“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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.