Monday, 20 May 2013

New Spaces for Independent Workers

Photograph of Grindspace workspace courtesy of NY Times

I’ve been reading a fascinating article in the New York Times by Alex Williams (see link below) on the emergence of a new type of workspace and place to work for individuals who would rather work in a shared environment rather than sit alone at home.  Alex interviewed a number of people who have made the move from the home office to the shared workspace and common features were the desire to escape loneliness, the need for interaction with other people, the desire to share and discuss ideas and to tap into others experience and critical intelligence, and the need to access specialist facilities for creative people.

This new type of space is not like the shared buildings that emerged in inner London in areas like Clerkenwell and other UK and US cities during the 1980’s which, by and large catered for small companies unable to afford traditional commercial office and workspaces. Places like Grind ( ), Indy Hall and Neue-House ( ) – a workspace styled as a form of private members (workers) club, cater not for small companies but individuals with big and creative ideas, people who are looking for collaborators, contacts and access to others networks and little black contact books (the digital variety).

These new spaces do not come cheap and their costs can range from $500 a month for a desk space and access to all of the facilities down to $35 per day subject to availability.

                      Photograph of Indy Hall shared workspace in Philadelphia courtesy of NY Times

The facilities can include desk space, lounges for meetings, specialist screening rooms for media types to showcase their visual and digital arts and products, kitchens, cafeteria spaces, recording studios and shared libraries.They will not be everyone’s choice but they do offer an alternative to being home alone and the small firm’s workspace. In some ways they are a variant on the US business cubicle for individual workers but with less of the divider walls and more shared spaces. They are not quite as deliberately designed as the modern offices of a Google or a Facebook. They are a lot less regimented with a lot more informality.They appear to already be attracting a market and they could be a way of bringing older, unused or under-utilised buildings back into more productive uses as a new place in the landscape, particularly in city centres and, who knows, in town centres with vacant retail premises. We shall see.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

"People, place and value: the golden triangle" - A Glasshouse and Academy of Urbanism Debate

Last night I was privledged to attend the fourth in a series of debates held around the Uk organised by Glasshouse and the Academy of Urbanism (AoU) at the new Central St Martin's College in the Granary Building in the Argent development at Kings X in central London. The subject was "People, place and value: the golden triangle? The panel consisted of Kevin Murray, director of Kevin Murray Associates and current president of the AoU, Cllr Josef Ransley Chair of Kidford Parish Neighbourhood Plan, Pam Alexander non-executive director at Crest Nicholson and Sophia de Sousa Chief Executive of Glasshouse. The panel was chaired by Tom Dyckhoff, writer and broadcaster.

This was the fourth of a series of debates held at various venues around the UK, all with a common aim of getting people talking about placemaking and exploring the changing relationship between people, place and value.

In opening the debate Tom Dyckhoff suggested that we were at a moment of great opportunity to change the way people get involved in placemaking, how they operated, communicated with each other and worked with each other - politicians, built environment professionals and the people who live in the communities that they work in. The economic downturn had raised fundamental questions about the need for  better ways of designing spaces and places.

Kevin Murray spoke first about how great places create different kinds of value for local people - not just hard monetary value - such as new sources of revenue for community development,  but also softer value - such as amenity, culture, beauty, jobs and recreation facilities, and he emphasised that to be successful new places need long term income streams. Great places are those which are viable and enable a quality of life. Kevin argued that that a key element of successful place identity and value is the creation of positive social and community cohesion that lasts for generations, giving them an ability to cope with change over time. This is not just about the design of buildings and the spaces in between; it is about legitimate and meaningful community involvement in the placemaking process, in a purposeful dialogue with environmental professionals and local authorities, where the community is an equal if not primary partner, where local authorities adopt an enabling role rather than being  prescriptive, where the professionals engage with the community and each other in a clear and common language and become far better listeners.

Josef Ransley spoke about the need to understand the different ways in which people in communities think about place in different ways and their different definition of place, which are determined by their interests and anxieties, their access to transport, and their mixed knowledge of formal processes and practices of placemaking, and the confusion they experience with much of the formal and professional language of many placemaking professionals. Josef believes that local authority leaders should be facilitators of discussions on proposals for places rather than determining solutions; that it is impossible for planners to define what is good for people; that placemaking needs to be highly interactive and participative; and that the new proposals for and interest in "localism" offers the opportunity for community participation in creating places that will work. He argued that value needs to be redefined and that there needs to be a move a way from process driven targets (for new housing numbers for example) and a new focus on the qualitative aspects of place and design. He concluded his remarks by stating that the new challenge at the local level is to make the new Panels - a mixture of lay local people and environmental professionals - work in a creative, meaningful way by fusing the skills and knowledge of local people with those of the professionals to define and agree on what the community needs, what will be good for it and effective and lasting ways of delivering it.

Pam Alexander opened by stating what many in the audience knew to be obvious - that involving local people in the design and development of placemaking proposals is good business sense. She rightly believes that the community brings value in its ideas, in its knowledge and has an important role to play in the provision of market research and market testing of development proposals. Community involvement is, she argued, critical to the long term success of placemaking. More sharply she observed that we must stop regarding respect for the community as a weakness.She shared a great story about a comment from a construction industry worker at the previous Liverpool debate who had said that if you want successful places you need to build as though you were doing so for the people that you love - your family and loved ones. She also remarked that we need to engage the powerful - the leaders of the corporate world, in the process of placemaking, in the creation of socially positive legacies and not just focus on the success of their enterprises; the success of the communities that they draw their workers from should be just as important to them and they have a role in making them successful.

Sophia de Sousa opened with her call to arms, one that I am wholly at one with - that place matters! To illustrate this salvo she told the story of the remarks of a participant in the Glasgow debate who pointed out that the poor quality of the place he lived in meant that life expectancy was noticeably lower than in other parts of the city. She also reminded the audience of how poor the commonplace image of property developers is, instanced by how they are usually portrayed in television dramas as grasping and without principle or scruple, interested only in a quick profit. No wonder many in communities don't trust them.And she reminded us not to underestimate the power of local people to positively and creatively affect places and proposals for their improvement and asked us all to think about one thing that we, as individuals, can do to bring about change in the way we make places. In my case its to
recognise the worth and added value of time spent in dialogue with a community throughout the placemaking process and to positively challenge developers and local authorities who doubt this.

It was no surprise that a very lively debate ensued with lots of examples of challenges, projects, successes and new ways of working being shared. Here is a small sample and flavour:

  • The worth and power of bringing planners, developers and communities together and challenging them to find better ways of working together.
  • The attractions and benefits of using Community Land Trusts as a vehicle for place making.
  • The need to plan for desired benefits rather than hoping they will materialise.
  • The need for developers to retain an interest in their developments for longer periods of time in order to ensure a lasting positive legacy.
  • The need for a simpler, clearer shared language to conduct the discourse on placemaking.
  • Environmental professionals need to rediscover the skill of positive listening and stop preaching to lay men and women.
  • The need to create space for these conversations in the Neighbourhood Planning process.
  • But let's not beat up on Local Authorities - they have a difficult role to play and if we want them to behave in a different way we need to be in dialogue with them.
  • And let's recognise the dangers of the proposed bedroom tax - it could lead to a loss of social housing.
  • This is not just about the creation of better places to live in the form of well designed housing, its as much about the creation of lasting cohesive social networks and strong communities.
Tom conclude the debate by remarking that we know what makes a good place and we know how to make them work but we need to share this knowledge with and among local communities and involve them actively in the process.

In conclusion I left St Martin's feeling that this debate on placemaking and the central and vital role of local people within it needs a wider platform so that many more people in the built environment professions can engage with it, participate in it, change their behaviours and the need for serious communication to local authorities and the development community so that they can understand that existing and tired models of public engagement no longer work and are still resulting in places that do not work. There was plenty of proof in the debate, as if it was needed, that serious and meaningful consultation with local people results in places that work, places that are valued by people and which are profitable for developers.

Note: I am wholly responsible for any misinterpretations of speakers and participants remarks in this debate.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Importance of Quality Space to Place

Today I was privileged to be part of a line-up put together by Mike Roberts of HAB (Happiness, Architecture, Beauty) Housing for a session in the Green Building Council's tent at EcoBuild in London's Excel exhibition centre in Docklands. The subject under discussion was the importance of place to residential development and my personal take was on the importance of space to place.

Place matters to me and I think that it matters to all of us and that's why I called my company "Placematters". For me one of the key determinants of place is space and by space I do not limit the word to open space. It covers the spaces we live in and how well they are designed, the spaces we pass through to get to where we live – the lobbies and stair wells, the entrance spaces to buildings, the spaces between buildings, the spaces on top of buildings, the private spaces associated with our houses and apartments, and the shared spaces in the heart of housing developments, whether they be public or like the private (residents only) Victorian squares in central and inner west London.

And for me all of those spaces need to be actively and well managed by a landlord if my flat or house is being rented, one that is committed to the community that they are housing, not managed as an afterthought or, even worse, managed by benign neglect. And managed in partnership with the tenants - not against their wishes. The whole feel of the space needs to be one that I am comfortable with in all its living elements.

In this context one of the purposes of my presentation was to highlight the work of a new organisation in the UK housing field - UK Regeneration, a company that is pioneering a new approach to the provision of high quality housing for rent.

My vehicle for doing so was an improvisation, sharing a story with my audience about a future visit to the first of UKR's new developments in the Sandfields area of Nottingham, a city in the English East Midlands.Here it is:

"So come with me to visit a very special place, one that’s very dear to my heart as its been designed to be my kind of place, a place that I would be happy to rent if I lived and worked in this city.

It’s a place that I wish had existed when I first came to work in London after I had graduated and had to suffer, for too many years, the vagaries of private renting, always putting up with something that was not quite right, something poorly maintained, something too expensive for what it was worth, and sharing a space that was never designed for sharing and so poorly equipped I had to furnish the furnished space myself, …and that in the days before Ikea!; I had to depend on “Trendy Styles” secondhand furniture shop on Kingsland High Road. Sustainable it was not! And cheap it was not…being full of copycat Terence Conran designs.

But enough of the nightmares of private renting thirty years ago…..come with me into the heart of England to a new place - housing with space that’s my kind of place and imagine me as a young recent graduate (yes I know it’s hard looking at me now) with a decent job, fed up with the indignities of student living, and wanting somewhere decent to live and hang out.
Let me first park the car (a hybrid I hope you note) and we can get out and take a shufftie at the place.

The Lenton Area of Nottingham

That’s it over there on the other side of Lenton Boulevard, at the cross roads. Looks interesting don’t you think, modern design with clues in the brickwork about the traditional architectural vernacular of the area, and clearly committed to sustainability if those rooftop panels are anything to go by.

You know for me any residential development that’s going to capture my heart, to be my kind of place, has to be a space that I want to spend time in, has to look good, to look well designed, to have design features that interest and intrigue, with buildings that frame spaces for private contemplation, that offer spaces to meet and greet, to encounter strangers, to party and celebrate, for kids to play and people to catch up on the local gossip.

It’ may sound strange but I want to feel proud of the place where I live, not in a show-off way, but in a way that says this is a sensible place to be for my circumstances and a place that just right for my lifestyle at this time of my life. A place that gives me both privacy and a shared life with mates and family.

In short, I like my living space to be a mix of the private and the public, to be contemplative and to be animated, to be quiet in part and to be active outside, to provide opportunities for encounters, with neighbours and people passing by and through.

But before we look at the shared public space let’s pop in here to this two person flat to see what’s on offer.  Because this place is designed for private renting, for the younger sharing market, it’s got two bedrooms, each with its own bath/shower/toilet space and space in the bedroom for a sofa and table for private entertaining. That alleviates any problems with sharing with someone whose personal hygiene habits might be, well…. uncivilised. 

And here is the shared living space which is fully wired for the “Generation Now” lifestyle providing opportunities to share and stream music and video to every room, always-on high capacity broadband. 

And just look at the kitchen – a bit upmarket from Wickes but with enough design features to look like a Sunday supplement advert; I can almost taste the Jamie Oliver 120 minute meals that will be created here.

This is no accident of design; the developers UKR, who are also the landlords and managers, are in it for the long haul, and have really learned about and understand the lifestyles of their target tenant group and their requirements in terms of the design of their personal, intimate and shared apartment space, and what they need by way of associated external space and associated facilities.

I also want convenience in my place so that I do not have to schlepp all the way in to the Victoria Centre in the middle of town for my provisions or to the large Tesco out by the University. I like my place of life to help meet my needs – for convenience foods when I run out of tea, Pringles or Sauvignon, or toothpaste and mouthwash, for medicines to deal with my lifestyle (hangovers, moi?); so look here, around the central space, are a convenience store, a dry cleaners, a chemists, a doctors surgery and a great little independent caff – where Cuban Coffee meets the Bacon Bap with great “me-duck” service" in the fine traditions of the local Goose Fair.

If you want to know more about this most innovative and ground breaking of UK housing developers contact Jackie Sadek on

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Visiting Lagos in "Nigerian" Time

I've recently returned from Lagos in Nigeria where I've been working on a major destination development and brand strategy project (of which more anon). I've never been to Nigeria before   and despite having previously worked in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and  Uganda, I was unprepared for the sheer frenetic energy, creativity, movement, noise and mayhem that is Lagos. It could so easily have been overwhelming had it not been for my friend Eje and her miraculous driver Moses who together acted as protectors, guides and translators of language, symbols, culture, fashion, music and culinary delights. 

There were echoes of India in the many and massive traffic jams that we joined and partook of in Nigerian time in that being slow and stationary gives you more time to consider the delights on offer from the jam vendors who gather around stationary cars like bees around a honey pot who will attempt to sell you a cornucopia of things you may or may not need, may or may not like - fruit, flip flops, computer accessories, chewing gum, sweets, drinks, sandwiches, name badge holders, socks, underpants, towels, handkerchiefs, CD's, lottery tickets, ciggies, lighters,  and more that I have forgotten in the blur of purchase opportunities.  And there is entertainment aplenty in every traffic jam as you observe the constantly changing occupants of the small yellow three wheeler taxis and the larger taxi buses whose conductors are constantly touting for passengers and shouting out their otherwise unadvertised routes and destinations, and the antics of the many traffic policemen in many styles and colours of uniform who take great delight in waving at traffic whether moving or stationary.

And if you don't fancy buying anything from the traffic jam markets there is always the roadside, street stall, of which there are tens of thousands in the city. Few kerbside or pavement spaces are left to go to waste; a few square feet or meters are quickly put to productive retail use as a form of street theatre. This culture makes our recent attempts at pop-up retail look a little slow and jaded.

But nowhere else on earth have I experienced driving like this (and that may be down to me being less well traveled than others). At first it was scary, even at slow speeds in jammed traffic, there is no lane discipline - there is constant jostling for position,to capture a temporary almost ephemeral advantage of any gap that opens up which can get you momentarily past the cars beside you or in front of you or ahead of those in your rear. And there is a constant, jarring, but almost musical, honking of car horns by drivers announcing they are behind you, beside you or about to overtake you or cut you up, to let you know they are there.This is driving with all your senses on high alert. But, despite seeing many cars, buses and trucks with bumps and dents, I did not see or experience a single crash or bump,and Moses, true to his name, always managed to part the walls of traffic and find us a way through; miraculous!

I was equally unprepared for the sheer variety and scale of the buildings in the landscape - the makeshift towns of the poor on the Lagos waterfront, their camps on the edge of roads and streets, the decaying buildings of the country's brief Colonial period, the modern international hotels that could be anywhere because they lack any visual language identifying them with the symbols of their host locations, the new commercial office blocks that are neighbours to low cost and slum housing. 

Much of the original coastline has disappeared from Lagos and there is little European style waterfront development with much of it blocked off by the floating wooden housing made from every type of available scrap but just outside the city you can still get a glimpse of what it was originally like at its Botanic gardens where there are still crocs and snakes in the water.

Very ambitious plans are being implemented for a major new waterfront development at the end of Victoria island in the city on the Atlantic waterfront - the EKO Atlantic City, which will completely change the image of this part of the city, and on whats called Banana Island where major investment is being made in new high density residential development that would not look out of place in Manhattan or London's Docklands, as it also lacks any discernible visual symbols or patterns of Nigerian identity.

Many parts of the city looked the same with similar mixes of seemingly unplanned combinations of residential and commercial development, with a chaotic mix of different styles of architecture. If there truly is a identifiable European style city centre I failed to see or find it. No plazas, squares or gathering points; but every street seems to be a gathering point, a place of arrival and departure, a place of exchange, a place of meetings and farewells, loud, colourful and sometimes exotic; a place of energy and a place striving for improvement and new clothes in which to dress its chaotic image.

Friday, 8 February 2013

London Bridge - Bidding to become a great place and destination

A bird's eye view of the London Bridge area

Yesterday afternoon I met with the Board of the Business Improvement District of the London Bridge area in central London to share with them some thoughts on the value of place and destination branding to areas like theirs which are working on improving their offer, experience and identity. In my opinion this is one of the most interesting BID's in London and in the UK, ranking alongside the New West End Company - the BID for Oxford St., Regent St. and Bond St. in the west end of central London, which I have previously advised. This is a BID board that is truly thinking in a strategic way about the improvement of its area.

After the meeting we all went over to the London Museum of Fashion and Textiles in Bermondsey St.(well worth a visit especially if you were inspired by the recent Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A) for the AGM of the BID and a very informative programme of speakers sharing their thinking about and initiatives in the area.

The Museum of Fashion and Textiles in Bermondsey Street

First up was James Dinwiddie, who is the Chair of the Board of the BID, who told the audience about their major initiatives over the last year, focusing on initiatives to improve the area's public realm through urban links, pocket plazas, bringing vacant space back into public use and the creation of Gateways into the area - on London Bridge, Tower Bridge and on Tooley St., initiatives to improve and make better use of the many railway arches in the area, many now being released for new uses as a result of Network Rail's major programme of improvements to London Bridge Station, and their programme of events designed to animate, enliven and make the area more attractive as a place to visit and spend time in.

Next to speak was Prof. Simon Howell, Director of Research Development at Kings College London, one of the major landowners in the area. he shared with the audience the fascinating proposal for the establishment of a new Science Gallery in the original Guy's Hospital building. This will be a facility that will explain medical and related sciences to non-scientists in a very interactive way. inspired by a similar facility in Dublin, when completed this will be a major new attraction in the area, hopefully one that will attract a global audience.

James Wong's designs for improving the Greenwood Theatre

Simon was followed by the irrepresible James Wong who is an Ethnobotanist and who runs a local landscape design company, Amphibian designs (winners of a number of gold medals for their designs for gardens in the Chelsea Flower Show). He excitedly told the audience about his plans for greening the area around the Greenwood Theatre and re-cladding it in a natural wood and made the case for greater investment in greening the urban environment of the area  and its buildings through imaginative and pleasing planting.

The planned concourse at London Bridge Station

Finally, we heard from Chris Drabble and Andrew Hutton of Network Rail who shared its plans for the modernisation of London Bridge station over the next five plus years, with major works due to start in a few months time. A fascinating statistic from their presentation was that 64 million people pass through the station each year - that's almost equal to the total population of the UK! As a regular user of the station i was also glad to hear that NR plans to create one concourse, on a single level, to serve all of the improved and new platforms. And, as a fan of railway termini as destinations in their own right, I was pleased to hear that NR is looking to significantly improve the food and beverage and retail offer at the station. Clearly the success of the new facilities at St. Pancras Station is influencing their thinking.

I suggested to Chris and Andrew that they could get together with James to consider creating a major nature feature on the new concourse similar to the winter-garden area of the Atocha Station terminal in Madrid but that appears to be a plant too far in terms of the primary need to secure an efficient flow of people in and out of the station. Pity.

All in all a fascinating and entertaining afternoon and evening. This is clearly a BID that thinks strategically and has a very good relationship with its major developers and stakeholder employers. Watch this place!

Information on the initiatives of Team London Bridge is available at

Digital Urbanism

Dr Rick Robinson

Last Tuesday evening I attended a great lecture given by Rick Robinson of IBM UK on the subject of "Digital Urbanism",  at the offices of Space Syntax in central London. This event was organised by The Academy of Urbanism  which is where I met Rick a few months ago having followed his blog for some considerable time. Rick is an Executive Architect at IBM responsible for it's work on Smarter Cities. He regularly posts on this subject at his blog http://the

The choice of this topic by the Academy is no accident as its one of a small number of organisations in the built environment which has recognised the significant impact that digital technologies are having on urban life and the development of urban spaces and places.

Rick opened his presentation by talking about the disappearing boundary between the information supply world and the digital world and the resultant changes in the way that products are being created, designed, built and manufactured (3D printing of prosthetic limbs customised to individuals being a fascinating example) and the implications of these changes for the built environment, its governance and the way we use it. He identified three important trends urbanists need to be aware of:

  • the attraction of little things and big things working together (citing Kelvin Campbell's thinking on the process of initiating change through "massive (amounts of) small (changes)";
  • the capability of little things to improve and soften blunt infrastructures like road schemes and infrastructures;
  • the increasing capability of technology to collect, fuse and make sense of many and complex arrays of data to improve the way in which cities operate - for example, indicators of vehicle exhaust emmissions and the quality of drinking water.
Rick referred to the work of the city of Dublin in Ireland in this field - "Dublinked"- which is attempting to understand, link and build on the many people and organisations in the city who are using smart technologies, to understand their needs for the right technology infrastructure (3, 4, or 5 G broadband connectivity) in order to maximise the impact of what they are doing for the economic benefit of the city and its residents. A key objective of this initiative is to identify and distribute technologies that can be shared by many businesses and organisations at the same time which can enable greater and more effective collaborative working. Rick cited some interesting examples of this - the sharing of traffic congestion information with drivers in real time through in-car communications, the use of smart water meters to control the flow and levels of rivers and water courses (enabling earlier alerts on flooding) and meters that indicate the level and frequency of use of water by households and businesses.

This initiative did not surprise me as I've become familiar with the parallel initiative of the Science Gallery in Dublin to explain to its visitors what science is, how it is changing how we live and why we need to understand how it contribute to our lives.

Rick then talked about what he termed the "attraction of opposites" - producers and consumers coming closer together where consumers become producers and vice-versa, examples being new technologies changing the nature of food production, manufacture and distribution, and, at a much smaller scale, the use of technology to book individual parking spaces in determined locations for precise periods of time; both examples of how we will change our use of the urban space.

Citing his work in the city of Sunderland in north east England, Rick described how new technologies were enabling close and beneficial collaboration between social enterprises and  major corporates, stimulating the co-creation of new products and services and minimising risk for new entrepreneurs, helping to sustain the economic health of cities.

Rick concluded with an appeal that we need to tell and share much more engaging, compelling and motivating stories, free of technical jargon, about the beneficial use of and impact of digital technologies in the urban realm. I absolutely concur with this as I continually encourage my clients to tell people compelling stories about the brand offers and experiences of places as opposed to press releases or entries on web sites.

John Worthington

John Worthington, a founder of the Academy and founder of the seminal architecture practice DEGW, and a real expert on designing workspaces for the rapidly changing world of work, opened the Q and A by listing what he thought were the three levels of SMART in urban development, namely:

  1. Having and using common sense to build and enable the infrastructure that will help cities to function more effectively and to communicate more effectively with those who use them, avoiding the temptation to think that all new technologies will be a panacea.
  2. Having clarity on the core and key functions of the city and identifying appropriate technologies to deliver them and spot new ones.
  3. Understanding how to integrate technologies and digital systems that enables the city to function more effectively and people and business to benefit and "combine" with technology.
Among the interesting issues raised in the Q&A the following struck me as particularly important:
  • The need for clarity in communications using smart technologies and clarity on what we are advocating on how to use them.
  • The need to be able, as individuals and organisations, to "edit" the volume of digitally transmitted and generated information in order to be clear on how smart technologies can effectively enable cities to work more effectively.
  • The need to get the private sector more engaged in funding research into the effective use of and development of technologies that will improve cities to lessen dependence on the public sector.
  • We must not forget that a significant digital divide still exists in the UK where many people have no access to communications technologies, which needs to be remedied.

The Sunderland IT Inclusion initiative

For more information on the IBM Smarter Cities initiative go to http// and you can follow Rick on Twitter @dr_rick

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

London - Fractured Identity or Collection of Neighbourhoods?

Last night I attended a very good seminar on this topic organised by the Citydiplo Group (which stands for City Branding and Diplomacy) at the London School of Economics where I heard three very interesting presentations on place branding by Max Nathan (an LSE research fellow, researcher at NIESR and co-founder of the Centre for Cities), Ian Stephens (of brand consultants Saffron) and Suzanne Hall (LSE lecturer and researcher).

Branding Tech-City London

First up was Max Nathan who focussed on the government's initiative, "Tech City", taking advantage of what has been termed the "Silicon Roundabout" in the Old Street and Shoreditch fringes of the City of London, centred on the roundabout in the picture below, where the government is proposing to establish a new hub in the centre of the roundabout to act as a focal point for and advertisement for the area. 

Photograph courtesy of Bloomberg

An impression of the design for the hub by Architecture 00 is shown below and below that is their concept diagram for the offer of the hub.

A diagrammatic cross-section of some of the kinds of spaces that might be housed in the building
Photograph and diagram courtesy of Architecture 00

Architecture 00 describe the hub as a building providing workshop spaces, exhibition spaces, event-hosting, free work-spaces, education and short, a low-threshold point of entry for everyone – from the international investor to the London teenager who wants the opportunity to turn their idea into a start-up.

Max posed a number of relevant questions about this attempt by the government to re-brand and take advantage of a process of organic growth of a new area:

  1. Will re-branding change perceptions of the area and its offer? Yes, some may now see it as a more formal place rather than a place fostering the organic growth of tech sector businesses.
  2. What is it that is driving change in the area? To date it has been the clustering of small start-up tech ventures who have fed off each other and grown the offer of the area.
  3. Will an attempt at formal planning change the character of the area? Its bound to and may result in peoples' perceptions of the area changing from being one of unplanned opportunity to being one of regulated provision. 
  4. What will be the effect of the government's initiative? Max identified four potential effects;
  • A signalling effect - raising the profile of the area by shining a light on it through the means of a high profile policy initiative.
  • A clustering effect - where more firms and entrepreneurs are attracted to the area.
  • A competition effect - which brings benefits to consumers.
  • A property market effect - where the area becomes more expensive and less accommodating to cash-strapped start-ups.
Max concluded by observing that there are limits to what a late-developing government policy initiative can do for an organic development of an area like this; that the role of local planning policy should be supportive and not directive, to enable the creation of cheap workshop space, and to encourage the creation of local amenities and a vibrant night time economy.

Branding Nine Elms

Photo courtesy of

The second presentation by Ian Stephens of Saffron focused on the role of place branding in the development of proposals for the Nine Elms area in Battersea on the south bank of the river Thames in central London. 

Ian asked the question "Why did the area need a brand?" and answered it by stating that a powerful reason was that few people had ever heard of it beyond the locals, and few investors who the developers wanted to target would have heard of it, especially people from abroad. 

Added to this there was a need to create a sense of momentum around the development and get people engaged with the development of the area. Another powerful reason for creating a new brand to describe the planned development was the need to change existing, negative,  perceptions of the area and the need to create a new community with its own identifiable identity. In short, there was a need for a brand that would tell the story of how the area would develop over time.

Image courtesy of Saffron

From his experience in developing a brand for the area, Ian identified eight principles for place branding, as follows:
  1. Find a Managing Mechanism - As its often difficult to identify who the client is in a place branding initiative where there are lots of different organisations operating with separate agendas and objectives, you need to identify who will lead the process and make decisions.
  2. Identify the Brand Idea driving the development of the place - You need to decide what this is and what you want to say about it in order to differentiate the initiative, especially from close by or competitive developments. And the idea needs to be believable and authentic.
  3. Identify your Audiences - Who do you want to speak to and who is the area for?
  4. Be Coherent - Ensure that you and the stakeholders in the brand speak with one voice.
  5. Decide on a Name - All the better for being one that locates the place as here with "Nine Elms on the South Bank".
  6. Create a Visual Identity for the brand - to provide coherence for all promotion activity and marketing collateral.
  7. Define the Core Brand Experiences - to attract your target investors, residents, businesses and visitors.
  8. Identify powerful Brand Features - features that will exemplify the brand, for example sculptures and public art of new Elms.
For me Ian's principles rang true from my own recent experience of developing a brand strategy for the Cork City Harbour area of the City of Cork in Ireland and i would sum them up as the need to establish what the planned offer and experience of your new place will be as the basis for creating a brand for its development.

The High Street - The Paradox of an Ordinary Brand

The third presentation was from Suzanne Hall, a self-styled “Urban Ethnographer” at the LSE, who has been undertaking work on analysing the development of local high streets in multi-ethnic communities, in particular on Walworth Road and Rye Lane in Peckham, both districts of inner London. 

The title of her presentation was “The Paradox of an Ordinary Brand”. You can read her latest LSE blog on this subject at

Walworth Road East London
Photograph courtesy of

Rye Lane Peckham
Photo courtesy of

She made a number of interesting points which I think are relevant to other London town centres, for example Tooting and Wembley, which I summarise as follows:
  • ·      Two thirds of Londoners now live within 2 to 3 minutes walk of a local high street.
  • ·      High streets are where we can see evidence of major economic, social and cultural change in London.
  • ·      Some high streets are becoming multicultural worlds with inhabitants and traders from all over the world – reflecting our history of empire and the Commonwealth and these streets are indicative of how London is being remade – a form of urban renewal being driven by ordinary citizens, being a form of change that is so ordinary and prosaic that it’s not always obvious and often ignored by planning policy.
  • ·       Place brand analysis can help such changes to become tangible and these places recognised as providers of a range of services that serve multicultural communities.
  • ·      Place brand analysis can celebrate and make more of the complexity that underlies the apparent simplicity of such places, to identify and bring out the rich menu of services and facilities available – e.g. specialist food shops, translation services, money remittance services and arranged marriage services.
  • ·      Place brand analysis can help to identify clusters of complementary offers – shops, facilities and services – that are important magnets for particular communities over a much wider area than those living near the high street. She likened this to bazaars in Istanbul.
  • ·      Place branding can bring coherence to what might at first sight appear as a jumble of ill-assorted and unconnected offers.
  • ·       Current place branding is too concerned with visual and spatial concerns and not enough about the socio-cultural dimension of the offer of places and being inherently geared to property and planning issues and not focussing enough on social and consumer patterns of change.
  •       The regeneration of London’s high streets  requires us to re-imagine them as multi-cultural places, places with very different value systems and to understand where these multicultural traders are from and their trading connections with countries around the world - see her blog for a “map” of these connections for Walworth Road.

By way of further reading she referred the audience to a publication, "High Street London”, prepared for the Greater London Authority by Gort Scott Associates - at , and I can also recommend readers of this blog to visit to a web site about a major London high street  project connecting the route from Aldgate in the City of London to the Olympic Park

The Question Answered

Overall the sentiment of the meeting was that the three presentations had shown that it was impossible to capture all of these and other local brand initiatives in one umbrella brand for London, which was not to say that you cannot develop one for the city , which is what London and Partners are busily engaged upon, simply that it cannot be both extensive and comprehensive and have clarity for consumers. As I said in my contribution to the debate, bastardising a famous quotation by Abraham Lincoln "You cannot tell everyone, everywhere, about all of your offers, all of the time".

Friday, 18 January 2013

Squaring the Circle - How to Reconcile Apparently Impossible Contradictions in Contemporary Urban Policy

                                       The Siemens Crystal Building dedicated to Smart Cities

Yesterday I went to the Siemens Crystal Centre in London's Docklands to hear a lecture on this subject from my former tutor Professor Peter Hall, one of a number organised jointly by the Town and Country Planning Association and the International Federation of Housing and Planning in celebration of the IFHP's centenary. 

When I first heard about this event and its subject I was not at all sure what its focus would be and what might be Sir Peter's proposals for reconciliation of the contradictions. It never occurred to me that these would include the development of tram-rail systems (and I readily admit to being a tram-fan) and place branding and marketing based on them as city assets. Bear with me and I will get you there.

The paradoxes he highlighted were that around the world cities are developing in a variety of ways with the city cores of some beginning to grow again, often at a faster rate than their suburbs; some with city cores growing at the expense of their suburbs; some with the suburbs growing at the expense of their cores and some with declining cores and suburbs.  So some cities are decentralising while others are centralising, often at the same or faster rates. Fascinating data and observations delivered in his usual punchy and stylish manner.

In attempting to explain and understand these contradictory changes Sir Peter has been looking at the effect on cities of their investments in public transport systems, in particular on the effect on new tram and tram-rail systems. Essentially in car dominated cities the suburbs have been growing and in cities investing in public, in particular tram and tram-rail transport, connecting their suburbs to their centres, the centres have been growing. And he also noted that investment in tram-based systems can lead to both centre and suburban growth.

He shared with the audience his thinking on what he described as the "Heineken Model" for investment in tram-based transport that reaches the parts of cities that other forms of public transport do not reach (buses and surface rail) and illustrated this thinking with examples from Freiburg, Kassel and Karlsruhe in Germany, Ypenburg in the Hague in the Netherlands and Strasbourg and Montpelier in France.

The Montpelier example was particularly interesting as its major investment in tram-rail infrastructure was pushed through by a maverick mayor against the wishes of many vested interests and resulted in significant growth of the city. Montpelier is now the fastest growing city in France and over the last ten years it has opened three long distance tram lines connecting the city from one side to the other, a circular route around the centre connecting the spine routes and extensions to the spines out into the surrounding countryside, with connections to the TGV rail network, as illustrated in the map below. 

                                                    Map of the Montpelier Tram System

In parallel, the city developed proposals for major new shopping, leisure and entertainment centres along the new tram routes and proposals for new suburbs along the routes and around the new centres, such as the Odysseum shown below, and promoted these proposals to investors using the new infrastructure as an enabler and as the brand identity and differentiator for the city. 

                                            The Odysseum Commercial Centre, Montpelier

It went further and hired the well known French fashion designer Christian Lacroix to design the exterior paintwork for the new trams, illustrated in the photo below - "une ligne haute couture"

                                                           A Christian Lacroix tram design

These infrastructure investments attracted many knowledgable, qualified and talented young people and businesses to the city and the new suburbs and, as a result, a new sector - a knowledge economy - has developed along the tram routes and in the new suburbs, in particular in a new university quarter - Porte Marriane.

                                                             The Port Marianne Campus

I have assumed that either a transcript of Sir Peter's lecture or a video download will soon be available from the IFHP at