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Oxymorons and idiosyncrasies: London's private public spaces

In the eyes of visiting international architects with the Van Alen Institute, London’s privately-owned public spaces reveal a negotiated and compromised city, Christine Murray reports

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Members of the Van Alen Institute admiring the repurposed former Olympic Park. Photo: Marina Piedade
Members of the Van Alen Institute admiring the repurposed former Olympic Park. Photo: Marina Piedade

The Bedford Estate, one of London’s 16 great estates, is a touchstone for British architects, with its handsome, Georgian terraced houses and garden squares. The fact that the estate also contains the country’s most famous architecture school, the AA, which counts Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers among its alumni, elevates its status to mythic.

 

But the palpable reaction of members of the Van Alen Institute’s International Council is not of delight. The 19-strong group of architects, engineers and urban designers are with me on a field trip to the estate, which is owned by the Russell family. Standing in the family’s private grounds, surrounded by the backs of terraced houses, the group is full of questions.

 

“You mean the people living in these houses can’t use this garden?” asks one architect, staring at the back doors of the homes, which open onto a black, wrought-iron fence.

 

“No, but the hotel that backs onto this garden can host weddings here,” explains Simon Elmer, steward of the Bedford Estate.

 

“Host weddings… in the residents’ garden?”

 

“It’s not the residents’ garden.”

 

London’s relationship to POPS is long and deep-rooted. The great estates are part of the city’s psyche and are seen as benevolent

 

It is an apt start to ‘Private means to public ends: the role of the private sector in city making’ – a tour of the capital’s privately owned public spaces (POPS) and the idiosyncratic rules and inherent compromises that characterise them.

 

Stacey Anderson, associate director of business development and special initiatives at Van Alen, says the topic was inspired by the contentious opening of Hudson Yards in Manhattan. The US$25bn New York development sparked outcry over its use of US$5.6bn in taxpayer subsidies, as well as its policy, since rescinded, that personal photographs taken of its centrepiece structure, Vessel, were owned by Hudson Yards’ developer Related.

 

The New York-based Van Alen Institute arranges twice-yearly trips such as these, as part of the 125-year-old, not-for-profit’s mission to “catalyse positive change in cities”. Its International Council, founded in 2014 with Kai-Uwe Bergmann of the Bjarke Ingels Group, aims to “expand Van Alen’s mission to improve cities globally”, bringing together thought leaders from around the world to investigate urban issues.

 

The current chairs are Alfredo Caraballo and Daniel Elsea of Allies and Morrison, and Carl Backstrand and Monica von Schmalensee of White Arkitekter.

 

International Council, with Building Centre’s model of London. Photo: Marina Piedade
International Council, with Building Centre’s model of London. Photo: Marina Piedade

 

London’s relationship to POPS is long and deep-rooted. The great estates are part of the city’s psyche and are seen as benevolent contributions. According to Dr Patrice Derrington, director of the real estate development programme at Columbia University, the Bedford Estate is the oldest example in the world of private, speculative real estate, beginning with the land deal in Covent Garden.

 

Over three days, the tour puzzles over the benefits and trade-offs of the free market designing the marketplace. My role, as embedded journalist, is to take the pulse of the attendees and ask difficult questions. It also falls to me and other London-based attendees to provide context.

 

 

If love and football are shared international languages, bureaucracy is not. The peculiarities of the planning system, Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 contributions, leaseholds versus freeholds, affordable rent (and how it is not really affordable), shared ownership, the role of housing associations, council housing and the Right to Buy make explaining the offside rule sound like child’s play.

 

On a guided tour through central Somers Town in north-west London, we hear how the public sector is forced to make compromises, too, in order to self-fund the construction of facilities in an age of cuts. Here, on 2.2 hectares of the London Borough of Camden’s land, the sale of new housing funds affordable housing, community facilities and a new public park, on land freed up by squeezing the playgrounds of a school.

 

If love and football are shared international languages, bureaucracy is not... The peculiarities of the planning system make explaining the offside rule sound like child’s play

 

Deborah Saunt, partner at architecture studio DSDHA, which undertook the masterplan, explains that the grounds were reduced and a play court stacked, in order to create a series of linked green spaces and clear land for apartment blocks.

 

At King’s Cross Central, the 67-acre private estate developed by Argent Related where Google, Universal Music and YouTube have their offices, notable is the private security, ground rules and how the development knits into the city. The visitors admire the scale, quality and ambition of the architecture and its vast public spaces, including parks, canal-side steps and Granary Square.

 

Unlike Somers Town, which is an ordinary piece of city, the King’s Cross campus is cut off from surrounding (deprived) neighbourhoods and patrolled by the red caps, who provide information, cleaning services and security.

 

They also enforce the site’s many arbitrary regulations, which one source says include “anything that might hurt or offend you or someone else”. You can ride a skateboard or carry a ball, but you can’t do a skateboarding trick or kick a football; you can take photographs, but not with a tripod. None of this is written down, so you are free to do what you like… until you aren’t.

 

 

Recent revelations about the use of facial recognition technology at King’s Cross add to the creepiness – not least because the technology is said to be 95% inaccurate. It is rumoured that high-end department stores in London are investing in the technology, too, to identify big spenders and shoplifters alike: humans are increasingly data points to be pondered over and manipulated into further shopping, drinking or eating.

 

In contrast, a visit to the Olympic Park – also a private estate with its own CCTV cameras and security – is a feel-good moment. The wide-open green spaces, renewed canals, wild-flower meadows, playgrounds and impressive leisure facilities, including the Aquatics Centre and the velodrome, are seen as genuinely altruistic. Repurposing the curious great shed of Here East into offices, a future museum and a university outpost is forward-thinking, too, in the context of net zero carbon, when you think the other option is demolition.

 

But if the park is a gift to this neighbourhood, the compromise is found in the new cityscape that edges it. The hodgepodge skyline around Stratford Station is described by the Van Alen visitors as a “mess”, the housing of East Village is “strangely suburban” and “seemingly deserted”, while the new developments of Hackney Wick and Fish Island are dismissed as “generic”.

 

“I could be anywhere,” says one architect. “I don’t know how they’re getting away with it.”

 

As to why there is no affordable housing at Sugar House Island, a source close to the project reveals the local council (Newham) said it had enough poor people

 

To the outsider architect, where the new architecture of east London isn’t hideous, it is boring. Local architects and developers speak smugly of the designs riffing on the aesthetic of warehouses and sheds. But it is pointless to riff on a neighbourhood of demolished low-rent industrial buildings that were only cool because they once housed the biggest concentration of artists in Europe.

 

Whether new development or future rendering, whether housing, offices or mixed-use co-working incubator spaces, the so-called ‘brown biscuit architecture’ of London’s planning-friendly vernacular looks as bland and flavourless as a digestive.

 

Riffing on the past has dangerous connotations, too. Vastint’s Sugar House Island development is named after the sugar trade, despite its associations with slavery. This seems more than a little inappropriate for a fancy housing development in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. The fact that there is no affordable or social housing on the whole island doesn’t help either.

 

Asked whether they had concerns about this becoming a middle-class gated island in a sea of poverty, Vastint UK’s regeneration manager Valli van Zijl says the generous public spaces were a gift that would serve and attract people from local neighbourhoods.

 

As to why there is no affordable housing at Sugar House Island, a source close to the project reveals the local council (Newham) said it had enough poor people: “They didn’t need any more poor-people housing. They were trying to attract people with money.”

 

The King’s Cross estate has CCTV cameras and deploys facial recognition technology. Getty
The King’s Cross estate has CCTV cameras and deploys facial recognition technology. Getty

 

The east London developments also share a relaxed attitude to climate change, despite their location near the River Lea and its marshes. Some of the new buildings have been raised up or feature newly reinforced banks along the canal.

 

But in this high-risk flood zone, uneven flood protection will make rising waters worse for surrounding communities. Planning documents for Hackney Wick justify construction here because of the pressing need for housing.

 

But when asked about the inevitability of flooding, architects and developers are blasé, except to say that buildings comply with rules and regulations. There is also unshakeable belief in the Thames Barrier – designed to protect London from a tidal surge until 2030, after which its standard of protection will slowly decline.

 

As for POPS, their idiosyncrasies are the product of a city once reluctant to undertake capital projects and instead haggling for a cut of the property boom

 

As the Van Alen International Council tour comes to an end, it strikes me that there is a certain smugness in the industry about the scale of what has been achieved in London over the past decade. Certainly, the projects do impress. But who benefits? London homelessness hit a record high in 2018 after an 18% rise. In the boroughs we visit – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Camden and Islington – roughly 40% of children live in poverty after housing costs. New developments have alienated less-affluent neighbours and dispersed fragile communities: the artists of Hackney Wick have been displaced, the housing estates that surround King’s Cross are still impoverished, and ‘Olympic-legacy’ borough Newham has the highest rate of homelessness in England.

 

As for POPS, their idiosyncrasies are the product of a city reluctant to undertake capital projects and instead haggling for a cut of the property boom. On a spreadsheet, this model can look win-win, but for the citizen, there is no such thing as a free lunch: a concert in the POPS square means ceding your freedom of assembly, protest and privacy, and many of these new communities have invisible gates.

 

Before the next phase of negotiation, compromise and construction begins, we need to develop a more sophisticated measure of success than city beautification and open access to public space. Will the residents of these places be better off?

 

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