Parliament Square in Westminster should be re-designed


The public open space outside the Mother of Parliaments should be re-designed as a place for MPs to talk to constituents and demonstrators. It was filled with protesters on 15th January 2019. This was the day on which the first ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit was lost by 230 votes, the largest such margin in history. The atmosphere was very good-natured with individuals and groups from all over the UK waving flags and trying to persuade each other. Since the debate began after noon, there was plenty of time for MPs to come out of the Palace of Westminster and to show they care by talking to their employers. But the design of the public open space is not very well suited to this purpose. It’s cut about by roads and there’s little space on College Green for flag-wavers to get between the broadcasters and the Houses of Parliament. Trafalgar Square is better suited to events but is at the wrong end of Whitehall. Speakers Corner, in Hyde Park, is now too noisy for the speakers to be heard and attracts small audiences. If the roads on the north and west sides of Parliament Square were closed to traffic (like the north side of Trafalgar Square) it would be a much better space.

This is the oldest public space in London (outside the City). It came into existence when the Palace and Abbey of Westminster were built and was used rather like the bailey of a medieval castle. People coming to the Palace of Westminster gathered in what were then called the Old and New Palace Yards. When Parliament was rebuilt after the great fire of 1834 New Palace Yard became private to the palace. The space to the west, and additional land then occupied by houses, was laid out as Parliament Square. After a demonstration for parliamentary reform in 1866 the Square was redesigned by Charles Barry’s son, and fenced off with railings to stop demos. In 1950-1 it was re-designed as a space open to the public but had little use because of the heavy traffic what became London’s first traffic island. In 2015, when the Cycle Superhighway CS3 was built, pedestrian crossings were made and use of the space increased. With permission from the Metropolitan Police it can be used for demonstrations.

Old Palace Yard became a car park for the House of Lords. It is ugly and the land on the other side of the road, known as College Green, is much used for outside broadcasts because they like to work from glass cabins with a good view of the Houses of Parliament. One possibility for road closures is shown below. What’s needed is a consideration of alternatives and a landscape design competition.

Parliament square design

The public open spaces west of the Houses of Parliament should be designed so that they can used for MPs to meet people (and closed to vehicular traffic about once a month for important events). A design competition is needed to generate ideas.

Landscape competition

The aim of the Parliament Square Landscape Competition would be to make it a better place demonstrations: (1) show how the public open space (which used to be Old Palace Yard and New Place Yard) could be managed when big events are taking place (2) have an eye to future changes to the design of the public open space when the ideas have been ‘road tested’ (3) make the whole area less of a traffic artery and more of the kind of place, as it used to be, where the people meet their rulers (4) give effect to one small step towards direct democracy (5) help make democracy more democratic!

Tom Turner

Posted in landscape architecture, urban design

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