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.
After the attack on London Bridge, a campaign envisions an alternative to concrete barriers that would protect pedestrians and memorialize victims at the same time.
Visit the site of one of London’s recent terrorist attacks and the new safety barriers are unmissable.
Strung across London’s central bridges, these metal and concrete buffers are a grim reminder of the recent violence here, where attackers affiliating themselves with ISIS drove into crowds before attacking passers-by with knives. There could be far worse reminders, of course—these barriers still shield pedestrians from some of the deadly possibilities of vehicular terrorism. But in a city that’s trying to return to normal, people are asking if there isn’t a better way to protect citizens, one that isn’t so stark, harsh-looking, or imposing on daily life.
The barriers have been partly constructed on new bike lanes, reducing the strip’s usable surface by almost half, because they make it impossible to cycle close to the sidewalk. Barriers straddling the entrances to some bridges have seriously snarled bike traffic by creating bottlenecks that cause cycle jams. In a city under siege, obstructing these paths might seem like the ultimate in first-world problems. But London isn’t a city under siege (or at least it’s trying not to be), and cycling deaths on the roads are an all-too-frequent occurrence. It’s definitely worth exploring the possibility that there is some way to reduce the amount of space the barriers use, and to make them look a little less stark and provisional.
That’s why a new citizen campaign led by local activist and musician Liam Flood is proposing a novel solution: replacing the barriers with a reinforced fence lined with planters. Replacing the barriers with a sort of green cordon, which the campaign calls “safety gardens,” would make them altogether more pleasant, creating ribbons of green across the bridges. Such barriers could also act as a form of memorial, responding to the horrors that took place in a way that is neither despairing nor ugly. A string of blossoming plants could be a not-undignified memorial to people who have lost their lives at these sites.
Some questions hang over the idea. Could the safety gardens be installed without cramping the cycle lanes? And how permanent would they be? The latter question is particularly important because the attacks and the rise in vehicular terrorism in general may at some point prompt further questions about the way London’s roads are laid out. With the city still recovering from the attacks, it might be inappropriate to immediately instrumentalize their violence in a debate over road space. A discussion about new ways to further limit motor vehicle access to busy parts of the city center is nonetheless probably on the horizon.
A city where pedestrians and cyclists dominate the road rather than cars is likely to more effectively deter the sort of attacks London has seen recently. Banning motor vehicles is no guarantee of safety—the attacker in Nice last July managed to run people down in an area specially cordoned off for pedestrians enjoying Bastille Day celebrations. But as cities like London adapt their roads to manage the risk of attacks, it’s important that they do not do so at the expense of long-term livability. A cordon of flowering plants protecting pedestrians is a great idea, but maybe a more general rethink of city road space is necessary.