How can urban zones be made socially responsible, sustainable and pandemic-proof? Veronica Simpson investigates the UK’s prime emerging regeneration schemes
Words by Veronica Simpson
How we live in cities – together and individually – has never endured such close scrutiny as over the last 18 months. During the rigours of a global pandemic, our homes, our neighbourhoods, our parks, our local shops and takeaways have never played such a vital, physical part in sustaining health and wellbeing and in connecting us to our communities.
In terms of health and economic impact, the UK has been one of the worst affected of all developed nations, which has only thrown a sharper spotlight on the woefully variable quality of our cities, revealing the last few decades’ substandard, piecemeal approach to regeneration/gentrification, driven by opportunistic development and a willingness to sell off valuable public land to enrich overseas development corporations (and their clients) or volume house builders. The quality of our homes, neighbourhoods, parks and public realm has suffered massively. As Covid-19 vaccines continue to roll out, and the prospect looms of businesses returning to normal – or whatever will pass for normal in 2021 – there is a collective sense across the political, civilian and built environment spectrum that we have to do better.
The BBC World Service’s excellent radio programme and podcast My Perfect City provides valuable insights into what that ‘better’ might look like. Cherry-picking aspects of cities from around the world that have got some aspect of the formula right – and it’s worth noting that not a single UK city is featured – the series showed us how, for example, to design for high-quality, inclusive housing (Vienna), optimal mental health (Singapore), full employment (Toronto), social cohesion (Rotterdam) and female entrepreneurship (Kochi, India), concluding with Barcelona, a city deemed to have transformed its gridlocked streets into the most liveable neighbourhoods. Among those that assisted the show in its assessments was Professor Greg Clarke, urbanist and global city adviser. In the last episode, broadcast in January 2021, presenter Fi Glover asked Clarke how Covid-19 and the pandemic has highlighted the liveability of cities. To which he replied, ‘This is probably the most fascinating thing that any of us who think about cities are now engaged with. Of course, Covid-19 has been a massive shock – a public health shock, an economic shock. It has really dented city finances. At the same time, Covid-19 holds out the promise of change.
‘It has provided an opportunity for cities to rework their public space, to think again about their transport systems, to focus on air quality. It’s allowed cities to start thinking about using their real estate in different ways in the future, and it’s created a catalyst for reimagining the city so that they could emerge even better after Covid-19 than they were at the start.’
Many in the built environment professions have had the time, the energy and the opportunity – thanks to the ease of online meeting and conference tools – to brainstorm a blueprint for the future. In many of these debates, social sustainability now rides as high as environmental. Which means greater access for all to decent quality housing, expansion of green infrastructure around and between neighbourhoods, better and more plentiful outdoor and recreational facilities, and more flexibility around how we live, work and play.
Given the lead times of major regeneration projects – usually several years in the planning, then taking a decade or more to deliver – any schemes completing now don’t have the benefit of this thinking. However, a handful of ambitious projects planned in the last five years do. Sunderland’s Riverside regeneration scheme, Ebbsfleet Garden City and Enfield’s Meridian Water all stand out for the degree of joined-up thinking that has gone into creating liveable, walkable neighbourhoods, richly blessed with open parkland and recreation space, with green infrastructure linking residents to vibrant civic, cultural and economy-boosting facilities, and a diversity of generally high-quality housing, designed by thoughtful architects, and built by an increasing number of socially responsible developers. See the case studies for more details on these timely projects.
These schemes are welcome evidence of a sea change in local authority thinking that was first flagged when a Norwich City Council-funded housing project won the Stirling Prize in 2019. Mikhail Riches’ Goldsmith Street knitted together sustainable homes and a proper community, while minimising energy consumption and abolishing fuel poverty. Norwich is planning to roll out other council-backed schemes aimed at improving quality of life, boosting sustainability and widening access. The developers TOWN – which worked closely with Mole Architects and its co-housing client group to create the multiple award-winning Marmalade Lane initiative in Cambridge (see here, from the July 2019 issue of FX) – has been offered a Norwich site for Angel Yard co-housing, designed by Archio, where it is hoped work will start on-site in early 2022. TOWN’s Neil Murphy agrees that a new mood is filtering through to the more enlightened local authorities. But there are still many obstacles in the way. He says, ‘When Goldsmith Street won the Stirling Prize, and Marmalade Lane was a runner-up in all kinds of awards, there was an assumption that the tide had turned, and it hasn’t.’
There are pockets of inspirational architecture and development, he agrees, citing inner London boroughs such as Hackney, and interesting infill or small-site housing being facilitated by London boroughs like Lewisham and Southwark – such as a recent 33-apartment scheme in Peckham designed by Peter Barber, recently shortlisted for a RIBA Regional Award. But, as Murphy says, ‘Someone needs to hire Barber for 500 units instead of just 80.’
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome, Murphy points out, is a procurement model that emphasises quantity over quality, and places so much power in the hands of volume house builders and their contractors, for whom the bottom line always wins over any consideration of quality of life. But the mood among bigger developers is also shifting. Clare Richards, founder of socially engaged practice ftwork, which sets itself the mission to ‘revive the social purpose of architecture’, points to research conducted in 2019 by one of the biggest UK and Ireland developers, Grosvenor Estate. It revealed that among the general public, trust in developers was a depressing 2%, and trust in local authorities reached a far more shocking all-time low of 7%. As a result, Grosvenor has instigated a community charter and helped to fund the Quality of Life commission, dRMM founder Sadie Morgan’s pioneering platform for identifying what makes a modern home liveable and lovable. ‘They’re making the right kind of noises,’ says Richards, who, in turn, has seized this civic, people-centric development mood to launch a Collective Community Action initiative, identifying ways and means to embed communities, their values and aspirations into planning processes.
The outcome of real engagement, Richards argues, is not just more thoughtfully designed neighbourhoods, but a commitment to ongoing stewardship ‘because… people having some buy-in, some sense of ownership in the whole process, creates a much better result.’
Social, environmental and economic sustainability are interdependent, she continues. ‘If a place is truly inclusive, there is social capital; people support each other, they shop and work locally and generate more local activity.’ How gratifying it is to see these three case study projects putting that social capital central to their agendas.
EBBSFLEET GARDEN CITY
How do you build a new 15,000-home community around creativity? Ebbsfleet Garden City (EGC) – the UK’s first new garden city in 100 years – is committed to ‘placing culture and creativity at the heart of its community’, and aiming to generate 30,000 jobs in the new town in the process. With a completion date of 2035, the scheme’s originators, Ebbsfleet Development Corporation (EDC), know that it will stand or fail on the strength of the relationships it can nurture with existing residents in the area, and those it can forge with the residents and businesses it hopes to attract. Key to that is a strong sense of identity – as well as the right opportunity – for these diverse communities to get behind.
Laura Bailey, EDC’s cultural development manager, says, ‘This is the first of a new generation of garden settlements, and the idea is to build on the principles of the original garden cities but look at what that means today. What does a vibrant and holistic 21st century new town look like? We are working in an existing urban context with a brownfield site, surrounded by quite old, established communities, such as Greenhithe, Northfleet and some smaller villages south of the A2.’ Unusually, though, the area has been demarcated as a planning boundary: existing communities within it were able to opt in or out of this regeneration project. ‘It’s a slightly odd situation,’ says Bailey. ‘We’re the designated planning authority within the red line boundary, but from a placemaking point of view that boundary doesn’t exist. It is important for us to work with and for existing communities, otherwise this big thing is landing right on top of them.
The garden city in Ebbsfleet is designed to offer retail, work and civic convenience within relatively easy walking distances
‘The idea is it will have a hugely positive impact. Community engagement is a really important part of our work. We are committed to be as community-led as we possibly can, and to establish some best practice processes for engaging local stakeholders and residents and others in the design process. We’re creating a place that people want and need, and facilities that people want and need rather than – as a group of professionals – deciding that among ourselves.’
To help embed creativity into the very DNA of this new place, the scheme is benefitting from investment under the wider Creative Estuary umbrella; a consortium of public sector and cultural organisations including the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, Kent and Essex County Councils, the Greater London Authority and the 11 local authorities through which the Thames meanders on its journey out to the sea. With funding from this programme, in late 2020, EDC appointed architects RCKa and AOC to explore options for co-locating and co-producing new cultural facilities within the emerging site. Both practices have great track records for evolving buildings and spaces in partnership with users, but this role is unique, as RCKa director Dieter Kleiner has said, because it brings together ‘master planning and strategic placemaking with community participation and economic regeneration expertise’. The two practices will be working alongside Landscape Architects Studio, Fourth Street, The Planning Lab and Studiomakers to identify the community’s skills, needs, aspirations and character, as well as help to shape places for it to express its ambitions. In this, those organisations will be building on suggestions from Sarah Wigglesworth Architects (SWA)’s initial civic infrastructure study, completed back in May 2019. SWA and Turner Works are also in charge of identifying meanwhile uses – again, under the Creative Estuary umbrella.
Current civic investment proposed includes eight new schools, a hierarchy of civic buildings, seven city parks and a promised 44% of the landscape will be green and blue space. EDC is fast-tracking a public transport network centred around Ebbsfleet International station. There will also be a major health innovation and education campus, three employment zones in Northfleet, and a theme park has put in an application for planning on the Swanscombe peninsula.
As for the project’s geographical identity, the location, in a former quarry, is an advantage: anyone who has encountered Bluewater Shopping Centre – in the next quarry along – will know the craggy, milky-white moonscape that these special conditions present. This offers great scope to conjure a distinct sense of place, which has been explored in the initial overall master plan by Maccreanor Lavington and Aecom, and fine-tuned in the Ebbsfleet Central master plan by Weston Williamson + Partners, Allies and Morrison and German practice Jott Architekten – which is one of five neighbourhoods that will emerge across the site.
But EDC has inherited housing sites with existing planning permissions, which means its ability to dictate design and quality criteria will be limited; already, around 2,500 homes have been completed, and about 5,000 new residents have moved in, with detailed planning permission for a further 3,600 homes.
Part of the challenge is how to knit these older schemes into the visual and social fabric of the new vision. ‘We are moving forward to make the best possible place we can using the right approaches,’ says Bailey. ‘That’s where our team comes in. Originally, there was no placemaking team when it was first set up. That has evolved over the last few years.
‘Some of the work we started doing was through an NHS-funded project, because EGC was designated a healthy new town in a major national pilot project funded by the NHS to look at ways to design health into the built environment, to encourage better, healthier lifestyles. This means everything from access to green space to having things going on in the community that can support people, [and] looking at new models of care. That NHS perspective still underpins what we’re doing. The idea is that this is a holistic place which offers you work, recreation, home, education, leisure – ideally all within walking distances.’
MERIDIAN WATER, ENFIELD
Meridian Water is an ambitious £6bn development taking shape in the south of the London borough of Enfield, next door to the 10,000-acre Lee Valley Regional Park. The site in question has been occupied by scrubland or sprawling factories and big-box retail for decades. But the proximity to extensive parkland and the presence of multiple waterways in the site has been seized on as the key to a new neighbourhood’s identity as London’s ‘greenest development’.
The plan for a square before Meridian Water station, with a school already built
To this end, it will transform the current waste and scrubland into 8.2ha of greenery and planting, threading throughout the proposed 10,000 homes being delivered by Enfield Council. An initial Karakusevic Carson Architects (KCA) master plan places many of these on waterfront locations, and all of the housing blocks are closely connected via walking and cycle paths, with additional public transport delivering residents speedily to the central cluster of workspaces, retail and civic amenities. This 25-year development, operated by the Enfield borough, is aiming for ‘the highest quality of design and environmental sustainability standards’, and it is putting its money where its mouth is with the establishment of a council-owned energy company, called energetik – offering low carbon heat to all residents through a series of community heat networks, thereby hoping to reduce its carbon emissions from heating by 80%. In October 2020, Assael Architecture was announced as winner of a design competition to ensure greater social, environmental and economic sustainability in the scheme’s second phase.
The new station was linked up to Stratford in 2019, easing international and central London travel. Image Credit: PETER LANDERS PHOTOGRAPHY
Rather than fund development by selling off land, as local authorities have done for decades, Enfield has acquired 89 acres of land since April 2014, and now owns 74% of all developable land. The council is working in innovative ways with development partners to ensure that it retains control of the design, construction and delivery programme. Also impressive is a commitment to deliver a broad mix of homes from affordable to shared ownership and private sale.
The first phase of home-building begins on Meridian One later in 2021. A new green space, Ladysmith Park, is now open and has been designed with local residents, groups and schools. A new station, Meridian Water, with fast links to Stratford – and, therefore, the Eurotunnel networks and central London – opened in 2019. Designed by KCA, the station was shortlisted for a 2020 New London Award. A new school is already on-site. And in 2020, work started to convert a former VOSA building into a creative studio workspace for key tenant Building BloQs, which will help to run the 30,000 sq ft of studio and work space, providing support for up to 1,000 makers and creators – from engineering and metalworkers to paint finishing and fashion designers. Vistry, the development partners for Meridian One, will be working with the council to create new skills training facilities on that site, with a waterside cafe, gardens and event space, all accessible to Enfield residents. In 2019, a designated meanwhile space was turned into one of Europe’s largest clubbing and events venues, The Drumsheds. It comprises 6,811 sqm across four large, refurbished industrial sheds, operating throughout the summer and autumn of 2019, and has been shortlisted for several awards.
The station, shortlisted for a New London Award last year, was designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects. Image Credit: PETER LANDERS PHOTOGRAPHY
Employment is a key part of the scheme: 6,000 new jobs is the target, focusing on creative industries. At the start of 2021, Enfield Council announced that it had struck a deal with Troubadour Theatres, which will build film and television studios at Meridian Water, promising 450 permanent jobs once the facility is fully established, as a well as a skills academy for training local residents.
Meridian Water’s 25-year development will provide some tantalising leisure and living facilities on the Lee Valley waterfront
While the emphasis is on creating a self-sustaining community with little need to commute, businesses of all scales will be able to take advantage of fast access to supply chains of goods and skills with London and beyond, thanks to the close proximity of the North Circular Road, the A10 and M11.
Sunderland city centre is nestled right on the edge of a cliff, with green hills rolling down to the River Wear below. The scale of this drop – right beside the former Vaux Brewery – has meant that most people whizzing through the city via its extensive road networks don’t even notice its dramatic setting. That will change once the ambitious, £450m Riverside Sunderland regeneration plan is achieved. Already part way through its 15-year gestation, the 32ha site has been described by one of its supporters Neil Murphy of developers TOWN as ‘having the commitment to quality and sustainability that reminds me of northern European regeneration schemes’. High praise indeed. And the former brewery site will be the first to show its colours, in phase one, when 132 out of a promised 1,000 new low-energy homes are completed by 2023.
This quarter, like all the four designated living quarters straddling the River Wear, will be richly endowed with parkland, green routes and community facilities. Those on the far side of the river will be connected by two new pedestrian and cycling bridges, bringing everyone within walking or cycling distance of the city centre, boosted by a million square feet of new or refurbished retail, office, leisure and cultural facilities.
The Sunderland Riverside project, developed at the instigation of the local council, has pivoted regeneration away from the suburbs and back to the city centre
Peter McIntyre, executive director of city development for Sunderland City Council, is a key figure in the drive to redefine Sunderland’s city centre as a place to live, work and play. He references the damage that had been inflicted by to 30 years of ill-advised local government strategies pushing homes out to the suburbs. ‘Sunderland is a city that’s been regenerated by roads, and most of those roads have led out of the city,’ he says. ‘Highway engineers have been a powerful voice in the regeneration of the city for a long time. It was obvious the centre was failing miserably, and nobody was mustering the energy to tackle it properly.’
To undo this damage, McIntyre – who has worked on several of those northern European regeneration projects – knew that Sunderland had to take charge of its own assets. ‘We had to buy land quietly to have a development platform that was meaningful.’ Only by retaining a certain amount of ownership could Sunderland control quality, character and programme. But with limited resources, fostering the right business partnerships was also key, as well as helping to create a distinctive look and feel to the city and neighbourhoods by working with the right – and often local – architects. The latest master plan has been led by Newcastle-based FaulknerBrowns, together with London’s Proctor & Matthews. To demonstrate the city’s ambitions, McIntyre says, ‘We’ve pulled a broad but high-quality and quite costly bunch of professionals around us.’
The Beam, completed in 2019 by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, provides office, cafe and retail space in the Vaux Brewery quarter. Image Credit: KIRSTEN MCCLUSKIE
A pivotal moment in the scheme came when Legal & General came on board in early 2020 with a £100m commitment, and a pledge to build two regional offices in a newly designated central business district, whose anchor structures include a fully flexible, 21st century City Hall by Bowmer & Kirkland – with construction already under way, it will open in late 2021. A 450- seat performing arts venue, The Auditorium, designed by Flanagan Lawrence, will also open in late 2021, housed in the city’s 1907 fire station building. Also promised is The Culture House: a new city library, as well as a hub for creativity, making and learning.
Already opened in 2019, on the Vaux Brewery site is Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ The Beam. This £13.5m five-storey building offers grade-A office accommodation, with a design that promotes health and well-being thanks to its central planted courtyard, natural lighting and ventilation, and other passive design elements. Using a simple steel frame and precast concrete floors, it references Sunderland’s industrial past, with views over the River Wear, and adds ground floor retail, cafe and restaurant spaces to the local offer. Clearly impressed by this flagship, council-funded project, Ocado revealed plans to open a base in Sunderland just weeks after The Beam was completed.
For housing, the council is working with development partner igloo, known for its commitment to quality, innovation and liveability. FaulknerBrowns is designing mixed-use schemes, with Proctor & Matthews overseeing the design of residential districts, and architects MawsonKerr assisting on the aforementioned 125-home Vaux neighbourhood – just gone in for planning – and will be completed for 2023, when the Sunderland will host the Future Living Expo.
As a metropolitan area, Sunderland is already the largest city in the North East, encompassing parts of the Newcastle commuter belt and the town of Washington. McIntyre reflects on the current challenge: ‘In a city of 30,000, there were less than 3,000 living in the city centre, 90% of whom lived there through necessity not choice.’ In a few short years, that perspective will hopefully be reversed.