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 many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.