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Ensuring infrastructure is an engine for local transformation

Paul Finch
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Assessing the merit of ‘place’ design is difficult, but investment depends on it

Terry Farrell suggested, in his government report on UK architecture, that design review should be renamed as ‘place review’. I have to admit to having been sceptical. The whole principle of design review, as instituted by the Royal Fine Art Commission and developed by Cabe, was that it should be more than aesthetic judgements about the design of a building in its narrowest sense. We generally had multidisciplinary panels, and still do. The idea of reviewing only the object within the client’s red line was anathema.

Moreover, what about reviews of projects that would only have a minimal contribution to place, for example a piece of urban infill?

As things have turned out, the idea of explicitly raising the issue of place seems to have worked and, whatever a panel might be called, there is an understanding on the part of planning authorities that ‘place’ is part and parcel of any proper review process for a significant project.

Are the HS2 stations simply one-off transport buildings?

The importance of broad assessment of what a particular development may do for its street/neighbourhood/quarter (or at worst to them) shows every sign of increasing as the pace of infrastructure investment increases.

A good example is what will happen in the areas where HS2 stations land. Are the stations one-off transport buildings, with a requirement merely to deliver functionality in the most efficient way? Or are they engines for local transformation?

Historically major infrastructure has tended to be of the standalone variety – railway stations and airports located remotely, or as big urban blockers in major cities. It is the remaking of transport environments that has presented opportunities for genuine urbanism, for example at King’s Cross and St Pancras in the wake of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

In the case of Crossrail it was difficult enough persuading the powers-that-be that they should take the design of the suburban stations seriously. With HS2 the limited number of stations ought to prompt fundamental analysis and, to use the necessary cliché, ‘joined-up thinking’ if the benefits that Osborne envisages are to be delivered. This is easier said than done, as the story of the Olympics and its legacy activities indicates.

Even if you have general agreement about a strategy for delivering place-making aspirations, there is still the question of how you assess what is proposed. What should be taken into account, and what tools do you have for predicting the outcomes of actual masterplanning and design programmes?

That question emerged at a fascinating session at MIPIM UK last week, led by RIO - nothing to do with Brazil, but the Regeneration Investment Organisation, run by UKTI/Department for Business. It provides a matchmaking service for mainly (not exclusively) overseas investors interested in backing major regeneration projects in the UK, public or private. In the current financial year, RIO will have been responsible for generating more than £4 billion of such investment.

The issue raised at the session, and discussed by both client advisers and investing institutions, was the importance of ‘place’ in the assessment of long-term investment potential, long-term meaning Grosvenor Estate time frames rather than the spec developer’s 25-year (if that) perspective.

Developers can of course think in the long term, too. Stuart Lipton has often said ‘the greater the amenity, the greater the value’. But how do you quantify the qualitative?

Plenty of scope here for discussion with a very specific intention: to ensure that good urbanism is embodied in the many projects that, with proper help, could be made ‘oven-ready’ for potential investors. The informal estimate of the total value of those projects nationally? About £200 billion. Place is big business.



King’s Cross (summer 2015)


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