London has a historic opportunity to recast itself, retaining the best of the issues that have arisen as a result of COVID-19 – flexible buildings, a more polycentric, localist city and more walking and cycling amongst the most important.
Those were some of the key messages to emerge from NLA webinars this week, which dealt with issues ranging from the changing face of London to communities, to public realm, cast against a city seeking to replan– for good – following the onset of the biggest ‘accelerator’ around: COVID-19.
The first session looked at what is, said NLA curator-in-chief Peter Murray, a ‘historic moment’ for the way that London can look to lessons learned from COVID-19 and the last 15 years of the capital’s development. In The Changing Face of London Think Tank attendees helped forge elements of a forthcoming exhibition. Deirdra Armsby, Director of Place Shaping and Town Planning at City of Westminster suggested that much will be to do with accelerating ‘really good, safe and enjoyable movement in the dense parts of the city’ with the welcome and now better-supported transition to temporary measures to improve walking and cycling. ‘The dividends we have experienced with air quality for example are things that we absolutely want to keep in the bank and advance for the future’, she said.
Others touched on the role of the public sector and focusing on London’s fundamentals; likely effect of an increased sense of local and green agendas, particularly the ‘looming’ climate change problem; health, wellbeing and ‘squeezing out the car’; more flexible, mixed use buildings and spaces; the resilience of the city, its increasingly polycentric nature and the strength of community.
‘We feel very positive’, said John Bushell, Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. ‘It’s extremely exciting to see that maybe all of the better parts of things that are possible will come to the fore and that decisions will be guided by a greater care for the human aspect of the built environment’.
In the Communities Show and Share Pecha Kucha on Tuesday, it was all about enabling, supporting and making sure communities still have a voice. ‘We think we need a much more open relationship with communities’, said Kate Nottidge, Head of Community Engagement, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland on its plans to publish a community charter. ‘The first principle is that we will always listen first’. It is also a good time take stock and think about what the legacy of this moment will be in the months and years to come. ‘I’m calling it the great privileged pause’ said Arman Nouri, Regeneration Engagement Manager, LB Enfield & Associate, Public Practice on the period we’re in where we can think about how to ‘rejig’ engagement processes for communities, post-lockdown. ‘It provides us with such a rare time to slow down and reflect.’
The session also included points made about involving young people, utilising digital methods, moves to try and solve homelessness, isolation and loneliness, food needs, trust, and aligning projects to what communities want.
Wednesday brought a session on tall buildings and density, with Knight Frank’s Stuart Baillie presenting a keynote in which he talked through the detail of NLA’s survey on the subject and said that there had been a ‘meteoric rise’ in the numbers of tall buildings in the pipeline for Outer London compared to a ‘gradual decline’ in inner London. But the notion of ‘gentle densification’ that has arisen recently was not clear. ‘Putting a building of 29 storeys in an outer London context definitely isn’t gentle densification’, he said. A survey of those living at high density, said Lucía Cerrada Morato, Place Shaping – High density development project manager, LB Tower Hamlets, showed that 75% of residents felt there was a lack of community feel but there was a correlation between spaces that provide some form of activity like allotments, and activity. People tended to interact more in spaces like entrances and stairs, with design and management of those spaces thus being key considerations.‘ But there has been a rise in the number of anti-social activities reported during the COVID-19 lockdown period, highlighting the importance of the role of caretakers in high density buildings, she said. For Earle Arney, Founder, Arney Fender Katsalidis, though, this is the age of a change in culture and ‘bleisure’ – a blurring of live, work and play’, with offices becoming ‘the crucible of community’ and workplaces as ‘the bastion of health’.
Ultimately, said Caroline Harper, chief planner at LB Barking, Coronavirus has done one major thing: ‘accelerated the trends’.
Finally, there was time for public space. In Future Spaces: what will the City of London Look like, post COVID-19? later on Wednesday, Clarisse Tavin, Group Manager, Major Projects and Programmes, City of London took the audience through how the Square Mile is seeking to transform its streets, through meanwhile uses and including an experimental approach and parklets. The Beech Street experiment in becoming an ultra-low emissions only road indeed, could be extended elsewhere in the City said Tavin with other measures made to attend to climate action and be resilient to altered conditions and weather events in the future. Technology, too will play a major part in the pos-Covid-19 recovery, ‘and is likely to impact more on streets’. And yet, said Mark Hughes, director at Aecom, COVID-19 offers less in the way of potential to redesign and re-organise our public spaces than climate change. Taking a long term strategic look at how we design and manage our public spaces is key, said Hughes. The gulf between what markets value and what people value is closing. And here it’s place value’ - Will Sandy, Associate, McGregor Coxall. And why not start with the green economy percolating down to the street, and in the City, he asked.