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The pros and cons of a decentralised London

EDGE debate highlights trend towards ‘third place’ working

HTA’s Rory Bergin reports

Host: Greater London Authority
Chair: Nicky Gavron

Speakers:

1

The London Plan 2011

Organised by think tank the EDGE, the subject of the evening was whether London’s centralisation should continue unabated or whether policies should be developed to support the development of suburban centres. The big plus of decentralisation is that it would increase the number of jobs in the suburbs and reduce the number of trips to and from work by people living nearby.

Ziona Strelitz contributed a fascinating piece of research that shows how many people now work in a third place, i.e. not at home and not at work. They do this for many reasons, to be sociable, to get out of the house, to avoid going into the office, to save on their heating bills, to get some thinking space or to meet a client or collaborator at a convenient location. 

These third places are, libraries, cafes, bars, or institutions that offer free wi-fi. Free wi-fi appears to be the deciding factor. Modern communications technology now means that three people around a table with shared wi-fi constitutes a start-up. The question was asked whether cafes will continue to allow people to sit and work with a single cup of coffee for several hours, or will they start to move people on. In Paris you are allowed to sit with the same cup of coffee all day, but in London the staff usually remove your protective cup after an hour or so.

The notion of a community space that can provide shared services has been mooted many times in the past, at the birth of Milton Keynes and in the master plan for Greenwich Millenium Village. These have now materialised in the form of coffee shops on our high streets. But these services aren’t really sophisticated enough. Small local businesses need good quality meeting rooms with telepresence, high speed broadband and access to backup services such as IT support, printing, and coffee!

No consensus emerged on whether London’s future is best directed in one way or another. But the many benefits of intensifying the suburbs were widely acknowledged, and at least one study has demonstrated that by building homes in suburbs that are well served by public transport we can satisfy London’s housing demand without constructing any new infrastructure. This is mainly because we have a heavily centralised city where transport systems are overloaded in one direction in the morning and empty in the other. So by moving people and jobs to the suburbs the same system can be made to serve everyone better.

2

Hall, P and K Pain (2006) ‘The polycentric metropolis: learning from mega-city regions in Europe’, London, Earthscan Publications Ltd

Looking to the future and how some of this thinking could be turned into reality,  there is some interesting work being done at UCL using the Oyster database to map travel in London. This gives us a new opportunity to track travel patterns, find hotspots of congestion and  create an evidence base for a more sustainable and effective use of our infrastructure. Perhaps by analysing passenger journeys over a period and comparing this to the actual capacity of the transport network, we will be able to assess where our polycentric city has the greatest opportunities for improvement.

This type of analysis has implications for how TFL manages the network in the long term, perhaps more as an active system that can respond to pressure than a set of franchises set up to deliver to a dumb set of parameters?

Concern was voiced that the current boom in the residential market is taking employment spaces out of use, and turning them into highly specialised building types that cannot be turned back into employment spaces. Small suburban workshops can easily be demolished and turned into residential buildings, but few residential sites will be changed to employment uses. With the exception a few large central zones, the London Plan is silent on this subject. Is it time for local authorities in London to develop some joined-up policy on the loss of employment space?

Congratulations to the EDGE for highlighting the importance of these thorny issues and the urgent need for more joined up thinking.

 

 

 

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