As my career in this sector has evolved, I seem to have made it my life’s ambition to push forward and broaden the agenda of what makes a great place to live, work and play, especially here in the UK.
I also seem to find myself in the very fortunate position of being part of this great evolution in placemaking and although many times I do go on about the sclerotic nature of CRE and the various stakeholders responsible for workplaces; there have been some truly inspiring, innovative and impressive developments created in the UK at the moment.
Furthermore they incorporate all the factors, which in my mind make for great placemaking: putting people and the community at the heart of these mixed-used developments: where work, living, academic and leisure spaces can co-exist, creating flourishing, buzzing, vital multi-dimensional eco-systems which thrive off each other.
The biggest example of this, both in scale and in terms of completion is the regeneration of King’s Cross, on a smaller scale but equally significant is MediaCity UK in Salford and the current ‘work-in-progress’ White City. Admittedly I might be a little biased regarding the last two, since I’ve been lucky enough to have played a small part in the re-development of both.
What is interesting to explore in all these projects is not the obvious shiny glitzy facades, the big corporate HQs and high-stake, high-rolling players involved, which we can all see. It is worth taking a look at what is going on underneath and analyse how these places are already impacting and making a difference to the community and people working and living in them and around them – since this is where great placemaking is at.
Undeniably the 67-acre site is one of the largest and most exciting redevelopments in recent times. The towering magnificence of Gilbert Scot’s restored Gothic Revival St Pancras Station still dominates the landscape and is a grandiose welcome for the thousands of tourists travelling in on the Euro Star and from all over the country. Complementing it is the impressive glass and stone forecourt of neighbouring King’s Cross Station.
What was originally an underused industrial wasteland with a rather dodgy, seedy reputation was transformed into a new vibrant part of the city with homes, shops, hotels, offices, galleries, bars, restaurants, schools, leisure facilities, community centres and a university; as well as incorporating 26 acres of new parks, squares and open spaces on Regent’s Canal.
We are all aware of the ‘Big Boys’ locating here such as Google, Universal Music, The Guardian, Havas Advertising, Louis Vuitton and The Francis Crick Research Institute, a world-class centre of scientific excellence and the British Library, the largest national library in the world, next to St Pancras Station.
However, the developers have not ignored King’s Cross rich and colourful past. Its location at the meeting point of road, river and rail which shaped its history and contributed to London’s importance as the centre of the Industrial Revolution. This can be seen today in the old buildings, the layout of the streets and in the stories of the communities based here.
As the FT’s eminent architect and design critic Edwin Heathcote commented that “the site is a perfect mix of grittiness and shininess, simultaneously a symbol of London’s industrial and engineering past and the creative present.”
The old Granary Building, originally used to store Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers, is now the new home of the world famous arts college Central Saint Martins. In the large open area of Granary Square, where horses once toiled in a series of turntables and cranes, to off-load the grain from rail wagons, children now splash and play in the square’s fountains in the summer. Squealing with delight at the 1,080 choreographed jets squirting water.
The recently opened Coal Drops Yard, restored by Tom Heatherwick, were brick and cast-iron structures used to transfer coal from rail wagons to road carts and then loaded or ‘dropped’ onto horse-drawn carts in Victorian times. The brick arches now house quirky independent boutiques, foodie hot-spots, artists’ workshops and music venues, with the cobbled streets playing host to markets and street festivals and all free from traffic.
At the heart of the King’s Cross development is the purpose-built primary school the King’s Cross Academy and co-located is the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, providing a state-of-the-art learning environment for both mainstream and special needs children.
The community’s health and fitness has not been ignored, with a public leisure centre including two swimming pools and a large gym with all the facilities. Another feature is the Calthorpe Project, a community garden which provides a range of activities, from gardening and food growing, to exercise classes, parent groups, activities for young and old.
I’m still continuously fascinated by MediaCityUK’s development as a focal point for nurturing the best talent and as a vibrant, sustainable destination to work and live in up North.
It has become home to an eclectic and exciting mix of over 200 businesses, from globally celebrated brands like the BBC, ITV, Kellog’s, Ericsson and top companies, such as, dock10, the UK’s premier television & post-production facility and SIS, the world leader in the broadcast, gaming and retail betting industry.
The media giants, especially the BBC, were certainly the impetus for the regeneration of this run-down area on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Now there are around 3,200 staff working in 26 departments, producing thousands of hours of content for television, radio and online, producing the nation’s favourites, such as Blue Peter, Children in Need and Match of the Day.
Over at ITV, MediaCity is considered their flagship facility, with a staff of over 750 working for the UK’s biggest commercial programme provider, hosting factual, entertainment, drama and post production, as well as the new production centre for Coronation Street.
However, MediaCity is not just about the ‘big players’, at its core is the Landing, a hub for high-growth technology and digital start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs, incorporating 120 future-focused businesses.
This environment is certainly a breeding ground for creativity, especially for the 1500 students using the state-of-the-art facilities at the University of Salford, Additionally, Salford City College, University Technical College and the Oasis Academy have also made MediaCityUK home and are all fostering beneficial relationships with the companies around them, as they develop the next generation of technology, digital and creative pioneers. As one of the educational spokespeople put it: Fusing academia with business helps to grow a thriving city.
Like King’s Cross in north-east London, I believe White City will definitely become another major London destination. The site will link shopping mecca Westfield, Imperial College’s new world-leading science/innovation campus and the creative hub of the BBC and White City Place. White City will also offer over 1,400 new homes, including 500 genuinely affordable homes, in addition to cafés, restaurants, independent retailers and leisure facilities.
Imperial’s £3 billion investment in their White City location, sits at the intersection of commerce and industry in the scientific and medical fields. Is it a coincidence that global pharmaceutical giant Novartis was attracted to the location and has just signed up to make the west London campus its new UK headquarters?
Yet last year’s addition of the Royal College of Art, located in the BBC Media Village, offers another creative dimension to the neighbourhood. Already the college’s impact is being felt with a disused former petrol station being transformed into a commercial multi-disciplinary art and project space in White City.
However for me personally, moving the Royal College’s City & Environmental Design Departments to White City was an inspired choice and a show of confidence in great placemaking!
The 10th anniversary of Westfield London in the area coincides with their second phase £600million extension; comprising an additional 750,000 sq ft of new retail, which makes it the UK’s No.1 ranked shopping centre (Source: CACI). More crucially, it will provide 8,000 new permanent jobs in White City, with local residents getting first choice on employment.
Additionally, Transport for London plans to open 31 of its unused railway arches to be transformed into a diverse mix of commercial, leisure and retail space. This will also create new pedestrian and cycling passageways to improve connectivity in the neighbourhood. The area will also feature a major new public park, with different landscape settings, open lawns, intimate gardens and extensive use of water features across the site.
A White City business owner put what having his company here meant to him in a nutshell, “it’s exciting to be part of this redevelopment project. It’s a great mix of people.”
It seems ironic that he didn’t mention the corporate presence, the high-rollers, the shopping mall and the other influential businesses in White City; but the most important factor and the one usually most ignored by placemakers – the mixture of people – something these great examples of UK placemaking have truly embraced.