Last night I attended a talk given by Ben Hamilton-Baillie in Eastbourne. I didn’t really learn very much, because the talk was very similar to the ‘stock’ talk he has presumably given on numerous occasions before – the one you can find in many places on the internet.
He charmed the audience with amusing anecdotes about silly signs, and the general absurdity of our urban environment, with photographs and snippets that have featured heavily in his previous talks. The same case studies featured heavily too – Seven Dials in London, Ashford, Exhibition Road, Poynton, New Road in Brighton, as well as the same thought experiments, like the ‘ice rink’ example.
It was really interesting to see how the people in the room were swept along with his vision for making our towns and cities better places. The videos and photographs of attractively paved streets contrasted starkly with the guard railing, the excess clutter and deeply ugly British streetscapes we are all so familiar with.
In some cases this involved a little sleight of hand. Pictures of the ‘former’ Exhibition Road, where huge numbers of people were crammed on to tiny pavements, hemmed in by guardrails beside a vast expanse of tarmac, were contrasted with the new Exhibition Road. Or rather, with artist visualisations of the new Exhibition Road, in which pedestrians frolic happily across the entire width of the road, and motor traffic is somewhere in the background.
The reality – a carscape, with pedestrians, err, hemmed in at the sides – was not shown.
What is curious is that, as these kinds of examples show, Hamilton-Baillie must be acutely aware that motor traffic makes our streets unpleasant, yet reducing or removing motor traffic never seems to appear as a strategy. In an hour-long talk, there was no mention of actually physically reducing the amount of motor traffic travelling along urban streets. He was even asked, at the end of the talk, what his ‘top criteria’ for the success of urban realm schemes were. He replied that you shouldn’t clutter up your streets with guardrail, or with signalling and posts, and you should avoid using one-way streets, before moving onto general principles of design and organisational skill, and political vision. Mention of removing or reducing motor traffic came there none.
The most telling statement of the evening – for me at least – was
We need to reassess what we have to sacrifice in order to accommodate traffic.
Which begged the obvious question – why continue to accommodate traffic in the first place? Because all the most attractive and pleasant urban streetscapes I know are ones where motor traffic is either non-existent, or greatly reduced – be that at a street level, or across a town or city centre.
We can see this in action on Exhibition Road, where – as I have pointed out before – the pleasant bit to the south of the A4, where through traffic has been cut out, stands in stark contrast to the traffic-filled section to the north. Reducing motor traffic is one of the essential components of creating more attractive urban areas, yet as far as I can tell Hamilton-Baillie never discusses it.
I think this is part of the reason why his strategies are so popular with councils up and down the country – they don’t really involve changing the status quo, at least as far as how journeys are being made is concerned. The street will look nicer, and it will be undoubtedly more pleasant for pedestrians (and probably for people driving too), but the thorny issue of how people are actually travelling within towns is not really tackled. Radical change does not appear to be on the agenda – instead the existing situation is prettified, and made less intolerable, but people will continue to drive around within towns, much as they did before.
Another telling pair of slides that Hamilton-Baillie often uses – and indeed used again last night – are the contrast between an ugly streetscape, full of traffic engineering overkill, and his paradise, where the street is uncluttered, with people mingling with motor traffic.
When I look at these illustrations (which are featured on Hamilton-Baillie’s own site) I can’t help but notice that the way people are travelling about hasn’t changed at all, and indeed that the apparently attractive ‘after’ streetscape is still unpleasantly choked with motor traffic.
Surely in this kind of environment – a public square, in the centre of a town – we should be actively discouraging people from driving, and making the alternatives like walking and cycling the attractive and obvious alternatives? Indeed, striving to create public squares that are not full of private motor cars?
I didn’t get a chance to ask Hamilton-Baillie a question at the end of his talk – there were many other hands up in the audience, and I had to catch a train to get home. I suppose I would have asked him why, when all the ugliness, blight, deaths and injuries he rails against in his talks are the direct result of an excess of motor traffic in our towns, he never talks about tackling the problem at source. It seems an extraordinary oversight.