What sort of city do we want to live in? It’s a question that is likely to be asked many times over the next few months as London’s Mayoral candidates joust in the run up to the election in May. Do we want more tall buildings? Can we intensify the suburbs? What should we do about the Green Belt? How do we plan for development in the wider South East region?
As the capital’s growth continues exponentially we need to question whether we have the right planning methods in place to create a liveable and sustainable city. London’s planning is based on negotiation and pragmaticism rather than on a grand vision like many European cities. We respond to commercial and social pressures and adapt accordingly. That has been the case ever since the merchants of the City of London rejected Wren’s renaissance plan after the Great Fire and instead rebuilt their premises on their existing sites, thus retaining the old medieval layout. This pragmatic approach is key to creating the varied character of London’s streets and places, the “city of villages” or what Peter Rees calls “the greatest unplanned city in the world.”
But have the pressures of growth and global finance become too powerful for our empirical methodology? Do we have the right tools to deal with the divisions created by development whether in the the council estates of the 50s and 60s in Tottenham, Elephant and Castle and Earls Court or in the leafy suburbs of west London?
What can we learnt from other cities? I remember as a student making a special trip to Sweden to study the new town of Vällingby outside Stockholm where the architect Sven Markelius had taken this English typology to a new level with high density housing around the metro links surrounded by lower rise suburban homes.
Today visitors to Sweden still have something to learn from their approach to delivering new urban environments. Many architects, planners, politicians have made the pilgrimage to projects like Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm, a brownfield site that has been developed as an exemplar sustainable neighbourhood. The city started thinking about it at the same time John Prescott launched the Millennium Village at Greenwich Peninsula with a plan to create an urban district which would be socially and environmentally sustainable with some 10,0000 homes - about the same as Hammarby.
Hammarby is a medium density, walkable with good transport and cycling links to the rest of the city and makes a fascinating contrast with Prescott’s dream. At Greenwich, made up largely of publicly owned land, there was a master plan for the site designed by Richard Rogers and Partners and Ralph Erskine - who was English by birth but did most of his work in Sweden - designed the first couple of phases.
At Hammerby the process started with a strategic Masterplan, that divided into site into twelve sub-districts, the City then worked with a number of architects and planners to come with an agreed detailed Master Plan. They then prepared a comprehensive design code for each sub-district which sets out principles for the district character, the mix of businesses and uses, density, built form (blocks built around inner courtyard or play area), public spaces and relationship to the water.
The code provided broad guidance on architectural style: that it should reflect the character of Stockholm’s inner city; building form and architectural style to reflect hierarchy of open spaces with taller, more prominent buildings along the waterfront; preserving the natural environment; access to green space, flat roofs, clean lines and light colours. There is also an emphasis on mixed use rather than separation of uses.
Finally,the City invited a consortium of developers and architects to take forward the development of each plot or individual building within the sub-district. The result is a coherent, ordered and highly sustainable piece of city.
In London, developers Countryside built about a 1000 of Erkine’s buildings; after which there was a long delay while Lend Lease and Quintain failed to make any progress. The Rogers’ plan (adapted by Terry Farrell in the meantime) was forgotten and in November this year Knight Dragon received permission for a master plan designed by Allies and Morrison that brings the total potential homes on Greenwich Peninsula up to 20,000 more than double the original plan.
Different folks. different strokes. Hammarby is Stockholm, it is imbued with Swedish values. It is of its time and of it place. The flexibility permitted by our planning system has certainly allowed the GLA to adapt the plan to the changing population. But will the new Peninsula feel like a part of London? Should it? Or do we remain a “city of villages” that reflects the global and diverse nature of the 21st century capital?
I look forward to discussing these and other issues on London’s planning issues with Zac and Sadik in the months to come.
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities