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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.