The news that an online petition, Brick Lane, Not Tarmac Lane, had been launched after Tower Hamlets started resurfacing the London street, at a reported cost of £300,000, reminds us to think about what’s under our feet. The current cobbles in Brick Lane are apparently not that old but they’re an integral part of the area’s character.
We need to remember that the spaces between buildings are as important as the structures themselves. Materials like cobbles, pebbles, brick paviours and stone flags, together with the wide variety of laying patterns used, form the plinth on which buildings are set. They contribute to a sense of place, they often respond directly to the local vernacular and, almost certainly, add character. Tarmac can never do that, it simply denotes uniformity and blandness. Yes, issues of safety have to be addressed but isn’t there a danger that in a sea of sameness one becomes less alert to the hazards that may await?
Of course, we’re fortunate in some of what we have. Until the mid eighteenth century the main streets of many towns and cities comprised little more than rammed earth or rounded cobbles. Village roads generally remained horribly dusty and rutted in the heat of summer and awash with mud in winter. Year round, animals were constantly fouling the surface.
What we have to think about is more than replicating the past and preserving heritage, it’s about maintaining and creating places that people want to live. From an historical perspective, English Heritage’s useful streetscape manuals, Streets for All, help to do this by setting out principles of good practice for street management.
It’s worth remembering that the best sustainable developments make use of simple but varied surface textures and colours, generally created with natural materials. These surfaces can be successful in calming traffic and may be used subtlety to delineate different areas. What’s more they’re beautiful, have longevity and take on a life of their own as the patina of age and use works its magic.