On the psychogeography of derelict space

King's Cross as it was in 2011. Note the construction site between the two stations. Image: Getty.

Over at CityMetric's mothership this week, there's an interesting Ed Smith column about the psychology of urban space. More specifically, it's about how the fabric of the city interacts with our mental map. Here's the bit that grabbed us:

“The sense of a void in one direction is subtly influential in creating a negative atmosphere. I learned that lesson by living in two different flats in London. Both were nice homes. But on leaving one flat, I always turned right: that was the only way to get to civilisation. Leaving the other, I turned equally often in either direction. Feeling connected all around influenced my sense of belonging. I was in the middle of something, not stuck out on a limb.”

There are, I think, two phenomena at work here, each of which is probably familiar to anyone who's lived in a city for any length of time.

One is that, when it comes to the way we experience our own urban area, not all streets are created equal. If the places where we work, shop and socialise are all in one direction, we tend to "face" towards it. There may be all sorts of exciting places or facilities on offer the other way; some may even be closer to us. But that side of town feels somehow foreign, not a part of our “our” city. And so, we’re less likely to go looking for them.

In other words, we don’t define our neighbourhood as a simple circle around our homes, but as an amorphous zone of interesting stuff in which our flat might be a far flung outpost. All this is tied up with the way we market our own little zones of the city: just think of all those people who claim their Cracktown flat is in fact in the up-and-coming district of South Niceville.

There’s another idea bubbling away in Smith’s column: the way we instinctively ignore holes in the landscape. The piece as a whole is about the redevelopment of King's Cross, a district on the north side of central London, historically characterised by railway lands and industrial wasteland.

The odd thing about places like that, though, is that you actually stop noticing them, wiping them from your mental map without even knowing you're doing it. It probably never occurred to most passers-by to see what was behind King's Cross station: everyone skirted round it; nobody, except for a few ravers, bothered to stop.

King's Cross, as it is today. This is Granary Square, slap bang in the middle of that construction site. Image: Getty.

Bringing land such as this back onto the collective mental map can happen of its own accord (particularly when the hipsters turn up). Often, though, it requires conscious rebranding and redevelopment: the deliberate creation of attractive and marketable public space that’s become known, inevitably, as “placemaking”.

Here’s Smith again, on the King’s Cross scheme:

“The developers wanted to bring new residential areas into central London. That could only be done by creating public spaces: squares, parks, boulevards, schools and a university. If the site had been turned into luxury flats alone, like so many others in London, it would have remained wholly cut off from real city life.

“‘It’s a public space,’ [Robert Evans of developers Argent] explained to me, freely admitting a long-term business rationale behind the plan. ‘Create the conditions for urban life and you create value. Because we focused on making connections with London and mixed-use diversity, it’s not just a series of buildings with asset values. It’s a place.’

Other patches of post-industrial wasteland took even greater re-making than that, of course. London's Stratford and the Barcelona waterfront both stayed off limits until the Olympics came through.

You can read the rest of Smith’s column here.


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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.