What we're about
Upcoming events (1)
We are going to walk from Caledonian Road & Barnsbury Station to West Hampstead Station, tracing the ghostly path of the North Cross Route and in particular the motorway that was projected to link it to Central London: the Camden Town By-Pass.
In the 1960’s the centre of Camden was already largely occupied by transport infrastructure: the Regent’s Canal and its bridges, basins, wharves, and towpaths…and the railways, stations, viaducts, sidings and warehouses.
Clearly mapped out in the Abercrombie Plan in 1943, and considered urgent and necessary in the 1950’s and 60’s, North Cross was planned to use that existing transport infrastructure land as much as possible: there would have been a series of viaducts, flyovers, cuttings, embankments along and around the Regent’s Canal, and a mile-long cut-and-cover tunnel beneath Belsize Park.
It was all quite feasible, and there are other places in London where this model was followed: the DLR extension along the Ravensbourne Valley to Lewisham, and Westway along the Grand Union Canal and railway lines from Paddington to Shepherd's Bush.
The tunnel would have emerged high above Finchley Road and sailed over a free-flowing triple-decker gyratory providing interchange with the A41, filling the entire area now occupied by HOK’s Finchley Road O2 Centre.
Along this trail of narrowly averted destruction (!) we’ll see two modernist social housing projects, the London Borough of Camden’s Maiden Lane and Agar Grove Estates.
Maiden Lane, now regenerated, would not look out of place in a Portuguese hill village!
Agar Grove is being rebuilt in ‘single-decant phases’ to preserve the community, and has been designed to the ‘Passivehaus’ standard, a special specification for housing, which is intended to make it possible for the UK to achieve ‘net zero’, the point when we stop adding to the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere.
And we can explore recent developments along the canal such as AHMM’s Hawley Wharf, which knits the towpaths into the wider circulation network, rather than having them enclosed by continuous walling.
At Camden Square we can observe the camera-monitored single exit from a ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ which is intended to choke off inessential car use but which was implemented before consulting the public and has divided local opinion.
These are the priorities of today’s designers: control of climate change, repairing and repurposing the public realm, and moderating the impact of road traffic.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, in contrast, the equivalent cadre of sensible, intelligent, highly-educated people spent a lot of time planning, down to the last detail, the North Cross Route and an entire network of similar free-flowing, high-speed, grade-separated, limited-access motorways around, and into, Central London…
Most people accepted that the future would be car-based, and that the best way to provide for it was to build high-speed roads. In 1961 the Parker Morris Report (advising the Government on new housing) said: “…by 1980 there will be an average of one car per household in Great Britain. Thus, in less than twenty years’ time, for every car now on the roads of this country there will be three….”
North Cross very nearly got built. Schemes of similar scale and character WERE carried out: in Glasgow, Manchester and Paris. And of course, fragments of a highway network exist in West and East London.
The UK public had no experience of living with high-speed urban motorways. So in the planning stage, there was little opposition. But when Westway opened in 1970, the proposals engendered activism and the project was finally cancelled in 1974.
Ironically, the 30 years of blight and uncertainty caused by expectation of the road interrupted the normal permanent development and maintenance of the area. Its housing and infrastructure deteriorated and property values fell. This admitted the artistic counter-culture, the live music scene and the street markets that led to Camden Town today being London’s fourth biggest tourist attraction, with around a quarter of a million visitors PER WEEK!
The roads lobby did us a favour!