Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
This week, Transport for London (TfL) approved a plan to pump £25 million into making Silicon Roundabout a safer, more pleasant place to be. But is it enough?
Silicon Roundabout is one of contemporary London’s great success stories. This East London intersection has been one of Europe’s primary start-up germinators since the 1990s, and Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s U.K. offices are all nearby. By night, the sidewalks overflow with crowds en route to new restaurants, bars, and clubs in the neighborhood. This transformation is remarkable given the area’s primary reputation as a godforsaken traffic junction just 20 years ago. But, as a plan approved this week to give the intersection a major overhaul reveals: prestigious or not, Silicon Roundabout is still a massive dump.
If you don’t believe me, then look at the place on Street View. The buildings are largely hideous and they’re all mismatched, even if there is some decent public housing in the back streets. Traffic roars around the roundabout constantly, and the junction is notorious for traffic accidents, 80 percent of which involve pedestrians and cyclists. As for actual attractions, the only places to eat around the intersection itself are two kebab shops that are—whisper it—not really very good. Most cities have banal spots like this, but this is now one of London’s focal points, a 21st-century Piccadilly Circus. That such a place is now considered aspirational to live near says more about London’s insane property market than contemporary aesthetics.
By the end of 2018, this will all have changed. Transport for London (TfL) is set to pump £25 million into making Silicon Roundabout a safer, more pleasant place to be. First of all, the traffic carousel will go, replaced by a broad pedestrian plaza lined with bike-share racks and shaded by birches. The square will be framed with segregated cycle lanes and places for “temporary retail units”—which could mean shops or stalls selling food and coffee. Bus lanes will be widened and remaining road traffic squeezed into a smaller U shape with more restricted turns. In other words, Silicon Roundabout is due to become Silicon U-Bend, a shaded, if still busy, square where people might actually choose to linger.This will improve things, but is it enough? It probably will make the area safer to walk and drive around. As for appearances, the improvements will certainly help the area’s aesthetics catch up with its high land prices. But to me, it all still looks like lipstick on a pig. It’s perhaps inevitable given the area’s fast rise in prestige. Taking a weekend class near Silicon Roundabout in the early 1990s, I found so few shops open I had to make do with a lunch of barbecue peanuts and gum. Barely two years later, I noticed a malodorous late-night dive bar around the corner being featured (ludicrously) in Vogue. Given the speed with which all this happened, it’s not surprising Silicon Roundabout hasn’t yet managed to look as fancy as it actually is. This makeover will certainly tidy things up, but Londoners should steel themselves for a few more years of tourists leaving the Tube at Old Street and asking, “Is this really it?”