High-walks in the Barbican Estate

At the time when the Barbican estate was being considered, the advantages of separating pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic were seen as among the most important design aspects of the future estate.

High-walks were first proposed in the Holden-Holford proposals in 1947 for the reconstruction of the City.

The enthusiasts were very enthusiastic. According to one Council member, Mr Deputy Alfred:

“Once people were up on the walkways there was no need for them to come down at all – until they wanted to go home”.

Councillor Ernest Link said:

“Young girls could be seen dashing across the traffic in Cheapside – it was a wonder they were not killed. The future would bless the Court if they approved elevated walkways”.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon were sure that high walks would be popular with pedestrians:

“Firstly, it will be pleasant to walk about where others are walking, without having to dodge traffic, on pavements broad enough to accommodate all likely users. Secondly, it will be pleasant when walking about to look down on the decorative gardens within the site, a prospect which will normally be denied to anybody at ground level. “

High-walks were already a feature of the commercial development of the City to the south of the proposed Barbican estate. Percy Johnson-Marshall, an architect at the London County Council,  proposed high-walks along London wall in 1956. Furthermore, the London County Council made it a condition of their planning permission for the Barbican residential estate that:

“… a system of elevated pedestrian walkways must be created and integrated with the walkways proposed for the surrounding commercial parts of the Barbican area.”

One of the concepts of the proposed scheme was the idea of the podium being connected by elevated walkways to the city outside the Barbican.  Essentially, that meant high walks extending into the London Wall area and then over into the courtyard behind Guildhall. The City Corporation approved the use of high walks in principle, in 1959. At the height of their popularity, more than 30 miles of high walks were being planned.

B G Arthur, the Chairman of the Improvements and Town Planning Committee at the time, said:

“The fundamental purpose of the Scheme is the protection of the public, the saving of human life, the removal of traffic congestion”.

But in fact, it wasn’t so much the protection of human life as the removal of traffic congestion which was the main impetus – and the main beneficiary – of the plan. The result was to give the go-ahead for the construction of wide dual-carriageway traffic – London Wall being the classic example. The advocates of new roads were given free rein because of the sop that pedestrians had been given their separate high walks and therefore no longer needed to be taken into account. The priority for traffic in the new construction plans was enthusiastically endorsed by the City Engineer as you might expect.

In fact, pedestrians were given such small consideration at street level that you would almost have to be a tightrope walker to negotiate the ‘pavements’ along London Wall on the north side between the Museum of London and Fore Street. This was a deliberate attempt to keep pedestrians off the road level and up on the highwalks.

Not only did nobody have to give appropriate weight to the interests of pedestrians since they had been given highwalks, but their presence at street level could be actively discouraged – even made slightly dangerous – hence the London Wall pavement arrangement.

In the end, only about one tenth of the high walks proposed were actually built, and those were mainly in the Barbican and London Wall area.

In the south west section of the estate, Seddon Highwalk and John Wesley Highwalk are covered ways under white round-arched roofs. John Wesley Highwalk terminates in a glazed brick service tower with rounded walls and a pyramidal roof, which has stairs down to Aldersgate Street.