Moving south across the wild border of the river Thames one experiences a peculiar sense of departure. It seems as if the marshes along the south bank that were once a refuge for those escaping the regulations of the medieval city remain the northern half’s alter ego. Whilst the northern river edge presents itself as a rampart, lined with cars, the southern reach is open, accessible, with beaches, walks, and celebratory buildings.
One simple observation is that North London is more densely developed than the south. This has influenced the relationship that towns on both sides of the river have with their public open spaces. The densely packed landlocked towns of north London jostle alongside each other, each with their own centres, characters and identities; separated by brittle edges. Turning a corner from a council estate in Gospel Oak, you enter the haven of Hampstead’s South End Green. Cross a road and you leave the genteel calm of Canonbury for the sleepless Kingsland Road. Stuffed full of facilities, streets, shops, and services, the public spaces of the north are rare and well used; thriving under the pressure of need.
In South London by contrast, one town leads to another, drawn out along roads from which hang social uses, green spaces and shops in series. It is as if the city has become unfolded, like a kind of endless town centre. New Cross stretches along through Deptford, floods around Greenwich and drives on to Woolwich, unbroken by street-bound centres, chunks of industrial estates, or green spaces. The south is quiet, spacious, fluid, open and often estuarine. South Londoners have a perception of living in the countryside within reach of the city that is countered only by the sense that you are elsewhere, in some other place. Parks are quiet, streets are underused, and buildings rarely overlook public spaces.
One of the enduring qualities of London is that its public spaces are not the set piece 'squares' of European cities in which visitors languish, but are an integral part of its movement infrastructure. Streets, roads, highways, lanes, and other linear routes have been established as by-products of servicing the city; whether bringing Romans from town to town, allowing access across soft marshland, rationalising densely packed medieval villages, accommodating Victorian sewers, or throwing concrete highways through, above and below the city.
These spaces have stubbornly remained key influences on the shapes of buildings and on patterns of movement. What has changed is the relationship between these spaces and what has grown around them. The parks, forecourts, islands, parades and precincts that have come about for commercial and recreational reasons have been rebranded as the public realm. Whilst the term is intended to be inclusive, the etymology of the word recalls royal kingdoms and power causes one to reflect on who owns this realm.
For all its repackaging, the public realm is still a condition that has come about rather than been planned, and the generic term does little to explain why public spaces in North London are so different to those in the South.
When you look at the extreme need for space in the north, compared with the surfeit of it in the south, the conundrum is revealed. The south has not yet discovered how to own its spaces and takes them too much for granted, doing little to value woodlands more than golf courses, or to consider the social opportunities of its high streets.
But for all this sense of neutrality and languor there is an opportunity to reuse this extensive public territory, and to re-examine the means by which its parts can be strengthened through new relationships and proximities of uses. It is difficult to think of a more exciting opportunity than that of establishing a recharged southern realm with new roles for long town roads, able to accommodate as many varieties of owners as there are people who need it.