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Unlocking the potential of public space in our West End – a new sense of urgency

Cynthia Grant, Project Director,  New West End Company

London is a most dynamic city, with evolving public realm being very much part of this. Our streets and public spaces not only allow people to get around efficiently and comfortably, but also create a setting for our world famous buildings and monuments.

The space between our capital’s landmarks has been celebrated, hosting a wide range of activity, from street markets to art and culture, al fresco dining and window shopping. It is important to design these spaces to accommodate all of these – sometimes conflicting – activities.

But, against the backdrop of Brexit and the volatile economic climate, there’s a constant need to reinvigorate key areas like the West End. London’s public realm must stay ahead of the game, continually innovating and improving, in order for our capital to retain its competitive edge and attract jobs, prime retail and visitors. The West End’s famed retail sector needs particular support, given a host of pressures, not least business rate increases and changing consumer trends.

WESt exists to support and promote the delivery of better public realm in central London’s key retail, tourist and business districts. Its broad, high-level business membership provides a valuable input on funding proposals, and developing business case justifications.

In 2007, when WESt was set up, pressure on public space meant developers and leading retailers could see both the broader commercial advantages and the inherent value of making central London a better designed place. There was also a significant change in attitude to managing city traffic. Designs re-assessed the pedestrian/vehicle balance on streets, with much more attention being given to walking and cycling.

Retailers, developers, agents, BIDS, and the pioneers of good public realm, the great estates including Crown, Grosvenor, Portman and Howard de Walden, all came together to push for something better. And they found a willingness in the public sector, with Westminster and Camden boroughs, to work in partnership and capitalise on the impetus initially provided by London hosting the 2012 Olympics.

WESt and its partnerships have championed and assisted schemes of all sizes. Legible London, a major strategic intervention, brought coherent and stylish wayfinding to all parts of the city. It sought to make Piccadilly boulevard more human, by taking out the major 1-way traffic systems in Pall Mall and Piccadilly. Westminster City Council was instrumental in delivering these important projects, supported by TfL and the business community.

Building on the success following the Olympics, WESt has since moved on to support other schemes, including the proposals to improve Oxford Street and Marble Arch. Going forward, it aims to encourage, push, support, fundraise and lobby for more vital improvements to our city’s streets under the new chairmanship of Portman Estate’s Bill Moore.

At this evening’s reception, its next phase of projects, selected from an impressive long-list will be announced. We look forward to helping unlock the potential of public realm in these areas.

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