How does it work, who is there – and who isn’t? How does the masterplan influence behaviour on and off its campus? This exclusive report by anthropologist and social researcher Nitasha Kapoor explores the user experience of King’s Cross Central, with photography by John Sturrock
Above: Granary Square has placed public realm at the heart of the development, making what was still a construction site into a destination
The aim of this report is to create a discussion among people involved in the design and ongoing evolution of King’s Cross, including developers, architects, urban planners, business owners, established and incoming local residents, local councils, and other members of the community.
It summarises findings from an analysis, or ‘placetest’, of the new King’s Cross Central conducted in October and November last year. The Developer commissioned this analysis to understand how the site works from the perspective of the people who use it, with the aim of capturing best practices for now and in the future.
Anthropologist and social researcher Nitasha Kapoor conducted the research using short interviews with people on site and in the surrounding communities, longer structured interviews and follow-up conversations over the course of a month, direct observation of usage, and an analysis of signs and communications on site. Kapoor considered how the place is (and is not) used, how the built environment makes people feel and affects people’s experiences, what contributes to this, the roles of communications, signs and advertising, and how the products and services available contribute to the experience of the place.
The study reveals several insights into how people experience places. The development hosts different activities, including work, school, shopping, play and relaxation, but the site is geared towards satisfying a ‘treat’ mindset. One consequence of this is that people who can’t afford the things on offer can feel at a disadvantage
Putting the past behind it
The locality behind King’s Cross Station was an industrial area in Victorian times, with workers often living in the neighbouring communities. After World War II, it suffered from neglect and disuse; by the 1980s, it largely comprised abandoned factories, warehouses and small businesses, such as mechanics, freight companies and bus garages. King’s Cross had a reputation for drug-related criminal activity and prostitution, but the relatively cheap rent for a central London location also attracted artists and other creative communities. In the 1990s, clubs such as Bagley’s became popular venues for raves, bringing thousands of people to the area.
The decision to move the UK Eurostar terminus from Waterloo to St Pancras led landowners London and Continental Railways and Exel (now DHL) to invest in the area’s redevelopment. In 2001, they selected Argent as the development partner and construction began in 2007/08. Part of the development, including Central Saint Martins art and design school in the central Granary Square, opened to the public for the first time in 2011. The Developer’s study coincided with the opening in November of Coal Drops Yard, a high-end collection of shops and restaurants next to the centre of the development, Granary Square.
This report offers insight into how people currently experience the site, but it is important to note that development will be ongoing until the early 2020s – only about half the development is currently complete, and Google’s new offices on King’s Boulevard between King’s Cross Station and Granary Square are still being built, for example.
The analysis also only captures a particular season. The research took place as the weather was turning cooler and while there were some unseasonably warm days, which encouraged people to spend time outdoors, this was not in the numbers we see during the warmer summer months. However, we did explore with the people we met their memories of how the site was used in the summer and the report includes these findings.
The study reveals several insights into how people experience places. The development hosts different activities, including work, school, shopping, play and relaxation, but the site is geared towards satisfying a ‘treat’ mindset. One consequence of this is that people who can’t afford the things on offer can feel at a disadvantage. The site’s design is oriented away from its surroundings towards Granary Square, which means it is particularly important to consider the edges of the development, to build pathways into the area and shared experiences between communities. The relationship between the development and local communities is also fragile. Local people have suggested several initiatives to improve this, which the report will discuss later.
The openness of a square generally imposes a certain quality to interactions: the middle can make you feel exposed, so people tend to stick to the edges
The site and the square
King’s Cross Central has the shape of an inverted teardrop. Railways and the canal run along the west and north sides, while King’s Cross and St Pancras stations are to the south. York Way runs along the east side, separating the boroughs of Camden and Islington. Somers Town is to the west, Copenhagen Street and Bemerton Estate to the east, Maiden Lane Estate to the north. The borough of Camden has given the site its own postcode: N1C.
Housing ranges from social to luxury, and there are two primary schools, numerous office blocks containing companies including Universal Music, restaurants, a cinema, and outdoor spaces.
Foot traffic tends to enter from King’s Boulevard in the south, York Way and Kings Place (currently home to The Guardian and The Observer newspapers), or the canal. The newly opened Somers Town bridge connects Camley Street to Coal Drops Yard, but it is too early to know what effect this will have.
The heart of the development is Granary Square, which is in the tradition of the European town square. Town squares have been a central feature of European urban planning for thousands of years. They are traditionally public places designed for everybody – the sites of markets and social exchange. They are places to be seen and heard, in contrast to the privacy of the home, the members’ club or the office.
The openness of a square generally imposes a certain quality to interactions: the middle can make you feel exposed, so people tend to stick to the edges. William H Whyte’s 1980 study The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces identifies features that soften the wide, open space of the town square:
1. Areas designed to invite people in to sit and relax, such as movable tables and chairs so they can create their own social settings
2. Areas that break up the space and make it feel less exposed, such as tree canopies, water features and sculptures
3. Things that give people something to do and talk about, such as food vendors, events and performances
4. Other people: “Who’s there? People like me or not? Do I belong?”
5. The interaction between the square and its surroundings. For example, how inviting is it to walk into the square? Is it visible? Is there easy access?
We will use these points to explore how the development works as a place.
The development in numbers
Capital cost: £3bn
Social value generated: £21m
Community well-being uplift: £12m
Services and amenities jobs: 160
On-site jobs: 8,500
Estimated uplift: £0.5bn+ per year
Business rates generated: £25m/annum
Commercial space: 1.4 million sq ft (three million sq ft planned)
Percentage occupied: 97%
New homes provided: 900 (325 affordable)
Student rooms: 750
Working-age residents: 1,200
Visitors to date: more than seven million
Source: Trowers & Hamlins LLP’s The Real Value Report
Points 1-3: a place to rest and do things
The openness of Granary Square lends itself to certain behaviours. The site is very clean and cleaners tidy up litter. The area is perceived to be very safe, with security guards visible, which encourages visits by some groups, such as families with young children and women late at night. Some people don’t notice the security guards or cameras, but say the area feels safe.
Granary Square attracts people who are there for work, art students, families and schools with young children, visitors shopping or eating, and tourists. For the most part, they see it as a ‘treat space’ – somewhere special or a destination. There are no ‘routine’ shops – no banks, post offices, off-licences, corner shops or pharmacies. Waitrose becomes the go-to for everything people need every day, or they go to King’s Cross Station. Food trucks arrive for lunchtimes Wednesday to Friday, with a different mix of vendors each day, which makes the square feel dynamic. There’s a full programme of events and experiences – ranging from free (Dr Bike, Discover N1C tours, the Canopy Market chocolate festival) to expensive (tea-blending masterclasses: £35; Spiritland talk: £79; Couples Kitchen at Waitrose: £100). Most people appear to have thought about what they’re going to wear that day, be it office workers in suits, expressive art students or visitors having a day out.
Many people who use the square are not locals. They may work on-site but they live elsewhere. They may have travelled in from other parts of the country to meet a friend in London, or they may be meeting people from other parts of London in a central location.
People who work in the area and pass through it as part of their commute see it as a breath of fresh air: a bonus during an otherwise routine part of the day, an opening of space and sky, and a place for different experiences and people-watching. It’s a place for them to treat themselves – they might step into a nice shop, have a look around and buy something.
In warmer weather, families with small children use the square as a fun and cheap day out. They sit and have picnics by the canal or play in the fountains.
The products and services that designate Granary Square as a treat space and make it so popular also create an inherent cost of entry. Visitors may ask themselves: “Do I feel comfortable being seen or heard in this place? Can I afford to be seen or heard in this place?”
These questions are not new – places are regularly designed with specific interests, tastes and behaviours in mind. However, the development is marketed and largely praised as ‘a place for everyone’, including the established neighbouring communities.
Granary Square has met three of Whyte’s requirements. It is busy and active; there are events, dynamic water features, canal boats going by, food trucks at lunchtimes, art installations, and places to sit and rest.
But when we explore the last two requirements – who is in the square and access to the square – it is less obvious that it is a place ‘for everyone’.
The coffee queue used to be free to everyone, but you now need a Waitrose loyalty card, a receipt from a purchase at Waitrose and a reusable cup to get the free coffee. This has limited the groups of people who can access the coffee – for example, some students don’t want to get the loyalty card or don’t want to buy something
Point four: who’s there and who’s missing?
Squares are traditionally a place of performance, formally and informally, and this seems particularly true for Granary Square. It is a place for people-watching and in turn a place to be seen.
The square is relatively new, which lends itself to looking around and exploring the site and the people in it.
The canal, canal steps, architecture and openness of the sky make for excellent light and an ideal backdrop for photographs.
There is continual change, with different food vendors, art installations and programmes of events.
Visitors take selfies: “It’s such great light – I’m always taking selfies of myself on my way to work.”
People take pictures of the Word on the Water book-barge, an independently owned second-hand bookshop with live music and performances on the canal.
There are many tours of the site – both formal tour groups and independent tourists.
Fitness classes take place outside Waitrose, to the east of the square.
People on site are mostly young or middle-aged professionals, art students, and parents with young children, and predominantly middle-class, although more affluent people may now be visiting, following the opening of Coal Drops Yard. Some working-class local residents from neighbouring estates visit the site to use Waitrose, when there are popular free outdoor events or for a nice day out with their families; however, these numbers drop off in cooler months.
At this time, in the winter months, users are predominantly white: there are very few black or mixed-race people, although there are some people of Asian or South Asian descent.
Portrait: The ‘free’ Waitrose coffee queue
During the colder months, mixing of different groups is most likely to happen in the Waitrose ‘free’ coffee queue. These include builders, pensioners, students, local residents from on-site and offsite communities, and office workers. The in-store cafe has a similarly diverse range of people.
The coffee queue used to be free to everyone, but you now need a Waitrose loyalty card, a receipt from a purchase at Waitrose and a reusable cup to get the free coffee. This has limited the groups of people who can access the coffee – for example, some students don’t want to get the loyalty card or don’t want to buy something.
The coffee queue in Waitrose illustrates everyday life in the King’s Cross development – there is a daily, inherent cost to feeling like you belong. The exceptions are the fountains, for which you only need a child, and the free programme of events.
Top: King’s Cross Central’s fountains draw in young families of all backgrounds in the warmer months
Bottom: Granary Square and the canal steps are extremely popular in the warmer months
Central Saint Martins
Central Saint Martins is located at the top of Granary Square and has two main entrances: one in the square and one directly across from Waitrose. Large numbers of the college’s students express themselves outwardly through their clothes, hair, tattoos and piercings.
Many say they are used to having their pictures taken without permission (“It comes with the territory”), but the site contributes to their feeling that they are “in a fishbowl”. Many therefore avoid the square altogether, preferring the eastern or smaller northern route offsite.
The design of the college further enhances this idea of public performance: the studios along the eastern edge of the building have large windows, which means passers-by can watch the students working.
“Working-class locals visit the site to use Waitrose, attend free outdoor events, or for a day out with their families; however, these numbers drop off in cooler months”
Portrait: Rubie Green, student artist
Rubie has one of the studios with large windows facing Waitrose and feels they put the students’ artistry on display.
“We call this place ‘the fishbowl’ – the art student aquarium,” she says. “The school uses the windows as a living advert. Sometimes we glare back.”
She used to use the grass outside Waitrose on a nice day, less so now there are so many office workers there. “It’s great that they’ve kept Camley Street Nature Park [a park to the south-west of the square],” she adds.
We spoke about the psychological distance to neighbouring communities: “Walking to Caledonian Road [a station to the north-east of the development], you see how stark the differences are… There are opportunities to cross over – you don’t have to walk far to see Maiden Lane or Somers Town.”
She believes that by “being in the worst of gentrification”, the students are not sheltered from it and their art becomes a response to the commerce around them: “Either go with it or rail against it – comment on it.” Her “silver lining” is that studying art in such close proximity to so much commerce and so many companies can unite the art students in a common fight against the corporate world.
When speaking to residents in the surrounding communities, we often heard stories about how they don’t feel welcome because they “don’t wear the right things”
Portrait: residents in offsite communities
When speaking to residents in the surrounding communities, we often heard stories about how they don’t feel welcome because they “don’t wear the right things”; the shops and restaurants are too expensive and not places they would think to go to. Some people went as far as to say they felt watched and actively excluded:
“They give discounts and free tickets to the people who live in the new flats but never to our communities. It’s mean”;
“There is no obvious signage that says where the toilets are. Do I have to buy something?”;
“The security guards stare at us. They don’t expect to see us here”;
“It’s one thing to go and sit outside in the summer but what about when it’s cold outside? Where can I go inside where I don’t have to spend a fortune? They’ll let us be outside, but not inside because that’s expensive.”
Some people welcomed the perceived safety of the site, even if they were unaware of the security presence and CCTV; others noticed the security acutely.
The seasonality of a place is particularly relevant when thinking about how a community is formed and sustains itself over time. Free outdoor events and activities are available in King’s Cross Central, but there are not the same kinds of free or affordable activities indoors.
Pancras Square, which lies between Granary Square and the two stations, houses Camden Borough Council’s offices, a public library, leisure centre and swimming pool, but there are almost no signs and people on-site seem largely unaware of these public facilities.
The shops on the development are established mid to high-end chains (for example, Caravan and Waitrose) and mid to high-end restaurants and boutiques (such as The Lighterman and Spiritland). The food trucks that come to the development may borrow conceptually from the tradition of cheap street food but they offer lunch at a treat price – a survey of what was available found the average price of a box of food was £8. The lack of cheaper options for eating, socialising and shopping effectively excludes many of the local citizens from the development. It precludes shops, cafes and bars from becoming community hubs where most local residents feel welcome and they can develop relationships with the staff or owners.
The exception to this is the Word on the Water book-barge, which has floated along Regent’s Canal for years but has taken up permanent residence by Granary Square. There are regular jazz performances and it is an independent business run by friendly people whom many in the area know by their first names. It is undoubtedly one of the area’s highlights – as evidenced by the number of people taking pictures of it.
Those who come from the existing community to the development often do so because someone from the local community has shown them around and made them feel like there are things for them there, too.
Portrait: Lesley, local resident
Lesley lives in a neighbouring community and walks through the development to get to her gym (Pancras Square Leisure), shops at Waitrose and gets her coffee. She considers the development “her space”; even though it’s private land, she uses it as a public space and feels confident in it, saying: “We have to take up as much space as possible.”
Lesley likes many things about Granary Square: the Skip Garden community garden and kitchen, where she learns how to cook, grows herbs and buys cheap vegetables; the steps to the canal; and the free outdoor space. She feels working-class people do make use of the fountains, tennis and football facilities and events. She brings friends to the area and shows them there are free events: “They do a good job having things for the community… for now. This is two Labour councils, side by side. Right now, things are good. What could happen if Camden went Tory? This could all change.”
She especially values the site for being safe, clean and – in theory – a place for everyone. However, she doesn’t know if all spaces are public and gets the sense that some places aren’t as inviting as others: “Are the playgrounds for everyone? You could imagine someone asking you where you live.”
Lesley represents a best-case scenario for a local resident – she makes herself feel comfortable in whatever spaces are available to her and encourages other people to feel the same by bringing them along.
Lesley represents a best-case scenario for a local resident – she makes herself feel comfortable in whatever spaces are available to her and encourages other people to feel the same by bringing them along
Pay and display
Almost all products, services and experiences available at King’s Cross Central are treats, and treats, by definition, are out of the ordinary and only happen occasionally.
The sense of performance that goes hand in hand with creating a treat space has resulted in an atmosphere that can exclude people who feel they can’t afford to be there. However, there are many ways to ‘pay’:
Social capital: “Have I gained entry and acceptance through who I know or where I work?” Who has it: white-collar workers and those working in creative and technical jobs.
Cultural capital: “Am I worth taking a picture of? Will this look good on Instagram?” Who has it: kids playing in the fountains, art students doing photoshoots, and people taking selfies.
Financial capital: “Do I have enough money to buy things here? Do I look like I have enough money to browse here?” Who has it: those browsing in high-end shops such as Margaret Howell and Tom Dixon.
On the one hand, Argent has populated the place: the development is busy, active and filled with people eating, studying, working and shopping. On the other hand, the lack of provision for everyday life means people don’t go to the site for routine things or they have to go offsite.
This causes frustration for those who are on-site every day for work or study, or those in neighbouring communities who would visit the site more often and feel more welcome if their everyday needs could be met there.
Top: Canopy Market is held outside Waitrose on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays, plus special openings such as Valentine’s Day
Bottom: People on site recognise that they are part of the performance art, which contributes to an excess of photo-taking
Point five: the interaction between the square and its surroundings
The fifth feature of Whyte’s list for building successful small urban spaces is to consider how people access the site. The edges between the existing communities and King’s Cross Central reveal and affect the degree to which the development is permeable. Do they allow everyone to have easy in-routes? Have they considered everyone’s needs?
Signs and maps are important features that help to make sense of public space. Crucially, they can soften the edges between very different places and encourage permeability. Currently, the signs on the site reinforce the exclusive, inward-looking nature of the development.
There are signs and maps on the development’s perimeter hoardings, which guide people into the development and help them to navigate their way around the site. But there is little on-site that leads out into the neighbouring communities – for example, towards transport links such as Caledonian Road & Barnsbury Overground Station. There are no signs directing people to public toilets, only small icons on the site maps.
The children’s and adults’ libraries are not included on maps on the site – Pancras Square Library is not listed under ‘academic’, ‘arts and culture’ or ‘services’. The building that contains the library is listed as ‘Pancras Square Leisure’, but it is unclear that it is a public facility that also contains a swimming pool.
Furthermore, there is no sign on Pancras Square Leisure indicating that a library or swimming pool is inside. This same building contains Camden Council’s offices and the word ‘Camden’ is in large letters on the facade; however, Camden Council is not included on site maps.
Placing community members’ names and contributions on the gate infuses Edward Square with human presence. By contrast, visitors must reach the middle of Granary Square before they feel they have arrived at the destination, so the community naturally turns inward as a result
Portrait: Edward Square, Caledonian Road
Edward Square is just off Copenhagen Street, which is a five-minute walk from King’s Cross Central towards Caledonian Road.
Redevelopment of the square was led by community champion Lisa Pontecorvo, who died in 2008. Her obituary in The Guardian stated: “Perhaps her outstanding achievement was Edward Square, a derelict patch of ground that had been one of the earliest garden squares. Today, it is a place of celebration and recreation, with a poem by Andrew Motion [poet laureate] carved into the stone edging.”
The mural on the wall in the orchard area of The Mitre pub was painted by Dave Bangs in 1984, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ demonstration in Copenhagen Fields and used local people as models.
Of particular note is that the entrance of Edward Square is clearly marked with the personal contributions of people who worked to make the redevelopment of the square possible:
‘The design of this public park has been developed through consultation with the local community’;
‘The artwork in the gates was produced by the children of Copenhagen and The Blessed Sacrament Primary Schools’;
‘Park opened 2000. Please look after it’;
‘The artist for the wall panel was Kate Blee.’
Placing community members’ names and contributions on the gate infuses Edward Square with human presence. By contrast, visitors must reach the middle of Granary Square before they feel they have arrived at the destination, so the community naturally turns inward as a result.
This means the development does not benefit organically from the already established local culture and must work extra hard to form connections.
Richard Sennett writes that placing community resources on the edges of a development makes it possible “to open the gates between different racial and economic communities” and lets neighbours mix casually: “Casual physical mixing is much less confrontational, as in a rich lady and her maid happening to be in the same place buying milk or booze late at night… engaging them in a common everyday task. This sort of edge experience is, in terms of the distinction drawn in our discussion of social differences in the city, inclusive rather than integrative.”
There is a small park called York Way Gardens between the shops and York Way, but the shop owners consider it to be derelict public space, where people drink and hang out. It is uncared for, bins are rarely emptied and the gallery’s owner has to clean it herself
Portrait: independent shops on York Way
There is a string of shops on York Way, just north of Kings Place and The Guardian’s offices, that serves as a gateway into the Copenhagen Street and Bemerton communities. From north to south along this strip, the shops are: Sid Motion Gallery (a tenant for three years), and long-established tenants London Kebab, Super Laundry, G Express Food Store and Cafe Express. One shop owner commented about the development and its potential: “We’ve watched this happening for 15 years... We’ve been hopeful.”
However, a large, continuous, eight-storey block east of Granary Square opposite the shops has shut out light and sightlines into the development at the ground level. One shop owner said: “There are no open parks or spaces facing this way… you can’t see what’s inside,” while another recalls: “I used to be able to see all the way across, but all the light is gone now.”
The pavements, road and small park in front of the shops is largely untouched and neglected, with large potholes on the road in front of the shops, which is allegedly used as a ‘rat run’ to avoid the traffic lights at the entrance to Copenhagen Street. This compares poorly with the new block of flats and retail spaces on the opposite side of the road. There is a small park called York Way Gardens between the shops and York Way, but the shop owners consider it to be derelict public space, where people drink and hang out. It is uncared for, bins are rarely emptied and the gallery’s owner has to clean it herself.
These edge conditions highlight two distinct levels of care: the maintained, clean, safe, watched and manicured site of King’s Cross Development and the neglected side of the local residents.
“It’s one thing to go and sit outside in the summer but what about when it’s cold outside? Where can I go inside where I don’t have to spend a fortune? They’ll let us be outside, but not inside because that’s expensive”
Portrait: Yunus, owner of London Kebab
When we asked Yunus about the development, he immediately described feeling isolated, neglected, left behind and ghettoised. Aside from letters announcing the work, no one from Argent or Islington Council has been in touch or asked him about the development. His comments included:
“We’re being left behind”;
“No one is taking care of this place”;
“We’re being deliberately isolated”;
“They’ve created an inside world.”
He says he would invest in his business, but Islington Council is not taking care of the space outside or York Way Gardens: “I want to make it nice, but I can’t do the pavement. What’s the council doing about this?”
People used to be able to pull up to the shops, but parking outside the shops is now for residents or ‘pay and display’. He says people living in the ‘car-free’ block opposite the shops park their cars in front of the shops, but do not use them. “No one walks by here. It’s all cars and trucks, and no one is stopping,” he says.
It used to be busy, he continues, with builders coming by from the development. But now it’s very quiet, he says. “Nobody knows we’re here… and look at the place outside – it’s a mess. That’s not going to invite anyone in.”
Portrait: Sid Motion Gallery
The owner of this gallery started renting the former William Hill betting shop from Yunus three years ago. She gutted it, painted it white and turned it into a gallery. She wanted it to be on York Way, rather than somewhere such as Mayfair, because she feels it’s a more friendly, honest and accessible way of running a gallery. She invited the local community into the gallery and remembers meeting people from the community for the first time, including “some people [who] are still engaged and come to the openings”.
The gallery brings a different client base to this stretch of shops – people come to the gallery because they know it’s there; no one is casually stopping by. “I’ve brought a different type of person... someone who’s never been this far up York Way,” she says.
The owner feels she gains from the gallery’s location on the edge of an established community and its proximity to the King’s Cross community. In contrast, the kebab shop owner feels the opposite – he has not gained from the development and feels neglected, left out and angry.
Top: Coal Drops Yard opened in November with a range of high-end shops. The gasworks now contain new luxury flats designed by Wilkinson Eyre
Bottom: Derelict gardens contribute to an us-them mentality. Photo: Nitasha Kapoor
Place and time
One of the most useful things planners and local councils can do is create places where different people can come together, to potentially increase physical interaction (side-by-side browsing or in a queue) and enable people to focus on commonalities, rather than differences.
These pen portraits of two small business owners highlight that locating shops between communities can serve the interests of different groups of people, due to location or need. These shops could be valuable assets for interaction between the existing and the new King’s Cross communities.
However, owners of small businesses expect to be met halfway by local councils and to some extent be considered extensions of developments, so they can benefit from the renewal. This contributes to a greater sense of place for all people.
Finally, it’s important to understand the timescale of a development as large and complex as this. King’s Cross Central has been a work-in-progress for 17 years and throughout this time, Argent has worked with local communities to preserve some of the history of the area through the King’s Cross Voices online sound archive and by naming new roads after previous landmarks, such as Bagleys Lane. It also has ongoing consultations with community members and has set up temporary community activities such as Skip Garden, a swimming pond, a sports pitch, outdoor films and sporting events.
In the early planning phases, Argent held consultation meetings with the local residents. A small group of dedicated community leaders fought for certain things that were important to include. However, largely these were not granted
Portrait: Stephen, community organiser
Stephen has been an area community organiser since the beginning of the development. Like Lesley, Stephen likes to “take up space” and make himself comfortable anywhere he wants. He’s confident and articulate about the issues his community faces.
As soon as we begin to talk about the development, he says no local residents were invited to the opening of Coal Drops Yard. A colleague went to visit the new shops, came back and told Stephen: “They didn’t expect to see me there.” Some of the teenagers Stephen works with who have visited the site have also noted this invisible barrier: “We just get stared at by the security guards.”
Crucially, Stephen has worked with Argent in his role as a youth organiser since the earliest stages of the development. He understands how to build a community and knows that trust must be built over time through small, continuous steps. He had a close working relationship with senior leaders at Argent and recalls their efforts to develop links to local residents. But there are now fewer and fewer signs of effective outreach, and trust from the local community is low.
In the early planning phases, Argent held consultation meetings with the local residents. A small group of dedicated community leaders fought for certain things that were important to include. However, largely these were not granted. For example, the Maiden Lane Estate did not get a bridge over the train tracks to access the development, so residents still have to walk around the edge to get in.
There was a football pitch on the site that was popular with local residents, but that land has now been turned into flats. There is the indoor Handyside Sports Pitch, but Stephen says booking it is restrictive – slots only last an hour – which is not good for the local community.
“Locating shops between communities can serve the interests of different groups of people, due to location or need. These shops could be valuable assets for interaction between the existing and the new King’s Cross communities”
During the consultation period, Argent was asked whether skateboarding would be allowed and whether the seating and fixtures would be made of robust materials. Stephen says the company said: “Oh yes, of course.” But while skateboarding is allowed, skaters are not allowed to do jumps, only ride flat.
Community groups have tried to showcase local talent and initiatives outside Waitrose, but have been prevented. “You just get 20 reasons why it can’t happen, health-and-safety excuses, when really, you know they don’t want people from the estates. They’re worried about who comes in.”
Gang culture in the surrounding areas shows the need to engage youth and the real presence of danger – a 19-year-old was stabbed near Waitrose in September 2018, with detectives investigating the possibility that the attack was part of an ongoing dispute between the ‘Cally Road’ gang and the ‘Easy Cash’ (EC1) gang, according to local newspaper the Camden New Journal.
Stephen suggested possible steps to include local communities more. Businesses on-site and in the surrounding communities could donate resources to local residents and charities to raise the bar for everyone.
“Each office block should have a floor they donate to charity – that would drive people onto the development and benefit the local community dramatically,” says Stephen. Restaurants could offer free meals or discounts: “I had a bunch of vouchers put through the door from Dishoom… they can do more of this.”
Businesses could employ more local people, too. For example, Ted Baker, which has offices in Somers Town to the west of St Pancras, has hired an ex-teacher to be a community link and help local charities, while Havas advertising agency has hired an inclusion and diversity manager and a local young person is interning to make films.
Stephen’s final suggestion is to create more ‘level playing fields’ where different groups use or share the same space. “It’s like a football pitch – it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you follow the rules and you play together.”
“A small group of dedicated community leaders fought for certain things that were important to include. However, largely these were not granted. For example, the Maiden Lane Estate did not get a bridge over the train tracks to access the development”
Can a treat space include the everyday?
The mix of relatively high-end retail chains, residences, schools and offices has created both treat and everyday spaces in King’s Cross Central, but without provision for everyday needs. The lack of everyday goods and services, more affordable price points in the retail mix, and true co-production with the local residents is causing many to feel that this is not a place designed for them.
Security measures make some people feel at ease and comfortable on-site, and often go by unnoticed. But they exclude certain groups of people, often from the surrounding communities, without cause, sometimes through subtle means, such as staring. Security cameras and guards can make others apprehensive and uncomfortable. The arbitrary rules that govern the place, such as skateboarding being permitted but not tricks, are not displayed or self-evident, which contributes to some people’s sense of unease.
Whyte describes this classic tension and offers suggestions that go beyond cameras and security towards reconciling the differences: “Electronics can’t beat a human being and it is characteristic of well-used places to have a ‘mayor’. He may be a building guard, a newsstand operator, or a food vendor. Watch him and you’ll notice people checking in during the day – a cop, bus dispatcher, various street professionals, and office workers and shoppers who pause briefly for a salutation or a bit of banter. Plaza mayors are great communication centres, and very quick to spot any departure from normal. Like us…
“Ordinarily, guards are not supposed to initiate conversations, but Joe Hardy is gregarious, curious and has a nice sense of situations. There are, say, two older people looking confused. He will not wait for them to come up and ask for directions. He will go up to them and ask whether he can help… Joe is tolerant of winos and odd people, as long as they don’t bother anyone. He is very quick to spot real trouble, however. Teenage groups are a challenge. They like to test everybody – with the volume knob of their portable radios as a weapon. Joe’s tactic is to go up to the toughest looking person in the group and ask his help in keeping things cool.”
It would be valuable to think afresh about who the security is for in King’s Cross Central and who is being served by it. Security guards are the face and voice of the development to an extent, and add value by being a friendly, welcoming presence whom users could potentially get to know.
Crucially, people expect some element of the unexpected in public spaces. Open-ended activities – such as skateboarding, ball games, the right to protest, non-selective and affordable market stalls, and graffiti – that are by their nature unpredictable and often spontaneous contribute to a place feeling truly vibrant and dynamic, rather than simply manufactured to look that way.
Lastly, it is important to consider how seasons affect usage, especially in an everyday context. The site is heavily geared towards the warmer months, with the fountains and steps by the canal playing an important role as a destination for a wide variety of users, including those from surrounding communities. The library and leisure facilities in Pancras Square are hidden gems that would benefit from signs and communications to encourage usage.
Caring for the other side of the edge creates a greater sense of permeability between developments and surrounding communities. It need not be designed in the same way, but it should not be neglected space either – clean, safe and cared for is enough
Can a place be inward-facing and take care around the edges?
If the development and design of public places are to include the surrounding communities, there are several things to consider. Placing a square in the centre of a development suggests arriving at ‘the place’ means leaving the surrounding community. Placing a town square at the edge of a site prevents the development from being inward-looking. Future developments could therefore consider placing town squares at the edges of sites, much in the way town halls are often situated on high streets.
Large open squares can feel uncomfortable, however, especially those with a panopticon effect, so there is a role for smaller-scale spaces that are more comfortable to dwell in. For example, the dwell time in the alleyways of Coal Drops Yard appears to be greater than in its wider main avenue.
There is a role for good, community-oriented design that extends and welcomes existing communities’ access to the site. Their way into a site could be considered when a development is planned. Maps, signs, marketing and leafleting could extend into their areas and point both ways. Signs and maps could provide continuity between the development and neighbouring communities, creating a ‘two-way flow’ in and out of the development. Leaflets or booklets detailing on-site event programmes could be placed in community centres, local cafes, shops and online where local residents would see them. In the case of King’s Cross Central, the library and leisure facilities could be promoted on-site as free and affordable facilities for the wider community, and the library could be promoted on signs around the site and beyond, but particularly to families in Granary Square.
Designs can acknowledge sight lines from existing spaces, including those at ground level and the light from the sky. Cut-throughs in buildings could be considered to create pathways into sites, to boost footfall from existing neighbourhoods.
Everyday, independent shops can assist interactions across the edges of developments. Along with caring for the existing spaces, more of this type of retail could be incorporated into developments’ edges. For example, York Way’s shops could be considered extensions of King’s Cross Central and included in the mix of retail available for on-site and offsite communities, as could Skip Garden’s selling of affordable vegetables. There could also be more canal boats with entertainment and activities, selling affordable, everyday goods across the York Way divide – perhaps even a ‘fruit and veg boat’ run by Skip Garden.
Caring for the other side of the edge creates a greater sense of permeability between developments and surrounding communities. It need not be designed in the same way, but it should not be neglected space either – clean, safe and cared for is enough.
Finally, the provision of activities on-site that local residents enjoy might be at odds with what other groups like, but is an important indication that a place is ‘for everyone’ and helps all groups understand that they are welcome and included.
Nitasha Kapoor is an anthropologist and social researcher
John Sturrock is a photographer who has been capturing the evolution of King’s Cross. All photographs are by Sturrock except where noted