The Portobello Elephant
Several actions have been taken since the Westway was built in the sixties, reclaiming the area underneath the flyover in an attempt to compensate the disruption caused by the motorway. Yet all these activities and community spaces have not managed to address the “the elephant in the room”, that is the impact that car traffic has on the neighborhood, with statistics pointing out how the air in the borough is the most polluted in the UK, and a relevant number of deaths in the area is attributable to diesel fumes. The Westway is only partly responsible for that, of course, but it can play a significant role in finding a solution to the problem. This can be achieved by shifting from considering the motorway as just an infrastructure, to recognizing its role and potential as an effective public space and media.
In the suggested vision, the Westway is reclaimed by the local community becoming a stage for public events aiming to raise awareness about the risks of being exposed to exhaust fumes, and fostering the public debate about what should happen in the future. What is now a common problem becomes – even if only temporary – the symbolic and physical common space where to address collectively the issue, reclaiming the right for the people of being in control of this public health issue, reconsidering the role of the infrastructure in the city where they live.
The Portobello Elephant is the outcome of a research carried on in 2015 within the MA Urban Design program at the University of Westminster, under the supervision of Marion Roberts, and its cartoon format was deliberately chosen as a tool for public consultations, and it has been successfully tested in a presentation open to local residents, authorities and members of the Westway Trust.
Simone Gobber is an architect and urban designer. The Portobello Elephant is part of a broader research on strategies to reclaim the public realm, as a physical space and as a socio-political matter. The comic format has been developed while working with kids in architectural workshops.
Nora-Andreea Constantinescu is an Urban Planner. She contributed to gathering information about the Westway and the local planning framework, as well as providing a critical feedback on limits and potentials of reclaiming the motorway.
Marion Roberts leads the Public Realm module at the University of Westminster. In her lectures as well as in her academic research she focuses on the interaction between space and social behaviours, investigating how a better designed urban environment can improve people’s life.