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people - london calling

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Ken Livingstone's Architecture and Urbanism Unit at the Greater London Assembly is now up to strength with the appointment of Mark Brearley, a 38-year-old Mancunian and co-founder of north London practice East photograph by david richards

The setting could not have been more resonant; at the far end of a shabby industrial estate, sandwiched between a municipal tip and a railway line, I met London's new urban designer.

Mark Brearley is a founding partner of East, the practice advising on the urban design content of Arsenal Football Club's move to Ashburton Grove. During the next couple of years, the £400 million stadium and housing development will stick the boot into the estate's current occupants and shift them elsewhere.

Brearley is not used to being involved in quite such a large regeneration project.

Although East (a six-person practice set up with Julian Lewis just six years ago) likes to think big, much of its built work has been on a fairly modest scale - such as street improvements in Southwark.

Brearley now has his chance to tackle something bigger. Currently doing three days a week in Ken Livingstone's Architecture and Urbanism (A&U) Unit, he is set to go fulltime next month in his £40,000-a-year post, and immerse himself in the thorny issues of tall buildings, densification, social inclusion and transport. It is his dream job. 'I certainly wasn't looking around for a job in order to jump out of the practice. This is a complete one-off.'

Getting the job has not come without personal sacrifice, though - he will have to take a back seat in his own practice, and he has already resigned from his teaching post at the University of East London.

The unit was established three months ago to 'give an extra push to the urban renaissance of London', to catalyse people into action and act as a sort of glue to bind together diverse groups such as planners, special interest organisations and government agencies. But life will not be easy. The five-strong unit is working on a 'shoestring' budget and is only just beginning to carve out an agenda for itself.

The work will be shared with unit leader Lord Rogers, who puts in two days a week;

the LSE's one-day-a-week Ricky Burdett; a programme manager; and a PA. Brearley describes them all as 'hands-on, sleevesrolled-up' people - which is just as well for someone who described himself in his job application as 'a habitual collaborator and sharer of knowledge, able to call a spade a spade, free from prima donna tendencies'.

This provides a clue about the way the unit is likely to operate. 'We are only a small unit and we wouldn't be making the best use of our resources if we went against the flow, ' says Brearley.

'We can only work where something is already happening. Doing that is more valuable than asking for £50 million to do our own project. That's not what we're for.'

Brearley is conscious of the fact that the success of the unit depends on the extent to which it can deliver quantifiable results: 'We need to be saying things that excite people, and communicate to people that London can get better. But you can't keep an agenda going, and interest going, unless some things appear. You've got to be able to point at something.'

One way Brearley hopes to add value is by latching onto the GLA's planned congestion charging programme. If Livingstone goes ahead with his plans to charge motorists £5 a day to drive through central London, Transport for London will spend about £100 million on road changes, pedestrianisation, street furniture and the like. By applying the unit's skills and contacts to the project, Brearley hopes to avoid the clumsy works which can often accompany such schemes.

And what about more taxing issues such as the future of Spitalfields Market, now facing partial demolition in the face of opposition from community groups, or the social problems arguably engendered by poor architecture on housing estates? What can the A&U unit contribute here? Brearley becomes coy when the conversation turns to specifics; he clearly has a lot to say but is careful not to speak out of turn.

The unit is on the lookout for four or five current urban improvement programmes to muscle in on. The areas are likely to be gritty, complex ones where conflicting issues are coming together at once. One issue facing Brearley is the displacement of people and businesses who find themselves at the wrong end of redevelopment programmes, and are shunted around when gentrification can find no place for them. Planning officers and developers need to 'encompass difference', says Brearley, and build more 'multiaffordability, multi-tenure' housing.

Brearley is encouraged by what he sees as changing attitudes towards urban living and a recognition that cities are (even should be) complex, multi-faceted places: 'People in general are more able to appreciate the city as it is; perceptions of it as pure monstrosity are disappearing.'

One of the factors in this change of attitude might be the advent of the 'London Plan', Livingstone's drive to shape the future of the capital for the next decade or two. The consultation period for the original document - Towards the London Plan - has now finished, and Brearley et al will be contributing to a more focused, goaloriented draft to appear early next year.

Brearley says the consultation process was essentially a way of asking, 'do we all agree with this?' Now the work begins on turning ideas such as densification, transport nodes and key-worker housing into practical initiatives.

The hardest part will be steering a careful path between ambition and realism - Brearley now inhabits a very political world:

'Broad alignment with Ken Livingstone is crucial. The one thing we can't be is politically naive. Otherwise we're dead.'

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