We urgently need to explore new models for housing and public space in London’s rapidly developing suburbs, says Ellis Woodman
The litany of injuries suffered by city centres in the middle years of the last century is well rehearsed. Wartime bombing, the technocratic interventions of post-war road engineers and urban planners, the relocation of industry and the resultant decline of the population which that industry supported all brought about a perilous weakening of their prosperity and form.
For the past four decades, the reversal of that decline has formed the focus of architectural discourse. Yet, while there are still many urban centres where such remedial activity remains an urgent priority, in a number of major European cities that task has now largely been completed.
The development of London, for example, reached a significant milestone in February when its population passed the peak figure of 8.5 million, which it had last supported at the outbreak of the Second World War. Densification of the centre will doubtless continue but, with an anticipated increase of a further 1.5 million over the next 15 years, attention is now inevitably shifting to the 19 of the city’s 34 boroughs which constitute Outer London.
The speed and scale of change in parts of the capital’s periphery looks set to be dramatic. Today, it may still be possible to buy a three-bedroom property in Thamesmead for less than £200,000, but that is not going to be the case for long. The opening of the first stage of Crossrail in 2018 will reduce the journey time from Thamesmead to Canary Wharf to just 11 minutes, with radical consequences for the area’s fortunes and demographic.
Without planning London’s outer boroughs will merely constitute high-rise dormitory villages
And yet the question of what form the wave of new development in London’s periphery should take remains notably under-explored. Without intelligent planning, the fear must be that much of it will merely constitute high-rise dormitory villages, clustered around transport interchanges and achieving minimal integration with the existing fabric. The challenge lies in building truly urban communities - places characterised by a mixed demographic and by uses other than just housing and retail.
The stratospheric escalation of property values has presented a considerable threat to the survival of that kind of urban condition in the city centre. For all the densification that it has undergone, central London has increasingly become the preserve of wealthy middle-aged residents and tourists. Manufacturing has almost entirely been stripped out while, outwith the few protected business districts, office space is also giving way to luxury homes.
Ironically, it is in the transformation of the city’s suburbs that the possibility of cultivating a true sense of urbanity remains. The urgent need for London to seize that opportunity forms the focus of a day of talks which the Architecture Foundation is staging at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich on Saturday (5 September). Doughnut: The Outer London Festival will bring together architects, historians, novelists and property experts to discuss the changing shape of the periphery and debate issues ranging from the sanctity of the green belt to the need to develop new models of housing and public space.
These questions are by no means unique to London. When Renzo Piano was recently appointed a senator in Rome, he used his salary to establish an office of young architects tasked with developing projects around the city’s fringe. In announcing the initiative he noted: ‘In the 1960s and 70s, the big challenge – in Europe certainly, but everywhere – was to establish as a principle that historic centres have to be preserved, but in the 2000s – probably for the next three, four, five decades – the real challenge is to transform the periphery.’ It is a challenge not just for city authorities but for the architectural discourse, too, and one we have ignored for too long.