Published on April 15th, 2014 |
by Firas Kay
Image © Source: http://chrisdent.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/london-2012-loose-leaf-editions.jpg - Copyright: Chris Den
An Argument for a Grand London Plan
There is a war of ideologies going on in the streets of London right now. It is one which goes at the heart of one of the biggest problems the UK has faced in recent times. How this conflict plays out will largely determine the UK’s place in global standings for decades to come. This is not about the bickering of the traditional political institutions of the left and right, neither is it a clash of thought between the classes. Instead this is one between those pushing for a modern London (and subsequently the entire UK) that moves with the times and can compete on the global stage (particularly with the meteorically booming economies of the East), and those stuck in a moment in time that has long passed and are therefore risk holding the entire country back.
Last year I attended a London housing debate hosted by the Evening Standard. As a concerned Londoner in my mid-20s, I am seeing first-hand the worrying shifts in trends in London and we’ve all read the headlines. Central London being emptied out as investors flock in to purchase hot real estate while the capital’s inhabitants are constantly propelled into the outskirts creating social tension, massive socio-demographical rifts and most worryingly, a clear delineation between an extremely rich inner London, richest in Europe per capita, and an increasingly poor and worn down suburban ring that goes far into the South East. Further to that, the large influx of European citizens and non-EU migrants who are now calling London their home, coupled with an ever growing population in the city’s metropolitan area, has meant that demand has dwarfed supply. In a recent study, it was revealed that in London house buyers out-number properties for sale by 13 to one.
So I attended with anticipation, hoping the debate will try to address some of the myriad of problems that are becoming an imminent threat to the UK’s position in the world. Among the wide array of highly invocative thoughts that evening was one by author & philosopher Alan de Botton in which he called upon the implementation of a ‘London Plan’. The debate’s moderator, the BBC’s John Sopel interjected asking if he meant something along the lines of ‘The Paris Plan’, referring to Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Alan said “why not”, and he went on to explain how most of London is mostly 2 or 3 stories high, thus creating a situation where so much of the population is spread out inefficiently over a relatively small area. He was right, if London was to compare with Paris (taking Eurostat’s ‘Larger Urban Zones’ concept – a geographical area defined in a manner similar to the commuter belt), we find that while both cities’ urban zones contain around 12 million inhabitants, Paris is spread out over an area one and a half the size of London. Paris simply isn’t bound by a Green Belt that clearly limits its growth area. Therefore the density of Paris is along the lines of Rome and Budapest, while London’s is similar to Liverpool’s, even though London is 8 times its size.
But while the comparison with Paris Plan might not be so apt in our modern times, given the strong authoritarian drive behind Napoleon III’s need for a capital at the heart of his strong empire with wide avenues to theoretically aide his army in crushing the recurring inner city rebellions, the idea for a Grand London plan is indeed one that has been in debate for quite some time. Recent shifts in housing trends and behaviour have only made the strong views on either aisle of this discussion stauncher.
This was typified with two recent developments on the London development scene. The first was the publishing of the Farrell Review which since early 2013 has been looking at the UK’s built environment and the state of architecture within it. The second, which coincided with the review, was the launch of the Skyline campaign by New London Architecture and The Observer calling for an immediate governmental review into the state of London’s upcoming 200 odd “skyscrapers” (20 stories or above).
Both the review and the campaign highlight very well that healthy debate among Londoners on the future of their city is much needed and shockingly missing. They fall short in addressing the reasons behind the UK’s current dismal architectural and design status. Despite this, they have provided the world with some of the brightest and most innovative architects and designers of recent times. It is not a coincidence that Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid all hail from this creative pit. London’s status as a hub of design and architecture didn’t come about out of thin air; it has in fact been decades in the making.
The Farrell Review goes into painstaking to identify historic faults and recommends pointers for improving the UK’s current and future state of architecture. Similarly, the Skyline campaign passionately argues that out of the 200 or so upcoming skyscrapers in mostly central and East London, the majority are very poorly designed and are not environmentally friendly. Isn’t this the same debate we’ve heard time and again whenever a city faces a period of sudden growth? Indeed, and the arguments are always valid. However, the issue right at the heart of bad architecture and design is not that these buildings make little effort to integrate with their surroundings. It is that the planning laws in the UK are just really awful and archaic. Perfectly well designed buildings are rejected for small logistical errors, while downright ugly beasts start filling up the London skyline to accommodate the sudden rush to invest in the city. The global turmoil in places that were previously considered investment havens like MENA, Russia and to a lesser extent the Tiger Club economies have heavily impacted the London scene. Rich investors are flocking to London at a phenomenal rate. This has caused a steep increase, 13.2%, in London house prices over the past year, and subsequently, has its own detrimental effect on the rest of the country.
All this leads us to further assert the need for a bold and ambitious governmental step; one that brings the UK back to the forefront of global development. This has to be well thought out plan for the entire nation, with the capital at the heart of it. This would be one that takes all current and upcoming development and infrastructure projects across the country (HS2, Cross Rail, hub aviation status, brownfield sites, all London development projects, spatial awareness, environment, green belt repositioning) and incorporates them as part of a singular vision for London and the UK over the next 50 to 100 years. Such a plan would need its own ministry, a hefty budget, a healthy cooperation with the private sector (under close governmental leadership) and, most importantly, an appetite from a well-informed and educated public.
This would mean that, logistically, planning and permissions could either be taken away from local governments or, at the very least, completely revamped to go in line with this new vision. Every single London borough would need to accept this future vision for the city and act accordingly. No more planning shackles and inner London borough politics – this is bigger than this. We need something even more ambitious than the New Towns Act in post WWII Britain. Building three garden cities in Ebbsfleet and elsewhere with merely 15000 homes each is hardly the answer. Britain’s forefathers built 27 garden cities in less than a decade after WWII!
On the ground, this could translate in several ways. In London, we could re-purpose mass areas of low architectural quality and medium density into mini-New Towns in their own right. Areas in suburban West and East London built in haste during the post-WWII years, and which are of poor design standards and lack character, need to be completely re-built from the ground up into a ‘New Town’ or more aptly a ‘New Suburb.’ Something along the lines of Amsterdam’s plans for South and West Amsterdam post-WWII, which re-designed massive swathes of marshlands into residential and business areas and included an expansion of the transport network. These areas are now at the forefront of Amsterdam’s global positioning and have aided the city in its highly ambitious desire to be a leader on the European scene.
Another similar and even more realistic model could be Ildefons Cerdà’s Eixample in Barcelona during the 19th century. It expanded the city beyond its old walls and created a marvel that is still considered exemplary of modern city planning to this day. Cerdà’s planning was considered of such a high calibre because he planned the city with the community in mind. He therefore carefully positioned hospitals, schools and markets in a cyclical manner every certain repetition of blocks. When the New Town of Milton Keynes was built in 1960s, it was among the many inspirations that Derek Walker, the city’s urban planner, cited. Just like Amsterdam in Northern Europe, Barcelona too is now leveraging to its advantage in a bid to ascertain its rising position as a hub for technology, trade and commerce in Southern Europe.
Brownfield sites could be other areas for consideration. At the moment, there are indeed a plethora of these brownfield sites that are being re-purposed into big housing and commercial developments. They are all, however, being developed independently of each other, which means that they are not all sharing one vision for London and for the UK. With a clear plan governing all these, London can move forward in tandem, and all these projects will synchronize and feed into each other positively. King’s Cross re-development would feed into Euston’s, and subsequently this can combine with the re-development of Nine Elms, as an example, and be part of the big plan.
But it does not have to be on an immediately grandiose scale. Smart cities of the future are all about agility and reusing structures that already exist. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect the UK government to draw up a strategy of such proportions in a short space, and we’re not calling for something this rash. But as we are already seeing such a wide array of disparate projects across the UK, though mainly centred in and around the South East, and as the demand for properties and services in general soars, it becomes prudent that they are all part of one vision. As it currently stands, the stakeholder pool is just too big, and the government is being driven by the private sector rather than the converse, which is fundamental in any urban plan.
Skyscrapers and mid-rises, while rightly criticized in the Skyline campaign due to bad design in the London area, should not be vilified in general. When done right, tall buildings are not only extremely environmentally friendly as they vastly reduce their inhabitants carbon footprint (when the alternative are terraced houses with private gardens that eat up too much space), but they are also at the heart of community development and growth. And with the right plan which factors in large green spaces on the edges of cities (like the ‘bois’ on the outskirts of Paris or the big national parks outside Montreal or Toronto), these structures become pillars of any modern future city. London is not going to stop growing; we can either expect it to keep breaking the Green Belt through its sprawl, or to go up. Ideally, a plan would be agile enough to incorporate both ideas. The Green Belt would have to expand and reposition indeed, but London would also need to start rising up vertically in a controlled and well-designed manner.
It is often said that the 19th century belonged to Paris, the 20th to New York and that the 21st century will belong to London. If we are to live up to such a saying and continue paving the way for London’s dominance on the global scene, then we must follow what both of these two cities did at the core of their growth eras. In the 17th century Paris had a young and ambitious Eugene Haussmann backed by an empirically driven Napoleon. In the 19th century New York had the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 which is considered “the single most important document in New York City’s development”. Does London have enough of a drive and desire to go the full length and make sure that the city continues to lead the way in commerce, culture, education, services and beyond in the next century? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain, it all has to start in a plan, and why not, a Grand Plan?!