Placemaking in London was the dominant theme of the second half of the day at Urban Land Institute UK’s first annual conference: particularly, the lessons for the next 25 years in the capital from the last 25 years.
A growing challenge was set out by one of the afternoon’s panel moderators, property journalist Peter Bill. Bill pointed out that not only is the capital’s population set to soar past 10 million in the next twenty years, but also that over-60s are set to outnumber under-16s by the time the population count hits eight digits. Placemaking typically talks of fitting playgrounds next to restaurants. At this rate, safely fitting in mobility scooter lanes may be a greater concern.
Yet while panellist Lee Polisano, president of PLP Architecture, forecast that an aging population is unlikely to move out of the centre of the city, the main problem he predicted is one probably familiar to all already: affordability. “Every major city relies on the 23-35 generation for its energy, its creativity and its startups. They may get here and have a great time, but it’s useless if they can’t afford it.” Polisano warned of the 3,500 creatives predicted to leave London by 2020, pointing to how artists and creatives were key in establishing affordable areas such as Shoreditch as hip new centres for the capital.
His prescription? “Polycentrism. A key component of successful placemaking lies in dispersing London’s institutions to the capital’s emerging centres in areas of severe deprivation”. An earlier panel in the day showed regeneration case studies such as King’s Cross, Old Oak Common and Birmingham New Street, all of which highlighted the potential of transport nodes to offer mixed-use centres with a wealth of public land on offer. With any new space sorely needed to ease the pressure on prices, Polisano said that new centres like Old Oak Common would be key to turning back the tide of the capital’s creative exodus.
CEO of London First Baroness Valentine took a broader view of the systematic challenges faced by the capital, sounding an alarm for what could go wrong at the macro-level. Illustrating the point with a horror portrait of London in 2041 back to the “down at heel” London of 1991, Baroness Valentine spoke of a city crippled by Brexit, “which gave the market a shock it never recovered from”, with students and tourists put off by subsequent increased visa regulations. A Schengen-boosted Champs Elysée had surpassed the West End as the shopping capital of Europe, with Berlin supreme as the globe’s go-to tech hub. Most cruelly of all for business, the decisions on Crossrail 2 and a third runway at Heathrow were still pending under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The key take-away: the potential loss of talent and spending from this very possible maelstrom could leave the capital’s public realm an investment-starved haven of congestion.
While not quite acceding to such a bleak view of the future, fellow panellist Adrian Penfold, head of planning at British Land, reinforced Baroness Valentine’s key point: the capital needs money. £1.2 trillion of infrastructure spend, specifically – though Penfold also underlined the other flipside of London’s increased population. London will need over a million new homes in the next 25 years, “yet already there is no comparison for another city that has increased its population as much as ours without expanding its boundaries. We will either need to change the social experiment of the Green Belt, or find a way of planning beyond boundaries”.
Partner at Lipton Rogers, Sir Stuart Lipton, scoped the beginnings of an answer to Penfold’s question, saying that without question, “the only way is East!”, with East London having to match West London. “Before, this meant an increase in the number of households of 3.5 million. Now I can see that being hugely surpassed. There is not enough land elsewhere. The infrastructure is there, the opportunity is there.”
And the model for how to do this? The village green of all places, with Lipton saying that the historical precedent for mixed-use offered by university, market and cathedral towns sets a template for redevelopment, and that off-site manufacturing could meet the speed of development needed. “Take an interesting town square, and fit good quality civic amenities around it. It’s quite simple.”
Lipton ended by touching on the common problem threaded through the afternoon: “This is all nothing new: it just needs to be done with style and quality. We just need to work out how we can afford it!”. Indeed. The final session on ‘where the smart money is going’ in real estate was notable by its focus on investing in Europe. There is no doubt that London is the world’s prime destination, and will likely remain so for some time. But Baroness Valentine’s warnings were a red flag for how easily the money needed to continue the capital’s placemaking could start to seep away.