The highwalks are an island

I originally wrote this as a comment in response to Will Wiles’ post In Praise of Beech Street, but unfortunately comments aren’t working there at the moment. So, with a bit of tweaking, I’ll do the bloggy thing and continue the conversation here instead.

It’s interesting to read Wiles’ enthusiasm for Beech Street because, despite being a huge fan of the Barbican generally, this underpass and the highwalk above currently feel like a failure to me.

He says “the highwalk gets plenty of use”… no, unfortunately, it doesn’t, which I verified on Monday morning. Between 9.30 and 9.35, 83 people walked past me on Beech Street, while from 9.10 to 9.15 only seven people passed me on the highwalk above. For rush hour in the City a rate of around one person a minute doesn’t seem like “plenty of use”. (Whether this is “sad and lonely” as this Oobject post suggests probably depends on one’s frame of mind; I quite like the peace and quiet.)

My flat looks out over Ben Jonson Place (the highwalk in question) and it’s usually empty except for one or two people. I wish this wasn’t the case as I love the idea of the highwalks and would like them to be well-used but currently they don’t seem to work. I think there are three broad, related, reasons why in this case.

First, the Barbican’s highwalks are an island. They join up with few surrounding buildings and these connections are slowly being destroyed as places are redeveloped. Without these connections it becomes a self-enclosed space, not integrated with the City, and so it’s easy to avoid it unless you’re going somewhere within (ie, the Barbican Centre).

Second, it’s time consuming to use the highwalk as a straight replacement for the pavement beneath. Unless the highwalks are a shortcut to your destination it takes longer to use the highwalks. In Beech Street’s case few commuters will want to deal with climbing the gloomy stairs at Barbican tube, navigating past the ugly 1980s(?) Barbican Exhibition Halls tunnel which blocks their west-east passage, and then make their way down the long ramp at the other end.

Third, it takes time to get to know the highwalks. If you have the time, it’s rewarding and interesting and your journey can be much more pleasant than at street level. But I suspect most commuters don’t want to invest the time and make their commute longer. From outside it’s a mysterious place, and hard to represent on maps, so not enough people will experiment on the offchance it gives them a benefit.

So, while I think the highwalks could work, and look wonderful, they’re not useful or attractive to most pedestrians at the moment. The contrasting popularity of Beech Street (in terms of numbers) doesn’t make it better, only easier. It might have interesting lighting and feel all science fiction-y but this doesn’t make it pleasant to use. Paul Mison says it’s “remarkably nice for a traffic-dominated underpass” but this seems like damning with faint praise.

Contrasting to Wiles’ early happy memories of Beech Street, my first memory of it is of emerging from Barbican tube twelve years ago, seeing a gloomy motorway underpass across the road and being glad I was only going to visit a friend in Lauderdale Tower and so didn’t have to venture further within. If I walk through Beech Street I feel a sense of relief as I emerge into the daylight at the other end. It doesn’t feel like a place I’m supposed to be while on foot.

It’s a shame. As I say, I love the highwalks (and have also enjoyed Paris’s raised Promenade Plantee) but at the moment they don’t feel integrated enough into what pedestrians need — too few connections with buildings and pavements — and Beech Street is an example of a highwalk making an existing road much worse for pedestrians than it would otherwise be.


  • I'm sorry that you haven't been able to comment at Spillway - I assure you that vast teams of highly skilled personnel are labouring around the clock to correct the fault.

    Obviously I defer to your superior knowledge of the usage of the Highwalks - your actual survey is easily more authoritative than my vague impression as a sometimes-visitor. As I mentioned in the post, I don't mkind using the underpass, so my experience of the Highwalks is limited to the times I seek them out for an explore.

    It's a pity that Beech Street's charms are elusive for you - I know that I'm in what must be a very small minority for liking the place. But can you be any more specific about what it is you dislike? It seems to me relatively well-lit, the pavements are not too narrow, the ceiling is relatively high. There are not only worse underpasses, there are many worse conventional streets. If my post had any practical purpose (none was originally intended) it was to explore what could make underpasses & highwalks pleasant and exciting experiences by examining what it was that made Beech Street a lively place for me. The potential utility of underpasses and highwalks is so great that I think we have a good deal of interest in exploring why they succeed and why they fail.

  • For me, the problem with Beech Street is that it serves no function other than to get from one end to another. Most streets (certainly, those that are in any way pleasant) have more functions and more to see. There are diversions along the way, more possibilities for changes of plan, windows to look into, people coming in and out of buildings, people sitting outside cafes, people selling papers, traffic parking and pulling away... any kind of street life except people walking in straight lines.

    Everyone entering Beech Street is doing so purely as a means of getting to the other end of the street. There's nothing else to do there and few ways to do something else, other than to turn round and walk back the other way. It's mechanical and requires no brain activity other than avoiding fellow pedestrians.

    This is leaving aside the increased pollution, the lack of daylight, the narrow pavement on the south side, the cars and motorbikes speeding because they've hit a straight bit of road...

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7 Jul 2009 at Twitter

  • 8:27pm: Lying on the sofa, surfing for music between Radio 2 and 6 Music, reading CodeIgniter docs. All is well.
  • 6:48pm: Had I been up to date with my feeds I would have been with the cool @bldgblog kids. Instead I've reached 99.5% completed on this project.
  • 2:56pm: @zzgavin (a) Like I could tell the difference (or care enough), and (b) I don't want to store more useless plastic. Just give me bits.
  • 2:50pm: Doh. Just ordered three albums online. Checked out. Realised I'd ordered "CDs" rather than downloadable music. I have to *wait* to listen?
  • 2:18pm: Somehow managed cycling home -> Vauxhall -> Shoreditch -> home without getting wet. Close.
  • 9:30am: About to head to a meeting on the bike. I predict a soaking on the way home. At least I won't be standing on a plinth when the rain comes.

7 Jul 2009 in Links