Can developers make a place? On London’s industrial regeneration

The Southbank Centre: a successful piece of place-making. Image: Getty.

With the launch of the most recent draft of the London Plan, the phrase ‘Good Growth’ is now firmly on every property professional’s lips. This simple, and pleasantly alliterative, soundbite coined in the mayor’s office is the latest way to talk about London’s future as we battle against all the usual problems.

At the heart of ‘Good Growth’ is the biggest planning trend in our city, as well as many others all over the world: namely, the rise of the mixed-use development and the ensuing move towards placemaking.

For those not in the know, placemaking sounds like jargon, but is actually a quite useful way of describing a very specific approach to regeneration.  All studious Jane Jacobs-reading planners now accept that you can’t just slap a fancy new park into the middle of a redevelopment and hope for the best. Places have to be filled with a diverse mix of users to make them a success. Whether that means pop-up burger vans or art installations, silent discos or roof-top yoga, London is heaving with a new wave of programmed places.

There are many examples of placemaking on show in today’s London: newly-redeveloped areas which have managed to strike the delicate balance between historically sensitive buildings, attractive public realm and activity that turns a new space into a destination. Every London area tends to have its own specific look and feel anyway: perhaps that lends itself more easily to this particular brand of character focused re-development.

The South Bank was perhaps first area to benefit from the transformative effects of placemaking. The area is now synonymous with a plethora of technicolour entertainments: street food pop-ups, art installations, rooftop saunas, igloos, pink buses, giant inflatable purple cows; the Christmas market in December and the deckchair strewn fake beach in July. Sure, some of its food offer has got a little chainy, but its iconic cultural venues complemented by the bars on any available terrace of their brutalist architecture, ensure it’s filled with a huge array of people every day and night of the week. Not bad going for a place which used to be a cardboard city notorious for muggings.

But the other side of the coin is that the original character of a newly made place will be bleached by commercial developers that seek to replace the local community with wealthy leisure seekers and tourists. At the South Bank this trend has been symbolised by the gradual shrinking of the iconic skate park (although its future is now secure thanks to the efforts of the Long Live Southbank Campaign).

“Lots of organisations are involved in placemaking,” says Emily Gee, London planning director at Historic England. “And many are doing it well. At Historic England our main premise is that heritage is key to good placemaking and that this should start from analysis and understanding about the history and character of a place.”

By way of example, she points to the Kings Cross redevelopment, highlighted in Historic England’s recent Translating Good Growth for the Historic Environment report. The scheme involved a widely-praised, historically sensitive masterplan which includes much spectacular design: Thomas Heatherwick’s visionary re-imagining of Coal Drops Yard, opening in autumn 2018, say; or the re-purposing of the old gas holders into luxury apartments.

What really sets King’s Cross apart however is that it is the epitome of a mixed-used development. Its 67 acres of once largely derelict industrial land has been transformed into a “new piece of city” comprising homes, offices, university buildings, cultural venues and public realm, all ‘activated’ by an eclectic events programme that entertains thousands of visitors annually.

While every newly made place in London might plausibly become an exciting destination for leisure seekers, none of them are likely to become somewhere where most people can actually afford live. The question, “Who is London for?” rears its ugly head particularly strongly at King’s Cross, because it’s so nice without being remotely accessible. A casual visitor may notice its attractive architecture and diverse cultural offerings; but they might also feel like they’re walking around a developer's marketing campaign. The bare bones of the site’s industrial past have been left in place, but airbrushed, to create a saleable perfection that is more than a little contrived.

The fact that a disused corner underneath the Royal Festival Hall once became home to London’s skateboarders should remind us that new developments often have unintended consequences – and that no matter how shiny those CAD visions of perfectly manicured new places are the reality is bound to be far messier. Take a stroll down by the canal along from King’s Cross and you will find plenty of tents pitched by rough sleepers. So when we look at the newest developments in London, we should consider that hotly anticipated new destinations, such as Battersea Power Station and Silvertown, will undoubtedly come to have uses entirely separate from those planned for them by their current owners.

Millennium Mills, Silvertown, in 2016. Image: Getty.

Although place-making strategies are important, and the results clearly profitable, they can also smack of a paternalistic inclination for control. Nothing is more irritatingly pretentious than the use of the word ‘curation’ to describe this activity, as at Battersea Power Station.

Despite this, the £9bn regeneration scheme is doing many of the right things. Here, like at King’s Cross, there is a huge amount of energy being expended to put Battersea on the map as a new cultural destination. The developers are investing in the local community by giving grants, the largest of which up until September 2017 went to Battersea Arts Centre to open the Scratch Hub, a new co-working space for local businesses.

Circus West Village is the first part of the scheme to have been made accessible to the public. It comes complete with a new pedestrian entrance next to the river, a mix of independent food retailers and the aptly named Village Hall for events and community use. The ‘curation’ team have already delivered many events here since opening in July, including dance performances, a Christmas pop-up takeover by local makers and the inaugural ‘Powerhouse’ art commission.

Although diverse cultural offerings like these are commendable, they are all still highly controlled, catering for specific tastes and budgets: high-end cultural activity for urban leisure seekers. No matter how ‘curated’ places are, they are not museums – but developers risk being tarred with the same elitist brush as our more gold-plated institutions if they try too hard to emulate them. And this trend for focussing on the added value of cultural activities may serve to highlight the lack of affordable housing in many of these schemes.

To the east of London, something a bit different is happening. The Silvertown Partnership – Chelsfield Properties, First Base and Macquarie Capital – won the right to build on another disused industrial site precisely because it was not planning on doing what other developers in the area are doing (namely, building luxury housing on every square inch of available land). Instead, a crumbling turn of the 20th century flour mill, once part of London’s largest industrial centre at Royal Docks, is being turned into affordable incubator space for start-up businesses, as part of an ambitious masterplan that will transform the 62-acre brownfield site near The Excel Centre into another ‘new piece of city’.

Refreshingly The Silvertown Partnership has so far avoided calling themselves ‘curators’. As one spokesperson told me: “We are enablers, not placemakers.” This suggests they intend the eventual Silvertown programme will be driven by the new creative community they hope to build there.

The partnership is off to a good start with some of the first construction work onsite being the V22 Project of cargo container artist studios installed in 2017. Despite this, some of the artist’s impression of the plans are quite hilariously back to the future, and their PR full of self-aggrandising statements such as “The site will re-invent the atelier on a grand scale”.

Industrial buildings like Battersea Power Station and now Millennium Mills at Silvertown are proving so popular as sites of regeneration precisely because their current state of ruin gives them an exciting faded grandeur. Ultimately, nobody knows how successful these reincarnations will turn out to be, or how these carefully made new places will end up being used or by whom. But it would be fascinating to come back in a hundred years and see how the utopian visions of their current owners have turned out.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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