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Quality street

In the first of an occasional series examining real urban areas, we find out what makes London's Lower Marsh tick

A current contradiction in the messages coming from central government sees planners being urged to take decisions that will strengthen 'the local' and enhance what is perceived as distinct about a particular place, while the constant economic deference to multinational retail often makes local distinctiveness on the high street economically unviable.

So far, so familiar. Much has been written on these mixed messages in recent months, but here I would like to outline - through referring to what I consider to be a successful street - why sometimes a more evolutionary approach to locality is needed. I have a hunch that some successful places tend to make themselves over generations, and as planners we can learn some of their lessons but never fully prescribe the human behaviour that will flavour the space.

Lower Marsh is squeezed between the most cosmopolitan railway terminal in London, social housing and a primary school. Different visitors, most recently the prime minister and Bridget Jones, have come to the area for different reasons over the years since the first recorded market on the site in 1377.

Circa 1750, 'The Marsh' linked with The Cut to create a path through the Thames' bogs between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. In the 18th and 19th centuries this unbroken thoroughfare attracted something of a reputation for fun and fancy with pleasure gardens, circuses and theatres, and their perennial hangers-on, tradesfolk and criminals. When Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817, the marshes were drained to open up cheap development land. Small houses, wharves and warehouses sprung up on Lower Marsh.

The opening of Waterloo Station in 1848 cut the street off from the Thames, and these truncated river accesses became closed yards and culs-de-sac.

Effectively taken out of circulation, this has proved to be the seed of the Lower Marsh success story. The street was left extra sensitive to the influence of its human users while successive local governments felt they had other, grander, projects to pursue. Lambeth council designated the street a conservation area in 1984 in a move that represented the local authority's overt role in leading planning in the area. Shops and dwellings share the space shared with an incongruous single-storey library. .

It is the very lack of intervention, coupled with sensible and rigorous street maintenance, that I want to applaud as appropriate to the place. The street as a thoroughfare, a passage for human traffic, predates all of its current buildings, and the concession to the history - written in the human scale - is to the council's credit.

While there are many different architectural styles, an early 18th-century vernacular predominates, and unifies the street for the pedestrian with a continuous line close to the footway, three to four-floor roof heights and simple parapets. It is this tightness and intimacy that contains and focuses the activity in the street. While not officially pedestrianised, Lower Marsh has oneway traffic from each end, which is then siphoned out of the way at its halfway point - the effect being that only vehicles with the need to stop do so. At the heart of the place has always been the street market, which keeps people flowing through the area.

Peter Pendleton, a planner based on Lower Marsh, sees a neighbourhood on the up but, importantly, on its own terms. 'When County Hall (the former home of the Greater London Council) closed in 1986, it hit Lower Marsh economically, and it has taken a while to come back, but the place has not been taken over by contemporary trends - yet. From a planning point of view, it is a place where people make their own rules.' With no middlemen, the market is that rarity: a place of face-to-face exchange bereft of bored sales assistants fast-tracked through a course in soft skills and customer service. It is cash-only and with changeable prices. Dare to instigate a discussion over fruit-price fluctuations and you get a new angle on globalisation refracted through the Argentine economy by way of Battersea.

According to PPG 6, as a designated district centre, Lower Marsh should be providing access to services on a local scale. But it succeeds by delivering to a new constituency, whose scale defies the empty categories coming down through policy guidance. Yes, there is that vital residue of the residential, the ageing locals with their string bags and antique accents, but there is also a more metropolitan footfall - the commuters and suits have realised this marvellous street just round the corner from the office can make them feel human again in its collaged and cohesive cross-section.

What is perhaps surprising, especially being so close to Waterloo International, is that there are no tourists on the horizon. True, Lower Marsh exudes the supposed commodity of 'authenticity' but has avoided any articulated 'placemaking', and is still lacking the 'landmark' or 'destination' that might anchor it in the mental map of tourists and Londoners alike. Long may that be so. This place is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

It is not because Lower Marsh has a heritage or is lacking in chain stores that I love it. Like all great markets, it has a symbiosis between people and place - a barely perceptible exchange between the space and its users that has seen Lower Marsh remain, change, and which ensures it will change again. I only hope it is left to do so.

Michael Smoughton is a student and assistant planner. Contact smoughton@ yahoo. co. uk

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