Heritage and the Dynamic City
Change in a world city is not just irresistible; it is good. London is arguably Europe’s most dynamic city, and has been for many years. The reasons for London’s dynamism are hotly debated, and understanding them is critical to the future of this remarkable place. Cities that inspire, cities where spirits can soar, are the ones that will be creative, happy and successful.
I have seen and experienced, at first hand, many changes in London over the last three decades. And the pressures in London are replicated in historic towns and cities all over England. For example, areas which were once shabby are now smart. And in many cases, the historic fabric is in better condition as a result. But that is not always welcome to established residents of those areas, where rising property prices and changing social character can put pressure on existing communities. At the same time a chronic shortage of affordable and social housing (and these are usually different things) is rapidly emerging.
But the particular impact of tall buildings (recognising what is tall depends on context) is becoming more and more pronounced. The number of active tower cranes may be a sign of economic vitality, but whether it is a measure of successful and beneficial development rather depends on what is being built and on the impact on the community around that building. Successful architecture is more than a collection of ‘iconic’ objects that might ‘belong’ as much in Dubai as in London. It is defined (amongst other things) by the way a building works in relation to its surroundings, its impact on views, and its relationship to the public realm, particularly at street level.
Momentum created by well-considered development drives the health of our capital. But unplanned and ill-considered development can have an effect that is unexpected and harmful. The historic character of London and its neighbourhoods is a very important factor in our success as a place in which to live, work and visit.
So how can we get the best of both worlds? Can historic character, which lies at the heart of why people value London so highly, be retained and enhanced whilst allowing creativity and sensitive development to flourish? It is possible. The Granary (now University of the Arts, London) and the regeneration of King’s Cross is a model of a large-scale development that enhances the best of the old whilst allowing for well-designed new commercial and cultural buildings. It includes not just the iconic Victorian railway stations – incredibly, in the case of St Pancras, once a whisker from demolition – but also a number of sensitively-designed new buildings, in a coherent and well-planned public realm that makes the area attractive and accessible. The success of King’s Cross has been led by a developer with a long-term vision and a well-thought-through strategic plan.
Planning lies at the heart of the challenge for London. Over the country as a whole, the National Planning Policy Framework, introduced in 2012, has been largely successful in giving an effective voice for the historic environment, despite early misgivings from the heritage community. The system of locally developed Plans, widely consulted, is a good one. Local Plans help define objective assessment and encourage community engagement. Amongst many things, they distinguish between areas where development will be encouraged and areas where the existing character is precious. A minority of Local Plans, however, are not up to date. Where they exist, we need to ensure that they are effectively implemented in the face of growing development pressure.
Decisions are primarily determined by the Boroughs although controversial cases can be referred to the Mayor for his consideration. So the effectiveness of the system depends ultimately on the consistency and objectivity of those decisions. The Mayor has recently updated the GLA’s London Plan to give a strategic context to his and the London Boroughs’ decisions across a wide range of subjects including planning and design. So far, so good. But the 2015 London Plan is pretty vague on issues such as the designation of appropriate areas for new tall buildings – applications for which the Mayor has rarely turned down in any event. So the current full review of the London Plan which will be consulted upon and subsequently adopted by the new Mayor is critical to the future of our capital city.
London has some great tall buildings. But it also has some which many acknowledge to have been mistakes, and very clumsily located. Some areas such as the south bank of the Thames in Vauxhall are – I would argue – already blighted by piecemeal high-rise development. With over two hundred consented tall buildings in London in the pipeline, the face of the city is already set to change. Let’s seize the opportunity of the debate around the London Plan, take a long hard look at the future of London, and make sure we don’t mistakenly kill the goose that lays the golden egg – London’s special character.