This blog post is based on a discussion held in February 2021, as part of London Futures. Participants included local planners, academics, urbanists and local government policymakers. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule.
The apparent paradox at the centre of this discussion was set out early on. London, so the cliché goes, is a city of villages, yet in recent years development has been focused in the city centre. Most power is still divided between City Hall and London’s boroughs, with minimal neighbourhood governance. So how might the capital’s neighbourhoods evolve and adapt to face the challenges ahead such as climate change, despite this deficit?
London has grown moderately well in recent years. Many neighbourhoods have improved, or been reborn successfully. New housing has sprung up, and newcomers integrated, although not always in ways that best suit the existing settlements. Central London has grown too, generating as much economic value per square foot as almost anywhere else on the planet, largely through the toil and ingenuity of the capital’s residents. If central London is the engine of London’s, and the UK’s, economy, the city’s neighbourhoods have supplied the fuel.
Population growth though, with coronavirus, and Brexit, can no longer be assumed, even though there is still a backlog of housing need. We do know though that many parts of London could support more, and more densely packed housing, alongside supporting infrastructure. As well as managing growth and development we also need to consider now how to manage, adapt and improve existing neighbourhoods, especially as many of us may find that our new home working patterns persist in some form.
Examples from abroad
So where might we look for inspiration? The L’Eixample district in Barcelona perhaps. Here the city is building on its ‘superblocks’ programme; joining up a set of city blocks into about 8,000 square metres of pro-pedestrian, pro-cyclist space, with very limited through car traffic, and looking for wider transformation. The centrepiece is a focus on major traffic intersections, radically transforming them away from car domination, and into new plazas, human-friendly and scaled public spaces and amenities. Superblocks have been much vaunted, and this new approach may also inspire urbanists worldwide. Our presenter urged, though, that we learn their crucial lesson: that good local engagement matters more than anything. Local people have to be at the centre of planning and implementation of change.
We also heard from the Netherlands. Cities could be hugely more resource efficient. The physics of cities illustrates how much of our cityscape could be up to 10 times more efficient at delivering what we want from our urban space. Part of what stops us capitalising on this might be lack of imagination. Rethinking energy, mobility, shelter and food, and even planning itself could be enormously fruitful. We went on to hear about ‘energy equality’, that is restricting citizens’ energy use to a much lower, but more equal level. This aims to solve the dilemma of unfairness as we transition away from fossil fuels. Think rationing, but of kilowatts that you use to light, heat, cook with, and power your appliances. This was brought to life as we heard about a community initiative in Switzerland that curtailed private washing machines use, in favour of more communal services, and dramatically lowered residents use of private cars. And elsewhere we heard about radical intervention in Toronto, where an entire neighbourhood was knocked down and replaced by a new socially mixed and highly sustainable quarter.
Where does London fit in?
Finally we heard some London experiences. An outer London borough grappling with densification, radial trunk roads and the rapid decline of retail on the high street. Here, things that seem key to neighbourhood improvement are better access to parks, animating high streets and integrating creativity and culture. Curation and placemaking will be crucial in this.
Elsewhere in London we heard more on the tensions created by recent low traffic neighbourhood schemes. History shows that change always produces community tension. Even the much vaunted Mini-Holland scheme in Waltham Forest faced a barrage of resistance at the time. But now in the midst of the pandemic, road management tensions seem to strike a deeper chord, with the narrow ‘loss of rights’ for car drivers threatening to boil over into the next progress versus reaction political fault-line.
There was also concern about the future of the city centre. Home working and an aversion to public transport could lower footfall and demand for offices drastically, at least in the medium term. But perhaps these trends could lead to the sharpest squeeze being on secondary centres like Croydon. City Hall and the boroughs have joined forces and are looking to deal with the city’s medium term challenges by setting nine ‘missions’. Inspired by the work of Professor Mariana Mazzucato from University College London, this framing of concerted action looks to galvanise and deliver concrete improvements quickly. Amongst these is the mission ‘High Streets for All’, which promises to:
‘”develop the capacity of local authorities and town centre partnerships to work with community groups and the private sector to plan for, safeguard and directly deliver a diverse, resilient and thriving mix of high street and town centre activity within easy reach of all Londoners.”
This is a step in the right direction. But it seems we’ll need to go further. Re-inventing London’s many town centres might need new institutions to empower residents to own, imagine, plan and make happen real improvements in the day to day fabric of their places. As our Founding Director and the discussion’s chair concluded, the level of governance that mediates between our own homes, and the entire city is crucial. In London the answer, which for decades has been the boroughs alone, needs to evolve, and take neighbourhood shape.
This phase of London Futures has been made possible with the generous support of our Funders, City Bridge Trust, Impact on Urban Health, Mastercard, and Van and Eva DuBose, our Major Sponsors, Greater London Authority, and the London Borough of Lambeth, and our Supporting Sponsors, Bosch, Port of London Authority, University of London, and Wei Yang & Partners.