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Over the next couple of weeks we intend to publish most of the articles and reviews from the 2020 issue of the Journal of the London Society here on the blog.

You can find out how to get a print copy of the Journal here - we are still mailing them out even during the lockdown.

Here, London Society Chairman Peter Murray introduces our headline theme for 2020: Public. Given the 'social distancing' rules this might seem desperately ironic, but our public space and the way Londoners interact as a community or communities will be vital to the immediate crisis and our recovery from it.

In the hundred years or so since the London Society was founded, attitudes to cities and city-making have changed. Back in 1912, cities were seen as formal constructs, elegant streets, vistas and a hierarchy of buildings. One of our founding fathers, Sir Edwin Lutyens, masterplanned New Delhi, the epitome of the city beautiful with magnificent buildings and a vision that was permanent and unchanging; a vision that went back to the Renaissance, and to the Greeks before that. The Modern Movement of the 20th century was no less formal. Cities were designed to a different scale to cater for the motor car but were essentially arrangements of civic-scale buildings connected by roads – look at Canberra, Brasilia, or post-war housing estates.

In contrast, listen to today’s planners talking about cities. ‘Cities are for people,’ is their opening cry. This change in attitude has its roots in Greenwich Village in New York where Jane Jacobs famously stopped Robert Moses from building the Lower Manhattan Expressway. People-focused planning was championed by Denmark’s Jan Gehl who helped to transform Copenhagen into one of the most liveable cities in the world and has advised many others on how they might improve the quality of their streets and spaces.

We speak now about the spaces between the buildings being as important as the buildings themselves and there is a widely held view that we need to reduce the dominance of the motor car in the city. A central plank of Sadiq Khan’s London Plan is his Healthy Streets policy, which looks to increase the numbers of people walking, cycling and using public transport. Getting people to give up their cars is not easy: recent news that the increase in SUVs is negating any air quality improvement delivered by electric vehicles is truly alarming.

As our attitudes to the design of cities have changed so has decision-making. The esteemed architect founders of the London Society such as Aston Webb and Arthur Beresford Pite headed an elitist profession – their words were respected and their recommendations followed with little question. Today we are increasingly democratising the decision-making process. Community consultation and co-creation are the buzzwords of the moment in contrast to the commandments of yesteryear.

This is where the Society’s role in the 21st century lies – by engaging in the discussion around change in the capital and adding its voice to calls for better quality development. It’s a role that is perhaps more complex now than when the Society was founded, when there was a united voice from the establishment Committee;  today we need to reflect a range of viewpoints.

We need to inform and engage, to deliver a programme where those with a voice use it from an informed position. The Society’s Architecture and Planning Schools, as well as the regular diet of talks and visits, mean that our membership understands the issues and enhances their role as citizens. The better informed we are, the better we are able to respond to the issues of the day.

This year’s events theme is on the topic of ‘Public’ - dictionary definition: of or concerning the people as a whole.  It will study the relationship between the city and its citizens, how decision-making involves the people as well as where the provision of public space is real rather than cosmetic and where people are prioritised.

The Mayor has promised a code of conduct on the use of privately-owned publicly-accessible space which can only really impact on new developments. One can only hope that landowners of existing spaces with overzealous controls and security will take note. The Mayor’s policies on streets are also relevant here. Streets are the most important and public stage we have for city life, yet they are dominated by vehicles, polluted, noisy and unsafe. The Healthy Streets approach aims to improve air quality, reduce congestion and help make London greener, healthier and more attractive place to live, work, play and do business.

There are encouraging changes taking place. The transformation of the huge gyratories that once circled central London – Piccadilly/Pall Mall, Gloucester Place/Baker Street, Aldgate, and now Gower Street/Tottenham Court Road – has created more permeable streets, new public spaces and parks and wider pavements. Perhaps the most adventurous authority of all is the City of London where controlling traffic and prioritising the pedestrian is a key part of its future transport strategy. The streets of the Square Mile will be proper public spaces and embody the London Society motto, ‘valuing the past, looking to the future’. The City is hardly larger than it was in the 16th century when most people walked. The plans respond to that history by creating a modern-day public place where people who are pedestrians have priority.

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