Noted architect and author Lance Berlowitz has written a thoughtful and compelling opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun. There was a universal sense of horror and sadness when the Grenfell Tower in London England was consumed by fire with scores of people perishing, unable to leave their apartments. If you follow the BBC or read the British media, this tragedy has shaken the well-meaning direction of doing things faster, cheaper and quicker. The cladding used on the exterior of the building was not fire resistant enough to be approved in Canada under the building code. Using that cladding which appeared to be quite combustible created a small cost savings for this building, but turned out to contribute to this unimaginable disaster.
But Lance Berlowitz, who went to school at the Architectural Association in London points out that ” virtually all of the news images and videos of the recent fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in London were shot from some distance or from the air. There were no views from adjacent streets. This wasn’t just because of public-safety reasons, but something more fundamental: There are no adjacent streets. None.”
And that, Lance notes, contributed to the unfolding fire disaster. “While surrounding areas have a fine-grained traditional street network, Grenfell Tower is at the centre of a large, amorphously shaped area that has no through streets. Bramley Road to the west, Silchester Road to the north, Walmer Road to the east and Treadgold Street to the south define the perimeter of a large swath of city in which streets dare not go. It’s as if the city planners somehow forgot to complete this part of London’s urban street network.”
Lancaster West Housing Estate which forms part of Grenfell Tower was built post war when grid streets were replaced with “a new form of anti-urbanism”. Instead of densifying on a street grid, the opportunity of bombed out areas allowed for a total “renewal” of space, replacing public streets with “pathways, private driveways leading to underground parking garages, and housing complexes surrounded by greensward. Houses no longer faced a public street. Social consequences (and local residents, as it tragically turned out) were damned.”
A street grid provides rhythm and continuity, something that Allan Jacobs, the author of “Great Streets” espouses. The more corners and intersections, the more walkable and lively a street can be. Lance Berlowitz points out that “in all the years I lived next door, I never visited Lancaster West Estate. It felt disorienting, dangerous, physically disconnected from my little corner of London. It turns out that this sense of disconnection and danger was all too tragically real. We all need to learn the real urban-planning lessons from the Grenfell Tower disaster.”