We may need more housing but we also need to provide spaces of work, writes Melissa Meyer of We Made That
As housing pressures drive redevelopment across the capital, in combination with London’s loss of designated industrial land and with permitted development rights changing almost anything to residential use without the traditional checks and balances of the planning process, the city’s ability to provide and protect spaces of work has been considerably dented.
‘London is under pressure to accommodate housing as well as places of work and all sorts of social, civic, cultural, and green infrastructure to maintain the diversity of London. However there is a tendency for the highest value uses to dominate this balance.’ – Debbie Jackson, assistant director, regeneration, Greater London Authority.
London’s industrial sites are productive, varied, full of surprises – and under threat
Over the past two years, in the context of London’s now well-documented loss of designated industrial land, we’ve studied more than 1,000 businesses operating from industrial sites, including in Charlton Riverside, Hackney Wick and Fish Island, and in Park Royal. These businesses want to stay where they are and being located in London is important to them, but many are unclear of how they fit into plans for London’s future. These sites are productive, varied, full of surprises – and under threat.
Given the high operational costs and development uncertainties facing the city’s industrial businesses, is it time to let these uses slide out of London for good? Watch other cities build vibrant and diverse place around them? Let others have productive, varied sites full of surprises while London becomes increasingly narrow in the diversity of its economy? We say no.
The oft-repeated answer to this tricky problem – particularly in the context of a housing-led bottom line – is presented as ‘mixed use development’, but there is a need to aspire to a condition beyond ‘mixed use’. A gym, Tesco Metro or a token un-occupied office unit with no natural light at the ground floor of a new residential tower does not mixed-use make. We need ‘Supermix’. Supermix captures a more varied and radical conception of mix which is concerned with the mixing places of work as much as with mixing residential and non-residential uses. The term helps us to conceive of ways in which to defend mixed places of work where they exist, intensify industrial sites and shape new development schemes to include a greater variety of workplaces.
Industrial land designation remains one of the key levers to retain sites for workplaces but it is more necessary than ever to defend these sites as productive places, and to think more imaginatively about what these sites can accommodate and how they might be adapted to keep existing and additional productive uses on sites. Industrial sites are undoubtedly more colourful than the ‘brownfield’ label that is often conveniently applied to them in anticipation of redevelopment and masterplanning work.
This is not to say that supermix can only find site in existing places of work.
Where workspace is delivered as part of new development schemes, a more bold and thoughtful approach to fit out, servicing and adjacencies can enable supermix to take hold. This thinking extends from how to accommodate more industrial(ish) uses into new schemes to space for another productive activity under threat in London - spaces for cultural making. Rehearsal, recording, and production activities are another frequent casualty of redevelopment schemes or rising rents but these spaces are crucial elements of the city’s cultural infrastructure.
In line with this expanded thinking, the potential for employment activities to contribute to the identity of places should not be overlooked. Desire for ‘distinctive’ places to live and work is rife across the city, but this desire is too often directed at the same target – not everywhere in London can be a tech and co-working hub. Protecting or re-providing space for existing, if hidden, distinctive employment uses can help make better places.
In current conditions, the ability of the market alone to deliver supermix is limited. The GLA, a number of local authorities and even some industrial landowners are increasingly championing industrial intensification and well-conceived mixed-use provision in new schemes, while protecting workspace is a key priority of the next London Plan. These ambitions should be embraced loudly and adopted widely, with a clearer understanding of the place of local authority and London-wide infrastructure planning in supporting these efforts.
Despite its challenges, London needs to bother with supermix. But this is not just a London phenomenon. Building up supermix in Solihull, supermix in Saffron Walden and supermix in Southend-on-Sea will make better places. The cards are already stacked in the capital: London needs to keep the variety of jobs, skills and places that supermix can support in its sights and word harder to keep this valuable mix in its bounds.
Melissa Meyer is urban researcher at We Made That