Sustaining Exhibition Road’s legacy
Generating an estimated income of up to £1 billion a year for the British economy, Exhibition Road is one of the nation’s foremost cultural and intellectual centres. To ensure the area sustains this reputation, plans are afoot for a radical redesign – a proposal which now looks set to be implemented.
With its world-famous museums, a university and a host of historical buildings the area has been at the cutting edge of the arts, culture and science and technology for more than 150 years.
Conceived as a public space at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the area is now considered to cater poorly for traffic and the demands of the modern visitor.
Although much of the basic layout has remained, it is now dominated by traffic and a poorly functioning one way system around the station which divides the area.
Given the increased numbers of visitors, it is also considered to have an inadequate pedestrian environment.
At just four metres wide the pavements in Exhibition Road are too narrow to accommodate the thousands who make their way to the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History and Science museums every day.
Finally, there is no clear ‘point of entry’ to the area at its southern end, which is unwelcoming and confusing to visitors coming to the area for the first time.
Setting the scene
Changing the layout of the area to create an environment which reflects its international status has long been recognised as a crucial element to sustaining Exhibition Road.
In the mid 1990s an initiative entitled Albertopolis was advanced jointly by the Royal Borough and Westminster Council, which is responsible for the north end of Exhibition Road.
The project, which envisioned an underground pedestrian access costing £100 million floundered because of a lack of available funds.
The Exhibition Way Project, which proposed a large underground visitors’ centre connecting the museums’ basements, also fell by the wayside – the advent of free entry deemed a visitors’ centre, which would sell tickets, superfluous.
Plans took a significant step forward in 2003 when the Mayor of London provided £450,000 to help develop a new project.
The funding enabled the Council, in conjunction with the Greater London Authority and Westminster Council, to invite prominent architects to submit proposals for the area with a view towards selecting a winning design.
The final option
Dixon Jones, the architects responsible for a number of high-profile projects such as the renovation of the National Portrait Gallery and Somerset House, were selected.
The practice, which has a reputation for restrained elegance, designed a scheme based around the concepts of simplified streetscape and shared space.
Elements of that model have been used to great effect at Kensington High Street where the removal of pedestrian barriers has contributed to a considerable reduction in accidents along that stretch of road.
The basic premise of shared space rests on making drivers more aware of their surroundings, thereby lowering traffic speeds in the presence of pedestrians and improving safety.
Dixon Jones’ proposal also includes high quality paving and street furniture, better lighting and more trees and public art.
Bus stops will be moved away from the entrance to the tube station to a centralised location in Thurloe Place.
Funding the deal
In 2005 the project was entered for funding as part of the National Lottery’s Living Landmarks scheme.
Despite being a worthy proposition, Exhibition Road was competing against major projects from across the UK and failed to make the shortlist.
At that point the only way to take the project forward was to break it up into different stages; in September this year the Council’s Cabinet agreed in principle to move forward with this option.
The Council is now placing the £15.48 million cost of the streetscape elements of the scheme within the borough boundary, into its capital programme budget.
On this basis the Council will fund 50 per cent of the cost with work set to start next year.
Long before work on the first phase starts in 2008, the Council aims to enter into negotiations with Transport for London and the London Development Agency with the aim of funding the remaining 50 per cent of the project.
Building a travelator – the second stage of the project – may involve the diversion of underground services.
Though this stage will not be taken forward yet, the Council’s Cabinet is looking at the possibility of diverting services now so that the travelator can be easily installed at a later date; though for now the Cabinet has deferred a decision on such a diversion.
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