area there opened up, with the ugly and tatty fencing removed?
There is a larger issue here: the utter blandness of the space between the Hampstead Theatre and the Central School. We are told that thousands of pounds were spent here, but there is precious little to show for the money.
Leaving aside the awfulness of the outside of the already tired-looking theatre building - and the ridiculously over-designed benches in front of it, suitable only for people with impossibly short legs - the open space is just that: flat, bald and open.
There is not a single element of design evident there, even the road is barely distinguished from the pavements, which is why cars and vans are often parked all over it - coupled with the fact that the entry barrier has been out of action virtually since the area was 'landscaped', or rather paved, since there is no evidence of any thought here beyond the selection of materials.
And even this selection process was abysmal, which is why most of this year the area has been cordoned off, while Camden slowly (oh how slowly!) replaced the broken flagstones with, err, new ones! How long will they last?
The upshot of Camden's failure to repair the entry barrier or restrict parking here is that the area is, once again, becoming little more than a free car and van park - complete with lay-by style smelly snack sellers, or should I say sellers of smelly snacks?
Thanks to this inaction, parking now extends across the whole of the Hampstead Theatre frontage, to both sides of the space between the theatre and the 100 Avenue Road building, and there are cars and vans parked halfway into the Swiss Cottage open space, itself presently fenced off, now that summer is coming!
Will Camden ever improve this? The area will soon rival the M25 for being Europe's largest car and van park!
Camden, it seems, can readily rope off the grass to keep pedestrians in their place, but has done absolutely nothing to keep cars and vans from taking over what little open space is left in the area. Repairing the entry barrier would be a start.
These few examples are part of a wider problem: a failure on the part of the council to require good design in its open spaces. At Swiss Cottage, within a few hundred yards, I have drawn attention to several examples of municipal awfulness. Poor design caused not by any lack of money, but simply because the spaces haven't been designed, merely planned in some dark basement in the council buildings at Kings' Cross, without a single thought aimed at making the areas pleasant to look at or simply walk through.
Sadly, I feel this awfulness is repeated across Camden: too much planning and not enough design.
Look around your locality and, I fear, you will find many similar examples of areas with nothing to distinguish them; Camden is designed for dullness, from start to finish.
It could be better. There are many creative landscape designers, architects and others in NW3. Surely Camden can afford to use some of the local talent to improve the basic appearance of the borough at street level? This is, after all, where we spend much of our time. We deserve better, and it can be done.
Or don't they care?