“The change of use can add to the history of a place, rather than diminishing it”

BBC Television Centre, 2009: the site has since been sold to private developers. Image: PanHard/Wikimedia Commons.

The news last week that the BBC is to close Maida Vale Studios and relocate live music to Stratford in East London was received with exactly the kind of enthusiasm long time media watchers have come to expect from this kind of thing – with words like “disgusting” and “misguided”, and pleas for the preservation of our cultural heritage. Hashtag campaigns and requests for listing have been duly launched into the ether.

The responses from musicians and music fans echoed those from TV historians to the partial conversion of the BBC's Television Centre to private flats over recent years, with occasional outbursts of “I can't bear to look at it” and “It makes me feel sad when I go past” continuing to this day.

Now I'm not an architect, property developer, TV producer or internationally renowned rock guitarist, sadly; so I can't speak to whether either of these land deals are particularly good value, or the claims and counter-claims as to the long term viability of the old facilities and their new replacements. Equally, there's a whole separate argument about the fact that such London buildings are usually converted into high-end oligarch hives that are at best a symptom and at worse a driver of inequalities within our cities and society as a whole.

What I do question, though, is the idea that preserving heritage in our built environment requires continuity of use. There is of course an undeniable buzz for people working in a particular creative industry to occupy the spaces and walk the corridors their predecessors did, to be part of a history. When change must come, there's also a case for excellent examples of workplaces to be preserved as museums or heritage sites.

But the impulse to freeze a building in its current use, fixing its purpose like the glue-wielding bad guy in The Lego Movie, cuts against the city as a living, evolving place that changes with the requirements of its population and industries.


More than that: it’s through allowing changes of use, by preserving historic facades and putting up plaques but by allowing the buildings to be reshaped to contemporary needs, that history accumulates in the architecture of our older cities.

I live in Exeter, I used to live in London, and, when I was young, my favourite city near to my home town was York. All three cities date back to before Roman times, and are places where the medieval has been partially over-written by the eras that followed, with new development filling the spaces left by fire and war and other disasters. As the commercial areas of a city expand, old domestic dwellings find themselves reshaped into business properties, while further from these commercial centres former places of work become domestic properties. Hospitals become restaurants, old houses become shops, central tenements become office space and, yes, the factories and warehouses and studios of industries that have collapsed or moved on are split into apartments.

At worst these changes of use can feel like a crushing of the imagination. A place of once fervent worship might deserve better than becoming a Wetherspoons. We do not respect the toil and horrors that our historic docks represent by divvying up the buildings into cute riverside apartments with high price tags.

At best, though, there's a pleasure in coming across a building that has changed use over the centuries and decades; that bears a unique character from having spaces that bear the marks of previous use; that has quirks of layout that you wouldn't find in a building designed precisely for its current requirements. The change of use can add to the history of a place, rather than diminishing it.

The preservation of old signage, commemorative plaques and clues in street and square names all contribute to the idea that a city has a long, changing history. The fact that new uses are found for old buildings, that we can remake our buildings for a new use rather than just demolishing them and starting over, preserves history in a different way to heritage centres and museums. It weaves the past into the present, creating a sense of historic continuity that is layered and evolving. The separation between the preserved past and the under-construction future is dissolved – and we can see ourselves within a city's history rather than simply observing it.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.