Category Archives: infrastructure

Resilient Cities

The Royal Town Planning Institute are running a series of seminars to celebrate their 100 year anniversary. Resilient Cities sounded an attractive one to attend. The location at Arup’s head office in Fitzroy Street was an added attraction.

What would be the expected topics? – Global warming, flooding, energy system resilience, sustainable transport, food, air quality? Actually no, none of these really figured as the main subject matter. It focused on three areas. LOcal, regional and UK wide.

The local, Kings Cross redevelopment by Argent, interesting in its detail of the role of the community, the processes and emphasis on robust master planning and consultation, but actually little on the application to redevelopment in general and the challenges and perseverance required by the more creative developer in achieving better outcomes. There is much to learn from Argent’s experience and Anna Strongman gave a good account of the main areas of her involvement from Section 106 negotiations with Camden through to the extensive programmes and strategies in place, many as a result of those negotiations. It was interesting to detect her criticism of CIL as an alternative to S106 particularly when it comes to more complex development. It is dangerous to pick on one comment to exemplify her experiences but the statement that resilience is built through conversations struck a cord. It will be interesting to see if these continuing conversations can grow into the richness that city living can bring.

At a city/regional level, Tom Bridges outlined the experience of Leeds, where he is Chief Economic Development Officer. The clue is in the job title, economic and development. The focus was therefore more about the future for business resilience in Leeds.

Dividing his presentation into four sections: knowledge/innovation and economic development: poverty and low pay: Connectivity: Devolution Tom addressed key issues in a logical manner but the lessons of the last 100 years were largely lost. His view that Leeds should build on its strengths and avoid the danger of putting all its eggs in one basket is to say the least disappointing. There is poverty in Leeds and Leeds have worked with the Joseph Rowntree Trust to address this, but nothing really apart from the need to upskill and raise wages was mentioned, hardly novel but probably the subject of a much longer presentation. In terms of connectivity, There was an uncritical acceptance that HS2 would be a great thing without questioning whether it would be a drain from Leeds, and in spite of showing a plan, no mention of the remoteness of the HS2 station from the main one which is now apparently the largest/most important North of England. Whether investment in HS2 would sort out the poor connectivity between Northern cities was not addressed. The wider Leeds region with its population of over 3 million and an economy of £53bn deserves more control over its budget, but there was no sense of what the City would actually do with that extra spending power. Maybe it doesn’t know? In the whole talk there was no mention of Bradford, rivalries die hard?

Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities gave a presentation on the development , rise and fall of UK towns and cities to show how the last 100+ years demonstrates that resilience is a dynamic process in which luck plays a part along with, the ability to rebound from shock, adapt to global and local changes in politics, policies, the economy.

Mapping the effects of changes over that 100 years is fascinating. Comparing the effects on New York and Pittsberg of the decline and fall of the garment trade and the entrepreneurial spirit of NY is interesting. The decline of one industry towns and cities repeats the lesson that Leeds is applying – not putting all your eggs in one basket. Citing the effect of the growth of cheap flights and foreign holidays on Blackpool and Margate is nothing new, populations move to where there are jobs. High skilled jobs cluster and boom, but lower skilled jobs are also expanding.

Providing a balanced economy is not helped by restricting housebuilding through constraint on development, but we should accept that Cities constrained from developing by green belts will inevitably become more expensive. The lessons of Cambridge releasing green belt land is important. At the moment the biggest drop in opportunity is in the mid scale and pay area for which read administration, secretarial and middle management – areas most threatened by automation and the ability to type this blog without calling on a secretary to do the technical bits. Everything changes but much remains the same? – is that really true? Picking winners doesn’t work but are struggling cities beyond salvation.

I conversations later I wondered whether a comparison of Bristol and Liverpool as two cities built on trade and specifically the slave trade can now be seen as polar opposites among the second tier 8 major cities in the UK. There is no doubt that Bristol is succeeding in a number of areas, had the foresight to elect a mayor, develop as a tech hub to rival London and achieve European Green Capital 2015, whilst Liverpool, notwithstanding its cultural excellence music, drama, football teams struggles to compete. Is there a lesson there?

So little mention of climate change and resilience, questions from the floor on energy solutions for cities and cycling met with blank stares. A complete refusal to debate the question of whether growth was necessarily a good thing was dismissed as total rubbish by Andrew Carter. Centre for Cities, a non partisan policy research unit, should have a more considered view on the challenges as well as the opportunities of growth.

 

 

 

London’s Council Housing

New London Architecture run a great and very well attended series of Breakfast meetings to discuss issues of interests Architects, Planners and other Built Environment professionals.

On Tuesday a full agenda with contributions from Council representatives and their designers presented inner and outer London Borough approaches to new models for more affordable homes and the revival of council housing.

Changes to regulations have helped Councils to start redeveloping their estates. Options of borrowing against the HRA or General fund, GLA/HCA subsidies and external European sources of funding and joint ventures were all outlined. Within the relatively short time for each presentation these inevitably had to be simply presented, the detail is far more complex.

Similarly delivery models ranging from direct developments where funding is available, joint ventures and outright disposal of non-core assets as a means of raising funds were discussed and outcomes presented.

Design responses to individual challenges in the Boroughs represented both in Central London areas (Camden, Westminster), and outer London (Barnet, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing), were, sensitive to place and good sense. Hilary Satchwell of Tibbalds working collaboratively in the Bourne Estate demonstrated the complexity and opportunities that exist in the centre of London, whilst Andrew Beharrel working in Barking and Dagenham, explained that their work impproving post-war mono cultural council estate housing was in the DNA of PTEa, who have been doing this sort of thing for years.

All schemes presented had to suffer the delays caused by the financial crisis which had no doubt put great strain on these relatively small businesses. All demonstrated that housing that provides long term quality and management is possible.

What lessons are there for the future roll out of affordable housing in London? The further loosening of financial constraints on development are needed from central government specifically the Treasury. As Stephen MacDonald, representing Barnet Re (part of a Council/Capita regeneration organisation – questions of how that works would take a separate meeting) said, If Council’s are to deliver more, whilst having to bear current 25% and future 25% cuts in central government funding, then lobby your MP not the Council.

NLA Director Peter Murray talks tall buildings

Peter Murray talks tall buildings.

Peter Murray’s New London Architecture has organised an excellent exhibition at the Building Centre, Store Street on the future of London’s skyline focussing on the 240+ existing and planned tall buildings in the capital. Presenting the subject earlier today, Peter stressed that it seemed that nobody elected and in authority (though GLA planners dispute this) knew there were so many buildings of over 20 storeys planned, where they were and how they will impact upon the skyline and the ground level of the city.

Recounting the many changes over the recent past two aspects struck me as being critical.

First – buildings evolve and adapt to changing demands over time. Will the tall residential development may offer little flexibility for the future of living in the city? The best residential buildings can update themselves (Trellick Tower) , the worst (system built – Ronan Point) fail catastrophically or are demolished. However many recent developments have been poorly constructed, of no architectural quality and without an overall master plan that considers the immediate locality, streets, environmental conditions. Commercial buildings are now being converted through permitted development rights without due consideration of their suitability. Commercial space is being lost and designs originally conceived for one form of occupation has throughout time had to adapt. The Gerkin, Natwest tower being two example quoted. What is the long term fate of these many new tall buildings?

Second – tall buildings and specifically those that contain numerous privately owned, often rented flats are likely to have to stand very much longer than commercial developments which can be removed for higher value opportunities. If the market rules, truly affordable homes, at affordable not unaffordable rents are no longer developed save in very limited numbers. The heart of London is being hollowed out so that London can ‘compete’ in the global economy, but that hollowing out will be the death of an attractive city.

Lessons from abroad in unduly conservationist Paris, or in New York where rights are being traded across plots so that extremely tall, high value apartment buildings trading on the values that height brings can be built are not encouraging. It is probably too late to adopt Vancouver’s planned approach ‘Vancouverism’ that both limits height to specific areas but encourages a visually coherent and environmentally positive city.  It would also require a political and culture shift.

So where does that lead. Opportunity areas of which there are so many that one wonders what is not an opportunity seek a planned solution. The evidence from the largest is that planning is taking a back seat in the face of overwhelming development pressure.

Rowan Moore in his recent excellent articles for the Observer has opened up an issue that won’t go away. It has drawn to the attention of politicians the impact that piecemeal decisions are making to our city. Trying to square development that funds so much of the city’s infrastructure, achieving quality of design and environment, fighting ever increasing competition for land with soaring values, whilst trying to provide homes for a rapidly increasing population who want to live and work in a successful city whose  global city status is a big ask.

One which demands solutions that are more radical than what is currently on the menu.

Google Kings Cross HQ

In the week that Twitter went public and doubled its share price in a day (journalistic exaggeration), what was Google up to? It decided to reconsider its design for the new HQ in Kings Cross.

Simon Allford of AHMM crossed the world for a 10 minute meeting with Larry Page, according to BD Boots, that’s 550 miles travel for every minute of the meeting. This is an opportunity to open up the larger questions of connectivity across King’s Cross and beyond and an opportunity for Google to demonstrate  local as well as global contributions to society. To show some of that old but not dead concept of patronage.

Following the 19th and 20th century philanthropists, what will Google’s response be? What will a redesign do? It may move a limited market forward, but does it provide anything of lasting value. A new park constructed over the railway tracks, green space in an area of green deprivation, pedestrian and cycle links from the Regent Quarter to the fast emerging Argent developments between the tracks of St Pancras and Kings Cross could do.

Someone suggested a new Exchange Square. Twitter was at work here, thanks to Michael Edwards for starting the debate. But Exchange Square is a glorified private office court masquerading as a public space. A new local park is a gift that has lasting value.

The images are from a competition entry for Luxembourg Gare  – a park over the tracks linking two sides of the City. Urban design by Matthias Wunderlich and Simon Carne (Urban Initiatives team)

 

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Planning major infrastructure

London Heathrow: the future

Options for a new hub airport for London come in thick and fast. Today it’s the turn of Heathrow to come up with a third or maybe a third and and fourth new runway concept. Earlier this week it was all estuary, Grain Island or possibly Stansted with Foster, Make, Atkins/Hadid battling it out to be Boris’s preferred option. No doubt the Committee empowered to review these options will be thinking beyond the images and consider the views of those directly affected, but it will be the big interests that determine the outcome.

Whatever the outcome there does seem to be some logic in proceeding with this process even if it ends up being a re-run of the 1970’s when Maplin was ditched for Stansted. Can these lessons be applied to the second major infrastructure debate?

HS2: fundamental review

The other hot infrastructure topic, HS2 rolls on, this time with the paving bill in Parliament. HS2 have already racked up significant fees on developing a back of envelope concept but now it seems that real money is needed despite the growing calls for reconsideration through to all out scrapping. Disruption to cities and countryside is inevitable with major projects and yet this one seems to have got off on the wrong foot spectacularly. It seeks to re-balance the economy with a single fast train service that all evidence suggests will draw people down to London rather than the reverse. Its environmental damage to the country and city is too significant to be ignored. The major cities Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds may get the benefit of a service but other cities in greater need in the East Midlands, North West, North East, East, South West and West get little or no benefit. Transport is a network of connections and this proposal makes limited contribution to the overall connectivity at great cost and over a very long timescale.

Above all the project has not been investigated from an agreed starting point. What is it trying to achieve, first it was speed until that was shown to be of limited benefit, then regeneration, then capacity or a mix of all three to justify the need. The objectors have picked off these arguments skillfully but there is no dialogue between design and politics and until there is the two sides will continue to fight.

The country cannot stop infrastructure development because it is difficult and complete acceptance across all interest groups is unachievable, but this project does seem to be heading in the direction of no benefit for anyone beyond a few with generous expense accounts and no time to switch off.