Nine Elms on the South Bank

Monday 10 November 2014

© Agnese Sanvito

© Agnese Sanvito

© Millar Hare

Effective teamwork and collaboration between local authorities of different political persuasions was the crucial ingredient to set off the transformation of Nine Elms on the South Bank.

That was one of the key sentiments to emerge from a special ‘On Location’ event held by NLA at The Oval Cricket Ground last week.

Cllr Ravi Govindia, Leader, Wandsworth Council, said that what had been impressive was the speed of the transformation of the area, with the debate having gone from ‘when will it happen, to what will it be like’. ‘Two planning authorities working side by side may be unusual, but not here’, said Govindia. ‘I’m hugely enthusiastic about what this area is about to become’. Having ambitions is not the same as delivery, Govindia added, and schemes like Riverlight, now open to its first residents, will be followed by significant neighbourhoods and town centres being created at places like Battersea Power Station, with the whole area linked by a new linear park and catalyzed by the Northern Line Extension. ‘We are leading the way in finding new ways of transforming areas and this is clearly a part of it. People will make it a place to live, work and play’. 

Cllr Lib Peck, Leader, Lambeth Council emphasized the importance of placemaking in the vision, and the partnership approach – even with such an unusual alliance’ that has been at the heart of the process. Peck said the authority is committed to 40% affordable housing – despite how difficult this is sometimes with viability tests – and mixed communities, with a ‘huge emphasis’ on job creation, and a goal to transform the Vauxhall gyratory into a place where people want to linger and not just rush through. ‘I’m absolutely convinced that partnership and an emphasis on placemaking is the way to go’, she said.

Helen Fisher, Programme Director, Nine Elms on the Southbank said that one of the exceptional things about Wandsworth and Lambeth was the way that they had worked in planning – ‘absolutely exceptional partnership working’, she branded it. Fisher outlined the unprecedented scale of change happening on the 195ha site, with an investment value of some £15bn and involving 27 schemes with planning permission, three new tube stations, 25,000 new jobs and an estimated growth for London’s economy of £7bn. The vast majority of development will be complete by 2025, while the housing target for the area has risen from 16,000 to 20,000. ‘This is not just about development. This is about creating a new district for London’, she said. Christopher Hall, Director, GVA, said that opportunity area is diverse today but will continue to be a ‘strong and diverse economic location’ in the future, with landmark developments having helped raise the visibility of the area in the public mind, including the US Embassy. ‘This is a central London location in terms of proximity, in terms of travel times’, he said. Richard Garside, Development Director, GL Hearn, detailed some of the other projects in the area, including the 541 units at Embassy Gardens, 698 at Riverlight, and 180 at Vauxhall Sky Gardens, revealing that the sales rate that the area is currently eliciting is some 1000 units per annum. ‘The iconic status of the area has now been established worldwide’, he said. Garside added that careful consideration of delivery strategies on affordable housing may enhance delivery over the wider borough areas – perhaps building more such units in lower value areas. For Sandra Roebuck, Assistant Director for Neighbourhoods and Investment, Lambeth Council, a major focus will be Vauxhall, which will continue to be a place of public transport, post-transformation. But the area is going from ‘flatline to skyline’ in a short space of time, with a number of towers set to be created that will emphasize the need to focus on public realm and the improvement of connections to the river.
Certainly when it comes to tall buildings, plans have been in evidence for some years, aided by flexible frameworks, said Colin Wilson, Strategic Planning Manager, GLA, but London is still primarily a low-rise city. ‘Don’t panic!’ he said, channeling Lance Corporal Jack Jones in TV’s Dad’s Army. ‘We’re not heading for Dubai-on-Thames’. The GLA commissioned a 3D model in order to be open and transparent with local community groups and let them know that ‘scale was coming forward here’, within a broad framework that encourages them to ‘look at things in the round, not just as a painting’. Tall buildings can add to a city’s sense of excitement and energy, however, Wilson added. ‘Part of London’s intrinsic enjoyment, for me, is that it is not a poodle on a leash.’

Discussion of this element included John Bushell, Principal, KPF, who suggested that the linear park could be a clever way of bringing order and that KPF’s work aimed to set circumstances for variation; Gareth Edwards, of SOM, who said it was important to design the skyline from many angles and that spreading out some of the residential towers could improve access to views and light; and Jason Syrett, Director, Allies & Morrison who said that tall buildings – such as the A&M scheme at Keybridge House, could also help orientate the public. 

The conference also heard from Pam Alexander, Chair, Covent Garden Market Authority, projecting forward to conjecture how the US Embassy and Battersea Power Station projects acted as catalysts, reinforced by the new market and its 200 new businesses, and how an area of different places had emerged. ‘It is a new part of the world’, said Alexander, not just a new part of London’.  Chris Law, Public Realm and Development Director, Vauxhall One said it was important for the business improvement district to retain the character of the area, or enhance its sense of place, as it hopes to do through the Missing Link urban design competition won by Erect Architecture with J&L Gibbons. Mark Davy, Founder, Futurecity added that the area was one of a new trend in London of creative districts. ‘They’re beginning to understand that placemaking is not delivered by someone else’, he said, ‘It’s being delivered by all of us’. Anchor arts partners like the RCA will only be attracted because they believe it is a credible cultural place, he added. ‘The arts need to be seen as part of the process, not as a sculpture in a square’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Architecture

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Nine Elms on the South Bank

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