“It can be instructive to look at how past Londoners have imagined the city’s future”: on unbuilt London

The Barbican Estate: not the future of London, but quite popular nonetheless. Image: Riodamascus/Wikimedia Commons.

The years prior to 2012 saw a stream of criticism surrounding the plans to host the London Olympics. The costs of pulling everything together; the impact on the Lea Valley; the displacement of small local businesses; the prospect of security missiles on east London roofs; the security miscalculations (troops were eventually brought in alongside G4S); the unsightliness of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit; the fast lanes to the site for grandees... All this, and more, led to predictions that Londoners would leave during the games and reduce the city to a ghost town.

But once the gold medals started rolling in, the concerns dissipated. Today, we are more likely to remember the games as an expression of the UK as a multicultural, modern, open, and sportingly successful country.

To plan for future triumphs often requires us to be blinkered. Faith in an idea for the future can demand tunnel vision. The German-born economist, Albert O. Hirschman, who died in 2012, liked to tell the story of the 19th-century construction of the railway line connecting Boston and the Hudson River. Laying the line required tunneling through a mountain, something planners assumed would be relatively easy.

But the project was much more complicated and difficult than anyone had imagined, and cost ten times more than expected. If the designers and planners and construction companies had known how hard it would be, no one would have committed to it; yet in the end, the result immeasurably improved the economy of the region.

Hirschman developed the principle of the Hiding Hand, a play on Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, which argued that humans have a natural propensity to underestimate the difficulty of preparing for the future. This leads, on the one hand, to ingenious problem-solving of a kind we wouldn’t willingly embark on if we knew what was coming, and on the other to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes.

As London tries to think itself into the world of the mid-21st century, to assess what will be required in 10, 25 or 50 years’ time, it can be instructive to look at how past Londoners have imagined the city’s future. In a previous issue of London Essays, the Centre for London journal from which this article is an extract, Geoff Mulgan suggested that the city is full of membranes into the past. Arguably, the grand projects of London’s past offer a membrane of sorts into the future, even if the future for which they were built never truly materialised. They act as monuments to our ideas of how we thought we could shape things.

The modernism of the Royal Festival Hall, for example, tells of a brief exciting moment amid post-war austerity when the Festival of Britain celebrated the country’s modernity and energy – although its attendant monument, the Skylon, was famously dismantled and sold for scrap.


Further down river, Canary Wharf suggests a less communitarian, more Thatcherite free market vision of the future. The Barbican offers up a utopian democratic vision, although its brutalism can also sometimes be uncomfortable: it turned out that Londoners were less keen to learn a new way of using urban space than its architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, anticipated. The elevated thoroughfares and areas originally intended for shops remain deserted. But the Barbican continues to thrive, as a visit any weekend will attest. And an apartment, if one ever becomes available, is well out of the price range of most Londoners.

At least as instructive are the plans that never materialised. In 1855, Joseph Paxton proposed the Great Victorian Way, a ten-mile glass loop circling a portion of central and west London: a spectacular arcade of glass-covered streets, roadways, shops, railway stations, and three river crossings. New technology would enable the use of glass strong and cheap enough for the project, which received the backing of parliament.

In the event, the cholera epidemic of 1858’s Great Stink meant funds had to be diverted and the plan shelved; ultimately, London’s sewer system was created instead. The unbuilt loop is said to have provided the basis for the route of the Central line.

In 1909, the writer Ford Madox Ford published an essay titled The Future in London, offering a provocative vision of a planned city circumscribed by a 60-mile sweep of a compass point set in Threadneedle Street. As Iain Sinclair has noted, this anticipated the vision of Britain’s most famed town planner, Patrick Abercrombie (the moving spirit behind the M25 and the green belt) in reading “London as a series of orbital hoops, ring roads and parkland”.

Bizarrely, in the 1930s, Charles Glover proposed turning King’s Cross into an airport with eight runways arranged in an octagon on stilts. Later, he suggested planting a heliport on the roofs of Covent Garden. These plans didn’t take off, so to speak, though in some respects London City Airport is a descendant.

There were other attempts to elevate the city: during the postwar reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s, the City of London Corporation proposed a network of elevated walkways between the buildings of the Square Mile. These “pedways” would take pedestrians off the street and give them their own walkways on higher ground. Some were built, albeit in a scattershot manner: the plan only really found expression in the Barbican (with limited success), and elsewhere, the pedways ran into dead ends, or failed to join up with each other. The Corporation eventually abandoned the policy. Fragments stand today as small glimpses into a planned post-war future that didn’t quite come to pass.

In 1954, Geoffrey Jellico, Ove Arup and Edward Mills devised a scheme to demolish Soho bit by bit and replace it with several large towers sitting on top of a platform, below which gardens and canals would have traced the shape of former streets.

In the late 1960s, a scheme was hatched to build the London Ringways – miles of elevated motorways encircling and crossing the city. Thousands of people would have had to be moved and entire districts of the capital disrupted for this to come to pass. Public resistance, the first stirrings of the road protest movement and high costs brought the scheme back down to earth.

The ringways, as planned in the 1960s. Click to expand. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1982, there was an idea to pedestrianise Oxford Street by raising the cars onto a flyover running the length of the street, about two stories above the existing road. Escalators would allow pedestrians to access buses above. The whole thing would have been encased in glass (the Great Victorian Way lives on), effectively creating a shopping mall out of Oxford Street. After initial interest in the plan by architect Brian Avery (who would later design the BFI Imax and the London Transport Museum), the project ran aground on questions of cost, logistics and fears over pollution.

Muddling through

Giant malls to rival Oxford Street would follow later. Attempts to “fix” Oxford Street would continue, as would the pollution. These wacky schemes do little to moderate the cynicism that is often expressed when our own sense of the future is articulated. But too much scepticism can be unhelpful, inducing helplessness: we do need to plan in some way for the future. And the future can be bright, and much-loved: the Barbican and the Southbank Centre now feel as indelible to London as Hyde Park and Regent Street.

In his 1959 essay, ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”’, the American political scientist Charles Lindblom made the case against too much theory when it comes to future planning, and for “building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees”.

The problem with grand visions of the future, Lindblom argued, is that “on many critical values or objectives, citizens disagree, congressmen disagree, and public administrators disagree”. Schemes that start as if the present were a blank slate, proposing their own fundamental values, are almost invariably doomed to failure: “A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes in several ways.”

Adapting to fast-moving times with gradual incremental changes can feel like playing catch-up. But it has often been London’s way. When John Nash designed Regent Street in the early 19th century, he imagined a long straight boulevard like those of French cities, running from Portland Place to Carlton House Terrace. Private ownership of land put paid to this design, as did St James’s Square. Instead, his street had to curve to avoid some places along the route, although various streets and buildings were still demolished, whether people liked it or not.

The 1813 plans for Regent Street.

The street also had to be moved a little further west. To get down to Pall Mall, Regent Street takes an awkward hard right at Piccadilly. Towards the end of the street’s development, a separate plan to construct Piccadilly Circus was added into the mix. And the buildings were rather soon redeveloped, some of them as little as 70 years later: little of the original remains beyond the shape of things.

A dose of scepticism is a useful asset when it comes to envisaging the city of the future, as is an acceptance that divergent interests and demands will force upon us awkward turns here and there. But ambition and vision are important too. Big ideas have shaped the city and will continue to do so. From Regent Street to the Olympic Park, Londoners’ visions of the future are all around us, muddling through and showing off their optimistic futurism.

This is an extract from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London and supported by Capital and Counties Properties PLC. The full collection of essays are available here.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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