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Croydon and the future of British town planning

The UK’s youngest local urban design team is using speed-dates to map the future of London’s southernmost borough. Rory Olcayto reports. Portrait by Richard Nicholson

‘This is perfect,’ says Vincent Lacovara, senior urban designer for Croydon Council, as we emerge at the top of the Whitgift shopping centre multi-storey car park. We’re here for a photoshoot of the teams that are masterplanning Croydon under the direction of Lacovara and his colleagues Tom Sweeney and Finn Williams. It has what these architects call ‘Croydonness’. From here, the chunky skyline – dominated by Ronald Ward and Partners’ Nestlé Tower (1964) – seems within touching distance and the overwrought transport network below (railways, tram lines, buses, cars and underpasses) appears easier to unknot.

Sixteen years ago, schoolboy Lacovara was across the road at Croydon: The Future, organised by the Architecture Foundation. The venue was a tent by Future Systems (‘it blew away’) outside Fairfield Halls, the stout symmetrical arts centre designed by Robert Atkinson and Partners (1962) in the London borough’s heyday. Lacovara says the Branson Coates Architecture vision for the aspirant city on show, one based on the re-use of its seven ‘hills’, actually multi-storey car parks, inspired him to study architecture.

‘It made me aware of its transformative potential,’ says Lacovara. Today, Lacovara (who leads tours of these ‘hills’) is in a position to fine-tune Croydon, which has clearly suffered from too many big-vision masterplans over the decades. ‘Improvement Commissioners’ were appointed in 1829 and there have been 11 interventions since 1849, when the Croydon Local Board of Health was established, culminating in the Third City plan by Will Alsop in 2007.

Croydon has clearly suffered from too many big-vision masterplans

But the car parks must wait. Instead, Lacovara, Sweeney and Williams must steer four, soon to be five, crucial but low-key ground-level masterplans to completion next spring. These will show how Croydon’s public realm can be made coherent, amid the raft of (currently on-hold) large-scale high-rise schemes by firms such as Foster + Partners, Rolfe Judd and CZWG Architects. The plans are being developed by some of Europe’s brightest young urbanists, from Studio Egret West, Maccreanor Lavington, East, Danish firm Gehl Architects, and OKRA and Urhahn Urban Design from Holland. The average age must be 29. ‘Croydon is a place which imprints on your brain; it has presence. I’m fascinated by the diverse typologies in a relatively small area. It makes for an animated walk-through,’ says the team’s youngest member, OKRA’s Zineb Seghrouchni. Croydon’s future is in their hands.

This new strategy actually builds on Alsop’s Third City plan, which identified the areas up for revision, four of which are now being masterplanned. Studio Egret West, appointed by the Homes and Communities Agency and London Development Agency framework panels, is tackling East Croydon, centred on the borough’s main station. East, which was appointed by the same bodies, is masterplanning West Croydon. College Green, an open space alongside Croydon’s 1960s civic architecture, is a focus for Gehl Architects and Make, who were appointed by Croydon Council Urban Regeneration Vehicle (CCURV).

OKRA and Karakusevic Carson are looking at Wellesley Road, an eight-lane boulevard that links all the zones together, after winning an international design competition in July. Mid-Croydon, opposite College Green, is yet to be assigned. Each will feed in to the borough’s emerging Core Strategy, overseen by Emma Peters, recently appointed executive director of planning, regeneration and conservation, who joined Croydon from the Homes and Communities Agency. The task, however, will be to make the plans work together.

I first meet the teams a few weeks before, at the Croydon Metropolitan Centre Summit in Fairfield Halls for an event designed to do precisely that. Lacovara describes the summit, which includes masterplan speed-dates, as an ‘opportunity for all of the teams to meet each other, share information, map dependencies and agree shared principles’. Two more are planned, to keep each team from slipping into isolation.

It works like this: before the half-hour speed-dates, each team leader outlines their remit. Then the teams ‘date’ one another, to discuss overlapping priorities. Two other teams, the Borough Wide Energy Strategy and the Decentralised Energy Study (both of which have much larger geographic dependencies), also participate. Senior figures from Croydon Council are present, including head of planning Mike Kylie, who in an introductory talk admits that ‘Croydon is broken’. Tony Pierce, interim head of spatial planning, outlines the wider vision: ‘A creative, connected, sustainable city, focused on productive creativity – not just sport and art – better bandwidth, and a natural environment formed from [Croydon’s] arteries and veins.’

When the speed-dates begin, the atmosphere is buzzy and determined. Huge maps are laid out on tables. Delegates scribble over them, add Post-it notes with design queries and discuss how their ‘date’ impacts on their own ideas. There is laughter, argument, and frantic gesticulation – it feels more like a fifth-year studio crit than a local authority meeting. Yet after each session, the maps are hung on the wall and a picture of do-able development begins to emerge.

When the Wellesley Road and East Croydon teams collide, there is an ‘early win’. Egret West’s bridge link proposal at the north end of East Croydon station aligns with a street-level crossing proposed by OKRA. ‘We’re used to this approach in Holland,’ says Martin Knuijt of OKRA. ‘If you’re not well informed, both schemes will be weaker.’ It is during this discussion that West first identifies Croydon’s grid, which he confidently begins to draw on the map. Gehl proposes a ‘loop network’ that extends beyond its masterplan footprint to encompass the whole of Croydon’s centre. It chimes with West’s observation. ‘The pedestrian system will remain unlocked without it,’ says Helle Søholt of Gehl, during a date with West Croydon.

Other speed-dates propose planting a new energy centre in the car park under Wellesley Road and a concentration of cultural venues on Katharine Street. East’s official appointment comes the day after the speed-date. However, the thoughtful observations of its director Dann Jessen have impact. ‘Whitgift shopping centre is the key to the overall vision of the town centre. But it doesn’t seem part of the mix enough yet.’ In the days after the summit, Lacovara, Sweeney and Williams will use mapping tools to cross-reference all the data to produce a series of diagrams of emerging principles (see p32) that feed into a component-based delivery framework.

That amount of thinking in a short space of time provides a lot of momentum

As the speed-dates wind-up, I’m convinced that working for the council hasn’t been this exciting since at least the 1970s. ‘We have a number of the best people around looking into the detail,’ says senior urban designer Sweeney. ‘That amount of thinking in a short space of time provides a lot of momentum.’

That so many young minds are being charged with redefining Croydon’s public realm is impressive. That Lacovara, who splits his week with a directorship of London practice AOC, Sweeney, a qualified geographer, landscape architect and urban designer, and Williams, who just last year was based in Rem Koolhaas’ OMA office in Rotterdam, have chosen to forge their careers within a local authority, is even more of an eye-opener. ‘Local authorities are simply somewhere where it’s possible to make a bigger difference,’ says Williams, who also runs Common Office, his own firm. ‘Architects are often asked to give answers to the wrong questions that have been decided long before architects ever got involved. Local government is a chance to have a say in those influential decisions very early on.’

The day concludes with a presentation to the top brass, including Peters and ex-CABE boss and now Croydon’s Council’s chief executive, Jon Rouse. West explains: ‘Croydon has an inherent, latent grid. It’s messy, piecemeal, but it’s there.’ Other delegates highlight the missing links – new pedestrian routes and public spaces – and these are labelled by the teams as priority developments.

Given the faltering state of development in the city, when councillor Steve O’Connell, cabinet member for regeneration and economic development, says he can ‘visualise this stuff being delivered’, the success of the speed-date becomes apparent. But Lacovara is cautious. ‘Some projects will start next year, and make things better; some will happen in 20 years. [Writer] Stewart Brand says that “a building is something you start, not something you finish”, and I would say the same applies to Croydon,’ he says, perhaps unaware that he’s just given definition to that curious word: Croydonness.

CROYDON METROPOLITAN CENTRE SUMMIT

Emerging principles from the ‘speed-dating’ process to identify Croydon’s missing links

At pavement level, central Croydon’s public realm seems overwhelmed by infrastructure: underpasses and flyovers, car parks and railway cuttings. An off-street warren of pedestrian subways, shopping arcades and underground car parks are used as cut-throughs in the day. After dark, this finer grain closes or is avoided by pedestrians, and Croydon reverts to an overscaled and disconnected series of streets. But, as discovered at the speed-dating summit, a simple join-the-dot exercise reveals a latent urban structure hidden within the seemingly incoherent street scene.

Croydon Council urban designer Finn Williams says that although the network is idle, it could be made to work much harder for pedestrians. ‘By concentrating new public realm projects on the gaps in the network, it could be possible to weave the town centre back together.’ The task for Croydon’s urban designers is to fill in these missing links. In reality, each link is a piece of a complex puzzle involving multiple landowners, many constraints and minimal budgets.

‘Repairing the severances made through decades of planning mistakes won’t be done at once,’ says Williams. ‘Instead of delivering the masterplans one by one, a first phase of projects can stitch together the town centre to create a joined-up thread.’ Over time, each thread could develop its own character. During the speed-dates, for example, a cultural route connecting Fairfield Halls with the Croydon Clocktower complex and Surrey Street Market was identified. The latent urban network could become what Williams calls a tartan of different uses, stories and activities. ‘Where routes overlap, hybrid programmes might make unexpected situations; a bus-stop stage or a basement boxing-club,’ he adds.

Using the masterplanning summits to establish the pattern of this weave means each piece of the puzzle can be delivered independently and still fit together to complete the bigger picture.

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