Love/hate London

by Francesca Perry


‘There has probably never been a city that has excited so much of the extremes of abuse and affection as London,’ wrote the architect and RIBA librarian 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 public transport, poor cycle infrastructure, the unaffordable housing, the unfathomable size, the unequal opportunities.

What is today’s narrative of the city, and its future? Boris Johnson made one such attempt with Vision 2020, 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 were saying very similar things 20 years ago. 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 have helped partner The Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists with The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design for an exciting event, Future of London Placemaking.


The seminar, on 23 November 2013, will explore 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 aims 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.

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 concerns. Let’s get to it.


Key Ideas from Future of Places

Place Partners speaking at Future of Places

I recently returned from an intensive 3-day conference in Stockholm entitled ‘The Future of Places’. Co-organised by Project for Public Spaces and UN Habitat in the lead up to the much-anticipated UN Habitat III, the event brought together urbanists, academics, practitioners, students, experts and everyone in between from 50 countries around the globe. Stories were shared, challenges were addressed and voices were heard. Below I have tried to think about the key messages that came out of our discussions – the important things to remember when creating, supporting or enhancing public space:

A people-centred approach: The UN Habitat’s primary message was that with such rapid global urbanisation – 200,000 people move to cities each day – the only way that places are going to work is if we adopt a people-centred, integrated approach to development and management.

Time for change: This people-oriented approach means reforming the way cities are planned and managed. If we don’t make cities that work for their inhabitants, human rights will be diminished and social unrest will undoubtedly rise. The Urban Think Tank made clear that we still have a long way to go to make cities truly sustainable, tolerant, equal, balanced and connected. Dr Narang Suri asserted that cities today are undertaking investment that is not for everyone – but at the cost of the resources that belong to everyone.  The drivers of wealth are promoting the homogenisation of public spaces – how do we deal with this?

The community is the expert: This simple and crucial idea was outlined by PPS and many others: people need to be involved in a genuine and integrated way. Crowdsource ideas for making place because we are making spaces for the public, not just the professionals.

Be experimental: A theme that repeatedly emerged was the need to be experimental, though a qualitative scale of this experimentation was not explored. We need to allow space for new and innovative things to happen. Tactical urbanism is a form of this experimental approach, but it should be complemented, as Place Partners noted, by strategic and opportunistic methods.

Access, access, access: The buzzword of the conference – and rightfully so – was access; accessibility, as Ali Madanipour and others argued, is the key feature of good public space. Boundaries suggest inequality and fear – even overdesigning a space can limit access to it. Only through making truly accessible spaces can we move towards a more inclusive city.

Build partnerships: The simple fact is that a lot of future public space will be provided by private developments. Clever and collaborative partnerships need to be made across the public and private sectors as well as the community to ensure that space created is collaborative, contextual and democratic.

Don’t build objects, build places!: As Paul Murrain made clear, good placemaking isn’t just about THINGS – it’s a much more joined-up, contextual and nuanced approach.

Make places a joy to the senses: The experiential nature of public space was discussed, with an inspiring David Sim from Gehl Architects articulating how we experience the world through our senses. Place should be more interested in a richness of experience than of its people.

‘Lighter, quicker, cheaper’: This approach to placemaking was driven home by PPS. In this age of austerity, it’s certainly vital we learn how to do more with less. Making small, appropriate improvements is key.

Recognise what’s there: Suzanne Hall put forward this vital starting point – that we build on and support what already exists when approaching a place rather than simply changing it. Start by understanding the needs and the stories, and build this in to the process.

Build capacity: This emerged again and again: capacity needs to be built in the government, private sector and community to approach a more effective placemaking strategy. It’s a huge but vital challenge. The community should have the capability to make it their process: they will be empowered through organisation.

Don’t copy success stories: Again this related to the need to always be contextual; Place Partners highlighted the danger of trends such as the ‘High Line Fever’ that assume universal narratives in place.

There was far more but I believe that provides a good taster of the important discussions we had.

It is not about traditional vs temporary / formal vs informal, because dichotomies won’t help us get to a more sustainable future. There needs to be a joined-up approach that promotes partnership. My phrase would be ‘inspiration not instruction’: be inspired by people and place, and in turn inspire others. It is not always about stringent rules. It’s about a conversation.