Crossrail western tunnels
Tunnels under construction for the Crossrail route
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There has been much talk recently about big projects and the need to recapture the heroic Victorian spirit when addressing future infrastructure needs in London, and the UK. In my view, there is often a fundamental misreading of these Victorian times, driven by the additional misreading of the country’s post-industrial position in the world.

Britain’s infrastructure genius was in adapting, incrementally and pragmatically, the benefits of inventions, usually much more than the inventions themselves. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 19th-century engineer, is often raised as a model but, while brilliant, he left a trail of failed applications of his inventions.

His first project (with his father) was the Rotherhithe pedestrian tunnel, which was rescued when it was reused as part of the underground rail network. Then the great Hungerford suspension bridge failed because the town planning concept was flawed. The market at Charing Cross failed to rival Covent Garden – and its ultimate success in Bristol was a triumph, more than anything, of pragmatic reuse. Broad gauge rail was the ideal design, but, like the perfectly designed and conceived Betamax video format, it failed to become a part of the bigger commercial network. It is not the inventive hardware of these or any civil engineering projects on their own, but the software, the town planning integration and their part in the bigger network of systems that were key to what prevailed.

And so it was with all our infrastructure systems networks. Our industrialised water transport of canals and docks were brilliant town planning products of experimentation and step-by-step integration into a network of related patterns of use, reuse and practical application. So it was with rail: London’s mainline stations were originally built as goods stations outside the city core. When it became clear that the main trade was in passengers rather than goods, the answer was to invent the Underground Railway (eventually reusing Brunel’s tunnelling shield from the failed Rotherhithe tunnel). But the Tube grew, and connected, and grew again, and it continues to evolve today with new computerised card ticketing systems. It is still a live and evolving project, with the Victoria, Jubilee and now Crossrail lines all adding to and enriching the existing system.

The “ideal and perfect” design response to the motor car was drawn up by town planner Patrick Abercrombie in the 1940s – an eight-lane, limited access motorway that ran through the centre of Camden Town, Primrose Hill and on through Maida Vale, Paddington and around to Elephant & Castle, destroying inner London in the process.

What was then built? Well, we learnt that the motor car had to be radically tamed to be integrated and adapted to the prevailing town planning realities and we have instead congestion charging, and pedestrianised streets, and investment in the reinvention of the tram, more underground rail, and even cycling revisited and reinvented with rental bicycles as part of a comprehensive, integrated network solution that has evolved pragmatically without grand projects.

China, with 1.3bn people, where my firm has built the world’s two largest (high-speed) railway stations, is only now industrialising and urbanising. But its gross national product is projected to be twice the size of the US’s by 2050. This is not a model for the UK – our infrastructure has matured and integrated into our lives and built fabric. Also, the UK is quite a different model and national scale, and we will no longer be in the big league of China, Brazil and India.

So we need to look at all infrastructure planning as it meets our needs now and in the future. It is about adding to networks that exist. Our airport planning cannot be based on the huge scale of China. Neither can it afford the hit-and-miss experimentation of early UK industrialisation – Brunel’s and many other historic failures are not conceivable in our democratic, historically well settled, post-industrial age.

Closing major airports, building giant new hubs or any other grand gestures must only be considered in the light of looking first at what we have now, and how they can be better utilised, not only within themselves but in the light of a mature existing network of other transport systems in road and rail, and also the addition to these networks of high-speed rail and other considerable rail improvements that will change and rebalance all the potentialities of the total system.

My own conviction is that an evolutionary, networked system approach to our airport capacity will obviate the need for new mega-projects. They never were how we did things, and will be too grandiose and too costly and risky for us now.

All the shortlisted projects brilliantly recognise and apply this bottom-up, dynamic systems approach to city making. Bitcarrier in Madrid uses communication technologies – Bluetooth, WiFi and mobile devices – to manage traffic more effectively, reducing congestion, protecting the environment and improving quality of life. The Vélib’ self-service bicycle system in Paris uses old technology (the bike) and integrates and re-charges it to create a collective yet individual form of transport.

Riverpark Farm in New York expands a growing movement in urban agriculture, reinventing with new technologies and reuse of unconventional urban spaces, the relationship between the city’s inhabitants and its food production. And iKhayalami reorganises and enables poor communities by incrementally upgrading the more disadvantaged central urban informal settlements in a way that has global application for the billions of people living in impoverished urban environments.

Sir Terry Farrell is an award-winning British architect

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