Creating vibrant places with good, flexible buildings, cultural attractions, a mix of retail and residential and attractive public realm makes sound business as well as placemaking sense. But it requires a long-term vision and ‘stewardship’ of the kind many of London’s historic estates have employed successfully over centuries.
That was one of the key points to emerge from a conference on the work of London’s Great Estates and how they support growth for the future, held at the NLA this morning.
Grosvenor’s executive director, London Estate, Will Bax said that London’s greatest success factor is its ability to retain talent both nationally and internationally, and that the key to attracting that was the city itself and the liveable places it provides. But London needs ‘bold public-sector leadership’ that starts with the mayor within a ‘profoundly challenging environment’, helping Grosvenor on its 20 year plan to drive the success of the West End and help to overturn the housing shortage. ‘We have constantly regenerated the estate in response to demand, refreshing buildings and the public realm around them’, said Bax. But, he said, it needs to work harder for the capital, improving its density of workspace, and residential occupation for example, and plans to invest £640m over the next five years and £40m on public realm.
Cadogan chief executive Hugh Seaborn said the long-term approach both historic family-owned businesses share also bears fruit in other ways than how their respective areas of the city shape up. ‘We have good strong investment returns’, said Seaborn, pointing to the £6bn value of the estate and 15% growth per annum Cadogan has achieved over the last five years. ‘the reason I tell you these vulgar numbers is just to make the point that It is possible to create great places and create a great mix and pull off a commercial success, he said. ‘I think the two are quite compatible as long as you’re around long enough to reap those benefits.’
Cadogan has spent considerable resources funding ‘expensive’ ‘philanthropic’ ventures such as Cadogan Hall and subsidises key worker housing in the area, in part to create a more rounded place, viewing it as justifiable expenditure for the greater good. ‘Making great places is not just about bricks and mortar’, he said, ‘It’s about layers of contributions towards society and communities…Right at the heart of everything we do is stewardship’, he said. People look for a connection, identity ad resonance with their urban environment he added, and investing it is ‘very good business’ as well as a responsibility.
The public realm is also important, said Publica’s Lucy Musgrave, whose staff think of themselves as ‘investigative journalists’, documenting and mapping the way estates operate towards improvement strategies. And, said Mike Stiff of Stiff Trevilion, in the case of the practice’s project on Sloane Street and Pavilion Road, it was the intimacy of the area it sought to recreate. ‘The strength of the estates is that they have maintained their own character’, he said.
The conference also heard from speakers including Cluttons’ head of commercial agency Freddie Pritchard-Smith, who said the ‘new office agenda’ was to do with ‘flexibility, wellness, connectivity, and environmental’. ‘Public realm is the reason why an occupier would choose to come to your great estate’, he said. For Tanvir Hasan, deputy chairman of Donald Insall Associates, the historic fabric is crucial to what the great estates do, and they have ‘an edge’ because they can manage in terms of groups of buildings and are in it for the long run, rather than for short-term gain. But more should be done to retain and enhance our heritage: ‘you don’t have to pull a building down to make it work harder’, she said. The Crown Estate’s director of central London James Cooksey agreed. ‘You can create better buildings by combining the old and new than by simply erecting new architecture’, he said. ‘Creating something with a heart and a soul becomes much more deliverable.’ And Bedford Estates steward Simon Elmer said organisations such as his see themselves as custodians of the historic fabric. ‘The long-term view is probably the key driver’, he said.
David Taylor, editor, New London Quarterly