What should the UK do with the iron skeletons of Victorian gasworks which still tower over it?

A gasholder looming over the Oval cricket ground in London in 1956. Image: Getty.

There’s a question looming both literally and metaphorically over large parts of London: what the hell should we do with the city’s old gasholders? These hulking metal structures, also known as gasometers, have been an integral part of the capital’s skyline since the Victorian era, yet are now facing demolition because their original purpose (storing gas, duh) is now defunct.

Having gained widespread use during the 19th century, the gasholders’ reign lasted until the 1960s when, with the discovery of the North Sea natural gas reserves, gas began being transported via high pressure pipes. The holders took a backseat, only being used when extra capacity was needed. As the pipes increased in capacity, the gasworks dotted throughout UK cities slowly became obsolete. The National Grid was left with these functionally-pointless, space-consuming monsters – often in what is now prime urban real estate. Think King’s Cross, Kennington, Bethnal Green.

Once aptly described by poet Victoria Bean aptly as a “great grey lung”, it’s the “telescopic” gasometers that receive particular attention. Supported by a giant cylindrical frame, the inner-container would fluctuate in size depending on how gas-hungry the surrounding residents were. By day they would fill up and rise, and then by night they would empty and retract back into the ground.

But the lungs are no longer breathing and all we’re left with is the frame. But blimey, what frames they are. Even for those not intimidatingly enthusiastic about industrial heritage, it’s hard to deny their beauty. Classical columns connected by decorative wrought iron; just what you would expect from the Victorians. Around sunset, when their steel skeletons are silhouetted against the sky in particularly spectacular fashion, it becomes easy to see why there are 12 gasholders with listed status (of which all but one are in London). But developers are fighting for the land; eight of the capital’s other gasholders have been awarded a Certificate of Immunity, meaning they cannot be listed for the following five years – offering property developers assurance to their investment.


So once campaigners succeed in getting the treasured gasholders protected, something needs to be done with them. After all, blocking off huge swathes of land in the heart of a city clamouring for space hardly seems fair. Building within them has proved a successful option (even if the flats inside the old King’s Cross gasometers look like giant air conditioning units). Planning for the development of the Oval Gasholders – which has towered over the famous cricket ground for 150 years, and gained listed status in 2016 following a local campaign – was passed earlier this year as part of a wider project to build 1250 new homes. In a city in the midst of a housing crisis, incorporating heritage into new housing is a great idea. That said, it’d be a shame to lose all the gasworks to property developers.

With Gasholder Park, the developers behind the King’s Cross air conditioning units, have created a public space within the remains of one of the gasholders. It is the only place in London where anyone can stand in the centre of, and enjoy these peculiar treasures. The Bromley-by-Bow Gasworks, which consist of seven listed gasholders, sits empty but could make a brilliant park. This was proposed as a submission to the New London Landscape, a green infrastructure design competition, but lost out to a hare-brained scheme to add a swimming lane to Regent’s Canal.

Whatever their future – be it as housing or a public space – at least some gasholders will remain; a solemn reminder of an important chapter in London’s history.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.