‘There has probably never been a city that has excited so much of the extremes of abuse and affection as London,’ wrote Edward Carter in 1962. As a lifelong resident, I have to agree. The love/hate relationship is a particularly English one, yes, and London enhances it. The love: a diversity of places and people, a hotbed of culture, a centre for innovation and creativity, a wealth of history and beauty. The hate: the problematic public transport, poor cycle infrastructure, unaffordable housing, unfathomable size, the unequal opportunities.
What is today’s narrative of the city, and its future? Boris Johnson made one such attempt in his ‘2020 Vision’, but we need a more holistic and nuanced understanding of London’s reality. There has been much talk recently about the issues of exclusive property prices and a sense of ‘exodus’ by the people of London. This is part of a much wider story, of course, that involves the destructive impacts of developer-led gentrification, bedroom tax, cuts to vital services, unaffordable transport and other factors leading to exclusivity of place.
How can we shift a culture of exclusive development to inclusive placemaking? In order to support places that thrive in London, socially and economically, we need to make places for everybody – not just the wealthy few – and places that respond to context (of need, aspiration, history, society, identity). We should prioritise places that involve participation, interaction and co-ownership, especially in terms of young people – transforming notions of territory into opportunity instead.
There are of course positive examples of placemaking happening in London. People clued in to the issues are engaging with communities, co-creating places and spaces and designing for holistic sustainability. Make:good, a design studio, puts communities at the heart of local change, engaging and empowering them to shape user-led designs of spaces, places and services. Co-operative housing (such as Phoenix and Coin Street) and Community Land Trusts form promising alternative models to the current norm – with studies showing co-op housing is more effective in building social capital and creating stronger communities.
From my experience, the dominant narrative of planning for the future comes from fairly traditional sources and people who have long been saying very similar things. Where is the voice of the young? The generation with the innovative thinking to make positive change? It is with this in mind that I helped partner The Academy of Urbanism’s Young Urbanist group with The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design for a collaborative event, Future of London Placemaking. The seminar, held in November 2013, explored the culture of placemaking in London and how young people can help shape a better future for the city. Combining speakers from young innovative practices with interactive workshops and sharing sessions, the event aimed to give young emerging urbanists a stronger voice in the narrative of the city, collaboratively generating future ideas and forming a shared agenda for placemaking in London. The event was a lively success and a report is now being drawn up.
London has very specific challenges and opportunities. Certain engrained approaches to development and growth need to be re-assessed and shaped in to something more positive: making inclusive places for people, with benefits that go much further than financial growth. Let’s get to it.
This article is an updated version of a blog that appeared on Thinking City in November 2013.