New London Architecture

‘Make no little plans’: Peter Murray addresses City Planning and Transportation Committee on post-COVID recovery

Monday 17 January 2022

A transcript of the speech given by Peter Murray OBE, NLA Curator-in-Chief, at the City of London Planning and Transportation Committee Dinner in January.
Richard Rogers did me the honour of speaking at my installation as Master of the Architects Company a few years ago.  Richard spoke passionately about the compact city, the walking, the humane, the sustainable and healthier city - a city of great and welcoming public spaces.

Obituaries following his death in December recognised how he was instrumental in ensuring these ideas formed a key part of our thinking about the planning of cities in this country - particularly London. 

And in recent years the City of London – it has to be said - has been in forefront of delivering better streets and spaces and better transport strategies. But COVID and net zero mean that we in the built environment sector have to respond with greater urgency,  while politicians have to act with greater courage.

London is a unique city - a polycentric, many-centred city that could have been designed for the post-covid environment.  The Mayor of Paris sees the 15 minute city as the future, we have lots of them already. 90 per cent of Londoners are within ten minutes of their local high street. This means we have resilient neighbourhoods - many of which flourished during lockdown. 

But to remain an attractive and successful place to live, work and visit, London must retain a strong centre. The City and the West End are what make London a global hub.

We should knock on the head any idea that cities are finished! Workers will still be attracted to them to work and make their fortune. Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of this city set the right example - and there were pandemics galore in his day!

The benefits of agglomeration are not lost on companies whether they are big corporates or SMEs. Nor are they on young people. The economist Paul Scott spoke recently at the London Real Estate Forum about the striking rise in what sociologists call ‘assortative mating’. Apparently, marriage partners are now more alike in terms of education and income than they were in the past. If you want to date someone with a similar career and earning potential, then you head for the big city. 
This cohort of younger workers is good news for the financial sector as well as the other growing sectors - the knowledge economy, tech and meds. With the City Property Association, the NLA runs the One City Instagram page which has a massive 83,000 followers, growing at over 1000 a month, consisting of young people interested in what’s happening in the City.

The Square Mile’s resilience is legendary, but it’s not just folk lore, it’s based on fundamentals - of which infrastructure is key. 

The City has good bones: it is well connected - and with the opening of the Elizabeth Line even more so. Before covid over 90 per cent of City workers came by means of active travel  - by public transport, walking and cycling. That is an amazing statistic in comparison with any other major city. City transportation director Bruce McVean, tells me that before omicron, cycle usage was getting up to 95 per cent of what it was before the pandemic.

So people can get here - and we have to hope that TfL’s settlement with the Government will avoid the ‘managed decline’ that transport commissioner Andy Byford fears.

The experience of the return to the office - before omicron put things into reverse - was that people are working here mainly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Now we need to be aware that, if people only increase their home working by one day a week – one day a week - that means 20 per cent fewer coffees sold, 20 per cent fewer lunches 20 per cent less use of those amenities that are essential for a working city. TWaT working means that for four days out of seven, hospitality and retail have hardly any customers.

This has serious repercussions for the City. Restaurants, bars, pubs and retail are an essential part of the attraction of cities. They are places for networking and business as well as relaxation. The Corporation has long encouraged 7-day-a-week trading, but much, much more needs to be done - and quickly.

Now is the time to get more people coming to the City outside normal office hours. This is not so much about generating new development - although I did support the Tulip because of the real benefits it would have brought in terms of visitors - but about the City’s amazing assets - its bones.

The transport system that delivers workers can also bring visitors. The city is compact. It’s a walking city just as it was in the 14th century. Its alleyways are an entrancing way of getting about the City and should be highlighted more through maps and signs and social media.

It has amazing historic bones. St Paul’s, the churches, Livery Halls, Guildhall, the Roman walls and Leadenhall Market. It has a wealth of modern architecture - an unrivalled cultural offering right at its heart. There can be few cities anywhere in the world that has such a concentrated collection of stuff. On top of that it has the Culture Mile, a new Museum of London and a soon to be refurbished Barbican Centre.

Residential is on the periphery and thus avoids the conflicts between visitors and residents that you find, for instance, in somewhere like Soho. So the City is ideal for location for a robust night time economy. This has been a growing area of activity in the city in recent years. It needs to accelerate.
Much work has been and is being done to improve conditions for pedestrians in the City. You have transport strategies that are among the best of any major city centre in the world. But they need speeding up - not the traffic, but the delivery! I know Bank Junction is on its way, but it’s taken over ten years to get this far.
We need to attract more people to enjoy the delights of the Square Mile and support the hospitality and retail offer. It’s the 300th anniversary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren in 2023 and for that the Diocese of London is looking to get the City churches more coordinated and accessible. That could be a massive draw to visitors. Why don’t some of the best Livery Halls open their doors to visitors? The queues around the block in the City during Open House are a sign that there is a huge public interest in the buildings here - old and new.

Why not close off the core of the city to traffic at weekends and fill the streets with pedestrians, cyclists, activity and life? Change your views on street trading. The 2013 Act allowed temporary trading but, and I quote “It remains the view of the Corporation that street trading is generally not suitable within the City.”

Why not? Street food, farmers markets, cheese markets, flower markets have been some of the great successes in recent years – during a bad period for conventional retail. And you’ve got the historic streets for it: Milk Street, Bread Street, Wood Street, Honey Lane, Poultry - alongside the oldest high street in the country.

In 2010 I organised the Cheapside Market as part of the London Festival of Architecture. We had farriers shoeing horses, Masons carving Portland stone, Bricklayers and Tilers building walls and roofs, and we had stalls serving food. There was talk that it might become a regular event but nothing happened. I organised a Barts Fair in Smithfield in 2008. It attracted thousands of people. Why not do that every year? Or even every week. There was the Smithfield Nocturne that moved for a couple of years into the heart of the City and showed how sports events so easily could be integrated into the City at weekends.

Pedestrianise it, put on events, allow activities to take place and people will flock to the City.  And the coffee shops and restaurants that remain stubbornly closed at weekends will open up.

Most are agreed that residential development is inappropriate in the commercial core area of the City. In the Local Plan, housing locations on the periphery are indistinctly defined by circular blobs awaiting ‘windfall’ development. In a plan-led approach as encouraged by the London Plan, you can get rid of the blobs and do more to define locations and scale and you could do more to encourage good quality resi developers to the City. 

There are areas, unsuitable for major office development, that would benefit from more residential - Carter Lane, City West, Botolph – seem to me to be lovely places to live. With the flight to quality in the office market, perhaps the SMEs camped in inefficient spaces in elderly building will gravitate to co-working options returning them to residential use. More residents will help support the amenities of the Square Mile.
Even the 30% of dwellings that are second homes are really important at a time when people are moving out of London looking for more space. One can see an increasing demand for a family home in the country but a place to stay for three or four days a week. If those apartments are also on Air BnB that would attract visitors to activate the weekend economy. 

The NLA is doing its bit too. The City Centre model is a great way to promote the Square Mile and the London Festival of Architecture this year will once again be focused here with multiple events and installation.

I’m chairman of the Temple Bar Trust and we’re taking over Temple Bar in Paternoster Square - the last remaining city gateway to create an education centre - generously supported by the City’s CIL Neighbourhood Fund; it also will be the hall for the Architects Company, a lecture room and dining space. We will be the only Livery Company in Bread Street Ward.

We’re bringing Wren’s jewel of a building back into civic use and branding it as the Gateway to the City – and, working with City Guides, will direct visitors to its cultural riches. A lot of visitors are interested in modern architecture, particularly the City’s tall buildings. Their amenities are great attractors, 20 and 120 Fenchurch Street with their rooftop public spaces have had a noticeable impact on the weekend activity to the east of City. 22 Bishopsgate and the permeable lower floors of 55 and 70 Gracechurch Street will do the same.

In the post-covid environment, the City must welcome everyone - not just the business community. In the post-covid recovery, it must understand the significance of its magnificent heritage, its cultural potential as well as its role as a business centre.  It must recognise the mutual dependency of businesses, livery, the corporation, the residents and the visitors who will create the seven day, mixed-use Square Mile of the future.
So open up the City! Make it come alive at weekends and nightime.

I end with two quotations for members of the Planning and Transportation Committee: 

Daniel Burnham the architect of Chicago said “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big!”

Then, I recommend you take your daily 10,000 steps around the precinct of St Paul’s and look up at the south transept and repeat to yourselves Christopher Wren’s immortal inscription of hope in the face of adversity.


“I shall rise again”

City of London



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