Glass towers will be great for Greenwich Peninsula – but it still needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

An artist's impression of Peninsula Place. Image: Knight Dragon.

The plans for a £1 billion revamp of North Greenwich tube station look amazing on paper. A famous architect, 800 homes, a performance venue and 30-storey glass towers… What’s not to love about Santiago Calatrava’s Peninsula Place?

Greenwich Peninsula may finally get a building that replaces the Dome as its symbol. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan even showed up at the launch, purring about “unlocking” the area’s potential.

Peninsula Place is due to replace the Norman Foster-designed bus station that sits on top of North Greenwich underground. The 20th Century Society wants it listed, but it’s no longer fit for purpose. An awkward design leads to buses queuing up to exit the station, particularly during the evening rush hour and major O2 events.

The problems also come from North Greenwich being the only tube station south of the river for miles around. It’s burdened with huge demand even before the 15,000 new homes planned for the peninsula are taken into account.

Peninsula Place won’t stop the battle of the buses

When North Greenwich opened in 1999, few lived nearby. Commuters bussed their way in from neighbouring districts such as Charlton and Blackheath, grateful for an alternative to poor National Rail services to central London. It can be cheaper, too: westbound trips from North Greenwich start in zone 2, neighbouring stations are in zone 3.

That big catchment area now stretches out to zone 4 Eltham, with one bus running non-stop down the Blackwall Tunnel approach to North Greenwich. Unsurprisingly, the 132 is now struggling to cope with demand from cost-conscious commuters.

The bus station is now at capacity. It’s packed and chaotic in rush hour. There are occasional reports of fights among passengers, while police sometimes have to supervise queues. A modest expansion – space to fit 17 buses rather than 15 – has been approved in the area’s masterplan. But this is unlikely to satisfy demand.

Pressure could be eased by improving National Rail services in the area, and maybe tweaking their fares to incentivise people away from North Greenwich. But change seems years off. The UK government is unwilling to devolve these services to the London authorities. So the new facilities will continue to face huge demand from people who don’t live nearby – piling pressure on the Jubilee Line.

The Jubilee Line will soon be at capacity

There’s some room for expansion at North Greenwich station, such as putting new entrances in. But the trains themselves can only hold so many. After the next Jubilee Line upgrade, which should see 36 trains per hour from 2021, there’ll be no more room on the line itself.

With major housing schemes also coming to Stratford, West Ham and Canning Town, it’ll be an almighty squeeze. TfL admitted so much in a submission to Greenwich Council in 2015, when the peninsula’s masterplan was approved, saying: “Jubilee Line crowding is already an issue and is forecast to continue in 2031.”

There are no new plans to provide any significant public transport access off the Greenwich Peninsula – even if Sadiq Khan mistakenly told one TV interview the area is getting Crossrail.

So if the Jubilee Line breaks down, you’ll be stuffed. You’ll just be stuffed beneath some £1bn glass towers, rather than in a draughty bus station.

Greenwich Peninsula needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

But a fair chunk of North Greenwich’s commuters are heading only one stop west, to Canary Wharf. So why not build a pedestrian/cycle bridge over the Thames to the business district? One is already pencilled in for the west side of the Isle of Dogs – but one to the east would relieve the Jubilee Line, provide a bit of resilience and bring the peninsula closer to its neighbour across the water.

Building a bridge that could cope with shipping – including cruise liners – would be a challenge, but it wouldn’t be insurmountable. Architect Sir Terry Farrell has suggested a low-level lifting bridge.

In 2009, TfL estimated the cost at up to £90m – but dropped the idea and built the cable car around the other side of the peninsula instead.

Greenwich Council also turned its nose up at the idea when approving the peninsula’s current masterplan in 2015 – even though the planning gain on Greenwich Peninsula could have covered most of the cost.

Repeating the mistakes of the past

Instead, a ferry to Canary Wharf is being mooted. But it’ll be expensive for users, will be vulnerable to the weather and is unlikely to provide round-the clock access.

The controversial Silvertown Tunnel road scheme (declaration of interest: I’m involved in the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign) is likely to provide some extra buses (watch that bus station capacity). And the much-mocked Emirates Air Line cable car may see fare cuts if the tunnel gets the go-ahead.

But none of these will provide much capacity or resilience for the most popular journeys – and the peninsula will stay isolated from other areas of the capital.

Greenwich Peninsula was meant to be a community of the future. But much of what was built in the late 1990s hasn’t lasted. If Sadiq Khan and developer Knight Dragon want to avoid those mistakes and really unlock the area’s potential, they should think about putting some proper infrastructure in before the glass towers go up.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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