March: A Plan for Broad Street

March: A Plan for Broad Street

Experience Oxfordshire, Oxford’s excellent and expert tourism leaders, recently led a discussion on how town works with gown, attracting a mixed audience to reflect this.  It was here that I was asked if OPT was interested in improving Broad Street.  I immediately recalled the rather beautiful publication The Broad Street Plan.  I had already been thinking about it earlier as it was one of Professor Roger Ainsworth’s passions when he was Chair of OPT and his funeral was earlier in the week, a good Oxford man who has died too soon.   So, in memory of Roger, and because the Plan is good, and should happen, I dust it off and re-present it here. 

The Broad Street Plan 2004 was paid for and brought together by people across town and gown, the University, the Broad and Turl Street Colleges, the City and the County Councils, Historic England, the Civic Society and the Market traders. In the final document the Foreword by the Chancellor Sir Chris Patten sits next to a quote from the Chairman of the Covered Market Traders.  

The key to the success of the Plan was the appointment of renowned landscape and urban designer Kim Wilkie, a university alumnus, who loves our great city, and whose charm, talent and commitment not only brought the project to life, but brought everyone along with him. 

Kim spent time understanding the space, and its use.  He recognised the importance of its role in the wider city, how its width gives it a rather grand, discrete appearance and yet, how it forms an integral part of the street and traffic system of the city. 

08 Overlapping lives

The overlapping lives and identities of The Broad

Image:  Kim Wilkie Associates

“Broad Street is an eccentric, dramatic and pivotal space … The architectural and cultural heritage deserves World Status.  The overlap between town, gown and visitor should make it one of the most inclusive parts of the city.  The numbers and variety of people who pass through the street have the potential to create an extraordinary place to meet and to linger. The morning and evening light, micro-climate, unfolding sequence of vistas and links to the rest of the city are all excellent.  Broad Street appears to have everything.  Yet despite these advantages and great potential, Broad Street does not quite work …” 

As a rat-run full of traffic the street was a nightmare, but without any cars or people The Broad became lifeless.”

We started by making a list of stakeholders, and then Kim went to meet them individually, sharing his thoughts, and listening to their concerns as he formed his ideas.  A single good tempered and collaborative meeting with nearly one hundred people brought about a shared vision, resulting in the final Study, which was endorsed by the University and leaders of the County and City Council.

Kim’s idea was simple, a clear, uncluttered space where the architecture can be seen and people can meet, linger and pass through at their own pace. 

  • pave the eastern end of The Broad as the University 'Square' at the head of the sequence of pedestrian spaces from St Mary's to the New Bodleian; 
  • open the empty platform outside the New Bodleian as a south-facing café to animate the new square; 
  • reconnect the western end of The Broad within the framework of the Oxford Transport Strategy; 
  • reduce the accumulated clutter of street markings, paving materials, signs, furniture and lights to produce a clearer and safer sequence of urban spaces, where the architecture can be read and pedestrians can feel comfortable; 
  • replant trees in Parks Road, Holywell Street and surrounding Colleges to lean over into the space and bring green shade without interrupting the architectural or ceremonial sequences of the street. 

Looking again at the recommended Next Steps in the Plan, a number of these did happen, the most significant being the Weston Library. Created by clever architects Wilkinson Eyre, the Weston Library opens up the east end of the street, removing the raised platform. It far exceeds the aspirations in the Plan, and I remember the phone call with Kim when the architects first shared their ideas ‘This is beyond anything we could have hoped for’.  The Bodleian team have also made sure that the street levels at the steps outside can accommodate the ‘University Square’ should this happen in the future. A Broad Street Plans Group was set up with high level influencers across town and gown too.  But Broad Street never quite became the key priority the Oxford Transport Strategy envisaged, and no detailed designs were worked up, with the consents and costings needed to attract funding.

  

I have sent a copy of the Plan to my colleague who raised this last week and I’ll follow up with others, for in the words of the Chancellor Chris Patten “Oxford is one of the great jewels of Europe with a remarkable richness of architecture and urban life united in its streets and public spaces.  Broad Street sits at the very heart of the city … I am struck by the clear simplicity of the concept and (I) look forward to seeing the translation of the plans into action...”