London must keep up the progress it has made on its placemaking initiatives over the last decades if it is to retain its position as an attractive and liveable world city. But it must guard against creating too many ‘exclusive’ enclaves, look to both indoor and outdoor spaces and give more funds to planners to get there.
Those were some of the key views to emerge from a wide-ranging half-day conference at NLA yesterday on investing in place and delivering public spaces for all Londoners.
British Land’s senior project director for Canada Water Emma Cariaga began by introducing the site as one of the capital’s little known gems, a well-connected area that is the ‘culmination of the renaissance of the south bank’. Cariaga said her company’s approach was to deliver around 3,500 homes, 1msqft of retail and leisure and 2m sqft of workspace, but it was crucial to build on the rich character of the place and start from ‘phase zero’ – early engagement with the communities around. There is, said Cariaga, a perception that public space is always an outdoor affair, the realm of squares and parks – but at Canada Water British Land aims to included interior public space and build on its early success at the Printworks, which is home to day time raves attracting 5,500 people every week.
The Crown Estate’s James Cooksey said that placemaking was at the heart of his organisation’s transformation of Regent Street and now St James’, with an ongoing £1.5bn regeneration programme that recognises that the creation of good spaces over the long term also brings financial reward. ‘It’s about creating a dynamic mix’, he said, with office workers drawn to places where there is good retail, restaurants and bars. Cooksey said the Crown Estate hopes to help get a 50% reduction in traffic along Regent Street, but the real answer to getting good placemaking lies in having a strong purpose or vision, establishing strong and trusted relationships with key stakeholders and ‘wrapping arms around’ people who can deliver that change. ‘Above all it’s about continuing to push the boundaries and not accepting the status quo’, he said. Because if we think other cities aren’t trying to do similar things to lure talent, then we have another think coming, Cooksey added.
A significant aid to this process is the growing BID movement. Northbank BID operations director Katherine Fleming said her organisation is spearheading projects around Aldwych and Villiers Street as well as opening up Victoria Embankment Gardens. It has also commissioned Arup to do an economic study that shows how every £1 invested in the public realm in the Northbank area will create between £2 and £6.90 in benefits.
Northbank commissioned Publica to help with its work on Aldwych, and its director Lucy Musgrave talked through similar wide-ranging projects which forensically analyse areas such as at Hanover Square, Marylebone and Oxford Street, to bring about transformation. ‘This is happening all over London’, she said. ‘What the projects share is that you need to have a really vigorous and robust evidence base’.
For Martyn Evans, founder of Uncommon, placemaking ‘starts with a spreadsheet’, of establishing the kinds of uses to create in an area based on widespread discussions with locals and a deep understanding of site histories. This was the case at Hayes, where Evans’ previous employer U+I worked at the former EMI factory inviting people to come with their stories, and from that, creating a livelier place. Or at Morden Wharf, where the past was less visible. ‘But if you scrape just five inches beneath the surface you find the Tudor history of the site’, said Evans – one of rope making, that led to the manufacture of cables and, more recently, Alcatel making transponders. Without delving that deep, how could developers hope to understand the past to inform the future? How did they animate the spaces at Hayes? They hosted events, talks, and invited musicians. ‘We just started to do stuff’, said Evans. Key to getting good places, however, was to properly resource the planning departments, he added.
Lambeth’s strategic director, neighbourhoods and growth, Sue Foster, said one of the authority’s key visions is all about neighbourhoods and the quality of the environment, which is fundamental to health. A vision was important, within which interventions could be made. And sometimes, as at Loughborough Junction where the council closed roads before getting the public realm in place, they get it wrong. ‘But it’s not just physical change’, said Foster. ‘It’s about people, citizens and how they thrive in spaces’. It is also sometimes about the tiny things rather than the mega-scale infrastructure. ‘Very small changes can delight people as they walk around’ said Foster.
The conference also heard from the GLA’s Paul Harper, area manager for regeneration south London, who showed examples from Croydon of how it was initiating regeneration – a better word for his work than placemaking since it didn’t pretend that there was no place to begin with – in Croydon and Peckham, post-riots. And LDA Design board director Selina Mason suggested that we experience cities as the space in between buildings, but London still had so many places which were just ‘unloved and disregarded’, as well as new places which were becoming ‘exclusive environments’. ‘The more privileged you are in society the fewer thresholds you see’, she said. Quoting Jan Gehl, she added that ‘first life, then spaces, then buildings’ was a strong starting point.
Discussions ranged from private spaces and their management – Evans saying we must ‘rage against this 1984 ghastliness of public spaces being privately policed’; to dealing with homelessness issues; to what successful placemaking looks like. ‘We shouldn’t assume that what we assume is success, is success’, warned Foster. Perhaps then, said Mason, it was when one walked through a place and found something in particular - the unexpected.
Editor, New London Quarterly