A monument to anti-progress – the Marble Arch Mound and the hubris of the Westminster City Council

By - World Infrastructure Journal

A monument to anti-progress – the Marble Arch Mound and the hubris of the Westminster City Council

The recent unveiling of the 82-foot-high Marble Arch Mound was an unmitigated failure that saw the £2,000,000 tourist attraction, close and issue refunds to its visitors after just three days. However, while the structure’s lack of aesthetic appeal may be the focus of many attacks, the Marble Arch Mound’s dull brown veneer only symbolises a much greater issue.

The opening of the Marble Arch Mound was meant to, in the words of the Westminster City Council, bring a “new and meaningful experience” to London. Situated next to Marble Arch, in the middle of the notoriously difficult to navigate roundabout, the newest addition to London’s West End was meant to solve the issue of Oxford Street’s declining foot traffic. Instead, it has become the subject of mockery across social media, with visitors to the site likening it to “the Teletubbies’ home,” or “7 minutes of work on Minecraft. ” Others have simply described it as “the worst thing [they’ve] done in London. ”

The mound’s creators, Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, intended to create an ultra-modern space coated in lush greenery that could stress “how important it is to add nature to cities to combat climate change. ” Instead, what was delivered was an oddly placed hill that was coated in browning sedum, wilting plants, and scaffolding that cost at least £4.50 to use. While MVRDV have asked the public to “give nature a chance,” claiming that the mound’s appearance will improve as the weather does, the Westminster City Council have already closed the installation and refunded visitors – indicating that, despite their rather coy admission that “elements” of the project were “not yet ready,” they too share the public’s lack of confidence in the project.

The mound itself is part of a larger £150 million pound Oxford Street District (OSD) framework introduced in February which promised “a bold new vision and framework to ensure the successful long-term future for the nation’s high street, as the greenest, smartest, most sustainable District of its kind anywhere in the world,”. It also hoped to “restore the area as the ‘must visit’ destination of choice for domestic and international visitors, when restrictions ease, as well as the place to start, grow and expand businesses. ” Even prior to the pandemic, which saw 17 per cent of shop fronts in the area close, Oxford Street has long had problems with high collision rates and extreme levels of pollution caused by the near constant traffic.

In 2016, when the Mayor of London put forward a plan to pedestrianise the street it was initially welcomed with open arms. Seen as a way to make Oxford Street, a place where one pedestrian is injured every week, “a far safer and more pleasant place to visit,” while also increasing foot traffic to the main under-patronised shops on the street. It initially gained the approval of the Westminster City Council and was set to take place in a piecemeal process that would see all traffic on the road cease by 2020. However, in the summer of 2018, shortly after the local council elections, the Westminster City Council withdrew their support for the project, claiming that it “was clear… that local people [did] not support the pedestrianisation proposals” – despite two public consultations revealing that over 60 per cent of the public was “supporting the project outright or backing the plans with ‘some concerns about certain elements. ’

Without action, Oxford Street’s woes persisted. Shortly after the announcement of the Westminster City Council’s withdrawal, House of Fraser shut it doors on Oxford Street, and more followed as “the nation’s high street” fell further and further out of fashion. After the COVID-19 pandemic, which only further exacerbated the street’s problems, it was clear that action needed to be taken – and thus the OSD framework came into being. Beyond economically stimulating the area, one of the framework’s main goals is to deliver “cleaner air across the District through world class sustainability initiatives to tackle climate change, with a huge greening programme, a pedestrian first approach and zero emission transport network,” echoing many of the same sentiments of the initial 2016 pedestrianisation proposal.

Months later, in June of this year, the council went further and announced that Oxford Circus would be “transformed into two, pedestrian-friendly piazzas” as part of an experimental traffic order (ETO), with Westminster City Council leader Rachael Robathan stating that “there is an urgent need to tackle issues with pedestrian congestion and safety, poor air quality and noise. ” However, given the apparent lack of enthusiasm from locals for the disappearance of vehicles from the street, these plans still fall short of fully giving way to pedestrians. As a result, the OSD framework relies on gimmicks like the “temporary visitor attraction at Marble Arch to be a catalyst for Oxford Street’s climb back to global acclaim and success. ” It is indicative of not only stubborn, city council leadership that understands that you have to “give people a reason to come to [the] area,” but insists that a traffic-free walkable shopping district is no more appealing than a 25-metre-tall mound that costs £4.50 to walk up.

Melvyn Caplan, the Council’s Deputy Leader, is correct in his assessment that the reason why people aren’t going to Oxford Street is because “people are interested in experiences and destinations” . However, if councils refuse to accept that dealing with climate change (and revitalising an urban area) requires the changing of habits, they will have to continue finding ridiculous ways to deliver these 'experiences'.

#WIJInsight #OxfordStreet #MarbleArch #EliotGillings #Transport