Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Old Oak Common - The New Heart of West London?

                                                        Old Oak Common Railway Sidings
                                                   The site for the new exchange station

Yesterday I spent the day at the Place West London Conference at Olympia in London. This is an annual bash of the movers and shakers of the area who come together to share ideas and information on whats being built and planned for the area.

For me the highlight of the day were the presentations by architect and masterplanner Sir Terry Farrell, Colin Wilson of the Greater London Authority and Nick Botterill, Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, on the development potential of Old Oak Common. This is not actually a common, as in a public park and open space. It is a former railway depot and sidings on the old Great Western Railway route out of Paddington to England's west country. It was originally developed by the pioneer railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the mid nineteenth century. Its strategic importance for west London , and indeed London and the south east region of the UK, lies in its location. It is a place where the main lines out of Euston to the north west and Scotland and the line from Paddington are very close together, a place where the new High Speed 2 route and Crossrail will pass through, and a place intersected by the new London Overground rail service. 

At the moment the rail planners of HS2 see it as just an exchange junction station connecting the line out of Paddington, Crossrail and HS2. A pretty limited vision in my opinion , a view shared by Sir Terry, Nick and Colin who have come together to explore how the linking of these intersecting railway lines might actually create more than just a station but a station that is a place and destination in its own right, a place where people could live, learn, work and socialise - a place that would put west London even more on the map than it currently is.

Watch this space and the press for news on the progress of this visionary idea.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Is the Future of the High Street Online?

                                              East Grinstead High Street West Sussex UK

Last Thursday evening I attended one of the Royal Institute of British Architect's Building Futures debates at the offices of BDP in London. The subject of the debate was a motion that this house believes the future of the high street is online.

Proposing the motion was Anne-Marie Laing of accountants Zolfo Cooper. Opposing the motion was Peter Drummond of BDP architects and masterplanners.

Key points in the case for the motion

·         People no longer want to go to the high street; the offer is poor and declining.
·         The quality of shops on the high street is poor and getting worse.
·         Innovative retailers are now working from home and delivering through on-line channels.
·         Online retail offers a far greater choice to the consumer.
·         Online retail growth will mean that the high street will no longer be viable for shopping but it may be viable for other activities such as health care, learning facilities, workshops and housing.

Key point in the case against the motion

·         Many high streets are still thriving – especially those which have nurtured independent businesses, not just national brand chain retailers.
·         Examples such as Willesden High Road in NW London show what can be done.
·         But the problems are more acute in places like Nottingham and Barnsley where national retail chains are abandoning traditional high streets in favour of out of town locations. But his can present an opportunity to accommodate independents if landlords will accept realistic rents.
·         In low income towns the high street is still the only shopping opportunity for people who cannot afford or who cannot access retail and entertainment on line.
·         In many places the high street remains the only place with facilities for congregation and we need to make it a much more pleasant experience to do so.
·         High streets and town centre remain a vital lifeline for the older people in our communities and for the less mobile.

Key points in the debate

·         The UK government needs to implement its own “Town Centres First” policy and stop ignoring it.
·         This would provide investors and retailers with confidence to develop in town centres.
·         The future of the high street is less about retail than it is about remaking it to be fit for purpose for a new set of needs and wants of local people – needs and wants related to what they want to congregate to do.
·         Online communications are important for the future health of the high street.
·         They will be important to carry “Summons to the Commons” for congregation”.
·         We need to understand what people want to congregate to do together and what role the high street and town centre will play in meeting those needs.
·         Many existing high streets are places of “shared victories” – war memorials and the like, that used to bring people together. What will be their 21st century equivalents?
·         A great example of a revived high street is Marylebone High Street which benefited from a single clear minded renewal strategy by one landlord.
·         A big problem for lots of high streets is the multiple ownership of landlords and their clinging to expectations of unrealistic rental levels and being happy to keep shops vacant while receiving rent from departed leaseholders.
·         We need “intelligent” landlords, people who are realistic about rental expectations.
·         And a major problem with the large gated shopping malls like Westfield is their lack of diversity and the lack of independent retailers.
·         But there is no standard “silver bullet” answer to reviving the high street – each one will need careful planning by a partnership of local interests.
·         Local authorities can lead this process but they must not dominate it.

The motion was substantially and conclusively defeated

City - A Guidebook for the Urban Age

I've been reading Peter D Smith's book "Cities - A Guide for the Urban Age" while on holiday. What a great book and the more so as Peter is neither a town planner or an architect. He brings a very refreshing insight to the development of cities over thousands of years and offers many sharp and relevant insights on the development of cities over many years that are stimulating for people like me who care about the quality of urban life and experience, with many lessons from past times that we should not forget. In many ways the reading of this book was like a tour d'horizon of my own reading over the last forty odd years since I started studying town planning at the Glasgow School of Art, bringing back memories of the insights of Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Munford, Grady Clay, John Stilgoe, Tony Hiss and Peter Hall. Reading this book has both re-affirmed and rekindled my desire to make a meaningful contribution to making urban places better for the people who live and work there. Buy this book and enjoy the author's erudition and insights and be entertained by his wit.