Award-winning Leicester Square project "shows power of good landscape" in the public realm

This year's Landscape Institute President's Award scheme, Leicester Square, is an example of how good public realm could be delivered in the future, according to landscape architect Marie Burns.

Leicester Square's West Terrace, showing the ribbon design. Picture: Burns + Nice
Leicester Square's West Terrace, showing the ribbon design. Picture: Burns + Nice

Antisocial behaviour dropped by 40 per cent, and planning applications, rental values and employment numbers all rose after Burns + Nice redesigned the signature square for Westminster Council and a consortium of funders including the square’s landlord, Transport for London, and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

It is clear evidence of the power of good landscape, according to Burns, one half of Burns + Nice, who led the design on the project, working with fellow director Stephen Nice and a wider team at the practice.  

Burns + Nice opened up the square, replacing dark Victorian railings with sinuous "ribbons" of seating and planting and light, reflective fencing.

In choosing Landscape Institute president Sue Illman said the design had transcended the problems of the past and the site through a beautifully conceived piece of utterly modern design, demonstrating how improvements to the quality of the environment could act as a catalyst for change and regeneration.

Burns said: "We’re absolutely delighted, it’s a privilege and it’s good for the client as well."

She said the project had been challenging in terms of the aspirations of the client and other supporters, the impact on residents and visitors and its high profile location and history.

Taking the central William Shakespeare statue as a focal point and keeping in mind where the square was and its function, Burns + Nice went for "a recovery of the square" with the aim to blur the boundaries between the square’s garden and the terraces around each side.

"Previously the railings were very heavy, you couldn’t see over them. When you were looking down the terraces it acted like a complete enclosure. There was no interaction between the gardens and the terraces," Burns said. "We wanted to break that down and we started to incorporate the vocabulary of these blurring lines."

Burns talks of a democratisation of the square where people can enjoy it sitting outside one of the restaurants but also can sit for free in the park area. Part of the brief was to encourage people to move south down the square, thus improving opportunities for businesses on that side.

"It’s a good example of looking at funding for schemes and demonstrating what funding boxes need to be ticked," she said. "You’re creating a vested interest, a collaborative entity.

"It’s difficult to put a value on what the public realm does but there’s been an increasing appreciation of what the public realm does socially and economically. Schemes like Leicester Square can contribute to the debate without a doubt."

The practice is working on several more high profile projects including developing a strategy for Nine Elms Lane, a town centre renewal on Jersey, a reworking of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and a public realm project in Queensway, both in London.

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