From Christopher Wren to Canary Wharf: How do we shape the London of the future?

An artist's impression of Canary Wharf from the Thames. Image: Olympia & York.

As the embers of the Great Fire still smouldered, Sir Christopher Wren drew up plans for the rebuilding of the City of London. England’s greatest architect envisioned a city of wide, intersecting boulevards with vistas and squares inspired by the renaissance layout of Paris.

Charles II was keen on the idea. But lack of funds to buy the land, and the insistence of the City merchants that they get back to business as soon as possible, rather than hang around while a new plan was devised, meant that the Square Mile was rebuilt largely to the old medieval plan.

This pragmatic approach to planning has characterised much of the development of the capital ever since. England’s common law and a national distrust of grand plans have conspired to produce a system of creating pieces of city that come about as a result of argument and enquiry rather than from a vision of a desirable city.

Wren's abandoned plan. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.

As London grew in the 18th and 19th century, so the existing surrounding settlements expanded until they formed a single and untidy metropolis. The aristocratic estates like Bedford, Grosvenor and Portman hired developers who laid out houses in streets and squares that followed a masterplan. This generated local areas of coherence, like the white stucco and Classical architecture of Belgravia and the red terracotta of Arts and Crafts Chelsea. This mixture of single owner developments and areas of variety of style and ownership is a key part of the London’s character – the “city of villages”.

Today one has to ask whether the pressures of growth, and of global finance, combined with cuts in planning resources, are creating places that are outgrowing these empirical methods. In the current London Plan, large scale development is proposed to take place in Opportunity Areas. Some of these come under a single development entity, like Argent’s King’s Cross and CapCo’s Earls Court. Others have multiple ownership, like Nine Elms and South Quay on the Isle of Dogs. The two mayoral development corporations, for the Olympic Legacy and Old Oak Common, create masterplans with developers delivering individual sites.

King’s Cross is a good example of how masterplanning can work. The developers and their consultants produced a clear layout for the site, retaining areas of key heritage and providing locations and size of buildings with a mix of uses around the site. The plan was flexible enough to change as economic situation changed; based on a series of sound rules, it retained a level of coherence in scale and detail. The architects of individual buildings were given freedom in developing their own palette of materials and colour in order to create variety and interest.

By contrast South Quay, not far from Canary Wharf on the DLR, is in multiple ownership. Each landowner jockeys for taller and taller buildings, with guidance arriving late in the day from the authorities when it seemed that the density of the area could exceed even that of Central Hong Kong. Although a master plan has now been developed, it gives no hint as to the overall form, the townscape, of this key part of the capital.


This is in contrast to Canary Wharf next door, where today’s development is still recognisable in drawings made by the celebrated architectural illustrator Carlos Dinez as far back as 1984. The architecture has changed over time, but the shape of the development is pretty much as planned.

So, in areas of multiple ownership how do we create plans that can adapt to changing circumstance, yet create new quarters that are also great places?

What is needed is a wholesale shift from the current reactive and regulatory planning system to one that is proactive, positive and creative. This was clearly stated in The Farrell Review, prepared for former culture minister Ed Vaizey, but fell on deaf ears in a Government committed to stripping out planning services in local authorities. Will Theresa May’s administration be any different?

The NLA's model of modern London. 

The process of shaping the city in a way that is accessible to public and professional alike can be facilitated using 3D computer models which also allow the desired flexibility. The Corporation of London is already using virtual modelling to plan the layout of tall buildings in the City, and New London Architecture (NLA) has been pressing City Hall to adopt a London-wide version ever since the publication of the NLA’s first Tall Buildings Survey in 2014 which highlighted the new for a more coherent skyline strategy.

Providing a clearer idea of the shape of the future city will give greater certainty to developers and communities alike; it will reassure local people about what is going up in their backyard, will reduce land speculation and make development less of a gamble.

As mayor Sadiq Khan writes his own version of the London Plan, he has the opportunity to say not just what the London of the future will contain, how many people it can accommodate and what sort of jobs they will do – he can give us an idea of what it is actually going to be like.

Peter Murray is chair of New London Architecture.

“Experiencing the city: What makes London work?” is part of the talks programme at 100% Design which has been curated by the Design Museum, taking place 21-14 September at London Olympia. 

All images in this article apear courtesy of NLA and the Design Museum.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.