London’s Renaissance – Three Decades of Change

London 2012

Text: Goevert, Tobias, London; Polinna, Cordelia, Berlin

  • Bilderliste
    • Social Media Items Social Media Items

    Abb.: Design for London/GLA

    • Social Media Items Social Media Items

    Abb.: Design for London/GLA

  • Bilderliste
    • Social Media Items Social Media Items

    Canary Wharf
    Foto: Cordelia Polinna

    • Social Media Items Social Media Items
    Canary Wharf

    Foto: Cordelia Polinna

In 1980s London faced a real crisis. Property prices mushroomed, whole neighbourhoods fell into disrepair and the city faced total gridlock – just at the same time when the London government had been abolished by Margaret Thatcher. The drastic neo-liberal cure provoked a return to the drawing board. Since 2000, the city has been governed by a prototypical slim, unbureaucratic administration. It has defined high standards for the treatment of public space and tested new concepts for urban renewal in times of austerity.
Famously, after the Great Fire of 1666, London was not rebuilt according to the baroque plans submitted by Christopher Wren. Reconstruction with imposing avenues and grand gestures would have taken far too long and incurred high costs. Property owners urgently needed to regain a livelihood, and so the city thus rose from the ashes of its former mediaeval street plan.
Today market forces and frequent privately co-financed infrastructure once again play a more critical role in London’s urban development than in many other European cities. But nowhere else in Europe have there been such varying political conditions for planning in the past few decades. This unusual situation, characterised by uncertainty and radical upheavals, is one of the reasons why in the first twelve years of the 21st century London has developed a completely new approach to urban planning which – although in many aspects is not ideal – can be described as trailblazing, leading the way for many European cities.
London has grown considerably since the mid-1980s and today the city has a population of approximately 7.8 million, and current forecasts indicate a further 1.2 million will join them by 2030, with an additional 776,000 jobs. Economically this offers great opportunities, but for many sections of the population the resulting housing crisis presents a serious problem. Increasingly, families are unable to find affordable accommodation anywhere remotely close to the city centre, homeowners indebt themselves to an alarmingly high level with property loans and the boroughs are hardly able to pay rent subsidies to the needy. The city is obliged to strike a new path in urban planning.
The nineties crisis
The die was cast for a new approach to city planning in the Thatcher era. In 1986 the Greater London Council was summarily disbanded by the Prime Minister, who considered it to be too bureaucratic, expensive, left-wing and cumbersome. From then onwards the planning fortunes of the metropolis lay in the hands of the 32 underfunded boroughs and a few quangos such as the London Planning Advisory Committee which had not been democratically legitimised. The consequences of this policy soon became apparent. In the early 1990s London plunged into a deep crisis, whose effects are still being felt today. Soaring costs for residential and office space, an overstretched public transport system and an increasing fear of criminality made life difficult. Canary Wharf, the newly completed office and financial centre, started off as bankrupt ghost town. Extensive industrial wasteland throughout the city was waiting for new ideas. Public spaces were in a deplorable state. Street cafés and pedestrian footpaths were almost unknown, and cyclists were a rare species. London’s economic competitiveness was threatened in its very existence. In 1999 Richard Rogers declared, “We are lagging twenty years behind cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona”.
Back to planning
As a reaction to this crisis, architects, academics and representatives of business and industry called for a radical rethink and the reinstatement of a democratically legitimised city council - creating a strategic plan for Greater London and saving the city from collapse. In 1997 New Labour made the capital its central election issue, and following the election, Tony Blair and New Labour formed a new government. Since then city planners have been trying to steer planning policies according to the growing significance of the market and locational competition.
The planning-hostile politics of the Thatcher government provoked a “back to planning” mentality, and in 2000 – parallel to the spectacular building projects that celebrated the Millennium – the Greater London Authority (GLA) was newly founded and a Mayor elected. The Mayor of London, at that time Labour politician Livingstone, and Conservative Boris Johnson since 2008, is one of the country’s most powerful political figures. His policies are implemented by the Greater London Authority, the prototypical lean, unbureaucratic and strategically-oriented administration, which only came into being as a result of radical abolition and subsequent reinvention. Many decisions, such as planning approval for major building projects, are the result of negotiation, collaboration and compromise. Although the Mayor’s power vis-à-vis the boroughs and central government is limited by law, it is constantly growing due to his strong media presence and strategic priorities,
In 2001 Livingstone appointed Richard Rogers as Chief City Architect and called for London to be made a model city of the “Urban Renaissance”. In order to meet this demand with model projects at strategically important locations, Rogers founded the Architecture and Urbanism Unit to work parallel with other planning departments at the GLA. Under its current name, ‘Design for London’ enforces high quality standards of architecture and city urban planning and endeavours to anchor these in planning processes, projects and guidelines. The department advises local planning authorities and project developers on design issues, as well as offering direct support for urban planning projects. It intervenes in the planning process at the earliest possible stage – in projects in the public realm as well as in the development of London-wide strategies such as quality guidelines for public housing. Design for London has a special status within the administration – it cannot make legally binding decisions and must win the approval of key stakeholders to its suggestions for each project anew.
After fourteen years without a city government the first task of the GLA was to make itself heard and gain room for manoeuvre. Ken Livingstone took some radical steps. He introduced the “congestion charge” for central London, pursued a policy whereby 50% of the units in large-scale housing projects had to be affordable, and posed the question whether the view of St Paul’s Cathedral should really be protected on all sides. The Mayor of London successfully combined these initially outrageous sounding demands with his self-confident vision of an economically striving, sustainable and social London – establishing the GLA as a strong negotiating partner.
Where to put the growth?
How London reacts to an immense population growth by European standards remains a key issue for city planners. Even before Livingstone was elected, due to rising property prices private investors had brought a number previously stalled schemes back to life: the redevelopment of industrial and railway wasteland surrounding King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Victoria and Paddington stations. Inspired by Rogers’ vision of a compact city, Livingstone declared the concentration of dense residential and commercial projects at traffic nodes to be an important pillar of his development strategy, the so-called “London Plan”. The “London Overground” network was included in London’s tariff zone and extended to create improved links to districts with development potential outside the central area, such as Dalston and Hoxton. The Docklands Light Railway network was likewise extended and gave a new lease of life to disused docklands such as the Royal Docks in London’s hitherto difficult-to-reach East End. The objective was to promote the dynamic growth of the city – previously known for its low-density terrace housing – within the city boundaries and thus resist the temptation to expand into the city’s green belt or develop urban open areas. This was to be governed by master plans providing flexibility and speedy implementation, although the latter was not always as timely as the master plan for the current Olympic Park (page 20).
Since their national election victory in 2010, the Conservative government have placed high priority on the link between urban development and economic growth. As many funding programmes have been cut back or cancelled in the course of budget consolidation, publicly financed city development projects are now focused on those areas in which new office and commercial buildings or housing are anticipated – particularly on high streets, the main shopping streets that connect London’s neighbourhoods with each another and the city centre.
Designing public spaces
In the past decade London has experienced a quantum leap in the reinvention of public spaces. The dominance of motorised traffic and the resultant situation for pedestrians – fenced-in pavements or complicated zigzag road crossings – had long been a thorn in side of Richard Rogers. As London’s City Architect he was able to place this issue at the top of the Mayor’s agenda. This mainly involved improvements to the city’s important “front parlour” of tourist hotspots, first and foremost of which was Trafalgar Square. One of the main successes was however the reinterpretation of the Thames as London’s central lifeline, consisting of the continuous footpath along the South Bank, the London Eye and new pedestrian bridges such as the Millennium Bridge.
The upgrading of public open spaces triggered more positive development in the surrounding neighbourhoods, and here Design for London was able to promote several flagship projects and kick-start an important programme for Mayor Boris Johnson: “London’s Great Outdoors”. A highlight of this programme of improvements was a new town square with a library constructed in the centre of Barking, transforming the area from a small-scale, two-storey working class neighbourhood to a vibrant, high density town centre with over 500 new dwellings and commercial units, giving the long-time residents a perceptible improvement in amenity value.
An integrated approach to the streetscapes, highways and public space is gaining importance in the design of new streets and squares, with Woolwich as a fantastic example. Road engineering works, for example, are being extended to create well designed streets, and with projects such as the major reworking of Oxford Circus and Exhibition Road in Kensington it has been convincingly demonstrated that pedestrian-friendly zones and shared-space concepts are also possible in inner city districts dominated by traffic.
Green public spaces have also played a major role in London’s reawakening. A new planning instrument created in cooperation with local and regional partners, the East London Green Grid, lists all green and residual spaces in the eastern part of the city, and defines their need for change to bring stakeholders together. A key priority for the Green Grid is to make recreational areas in this spatially fragmented part of the city more accessible – an important example of which is Rainham Marshes. This area, formerly a waste-tip and restricted military zone, was renaturalised and has in-turn become an attraction for bird enthusiasts and local families alike. Links to the new leisure zone from the adjoining neighbourhoods and Rainham station have also been improved by constructing a pedestrian bridge.
But not all projects for the public realm have been implemented. Plans for the pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Parliament Square and Victoria Embankment, where traffic creates an almost insurmountable barrier between the City of Westminster and the River Thames, fell victim to cost-cutting measures and were shelved in 2008.
What comes after the Games?
After the Olympic Games Londoners will have to wait 18 months until they can take possession of the Olympic Park. In this re-modelling phase it is to be linked with the surrounding neighbourhoods, and only then will we see whether the so-called legacy concept of the Games bears fruit. The construction of the Crossrail high-capacity railway link and conversion of abandoned dockland sites such as the Royal Docks will also be determining factors in this city planning debate. Private investments account for the majority of construction projects in London and will make a visible mark on the cityscape in the coming years. One of the most conspicuous projects is at London Bridge Station, where a new neighbourhood is being built in the shadows of the “the Shard” skyscraper by Renzo Piano. Major projects such as King’s Cross, Chelsea Barracks, White City and the Battersea Power Station are now often regarded as the legacy of a past era in which speculation, simple credit approval processes and maximum returns were among the mainstays of urban development. More often these days, urban thinkers such as Tony Travers of the London School of Economics see London’s future in small projects launched by local initiatives and based on local economies – similar to those already implemented by the Outer London Fund or the Olympic Fringe. These consist of small or even temporary measures to test uses before investing large sums of money in long-term solutions, or they are renewal strategies to promote local production and exploit potential that will in turn trigger sustainable development of neighbourhoods. In the future it will be increasingly important to develop innovative negotiation and control processes, in order to implement projects that are viable in the long-term from a design perspective, but also from an economic and social point of view. The GLA teams are already exploring new ways of accomplishing this with limited resources, but with all the more inventiveness.

Architekten Rodgers, Richard, London
Adresse London

aus Bauwelt 24.2012
Artikel als pdf

0 Kommentare



Das aktuelle Heft

Bauwelt Newsletter

Das Wichtigste der Woche. Dazu: aktuelle Jobangebote, Auslobungen und Termine. Immer freitags – kostenlos und jederzeit wieder kündbar.