What’s your breakfast fare of choice at the weekend? The audience in a recent conference got a glimpse into my breakfast essentials; precisely why later.
The event was organised to explore the draft London Plan, and consider the impact of growth on London. I was asked to address two questions: if, in the dash for growth, we are killing the goose that lays the golden egg? And if so, what is the egg – the thing that we’re jeopardising?
My answer to the first is yes, we are. Unless we act differently soon. While there are various ‘eggs’, I settled on the transformation we’d made to our quality of life.
It’s hard to remember just what London was like at the start of the noughties, but in the intervening decades, the capital has been dramatically spruced up. We’ve invested in transport and high quality public realm, focused on good design and softened urban edges with planting and public art. Choices for eating and shopping have dramatically improved and our cultural offer is the envy of the world. We’ve made London more liveable, much more pleasant to walk, linger and soak in the city.
Legible London, designed to make London easier to be in. What next?
We’ve delivered an ‘urban renaissance’, in fact, climbing ever further up the Maslow’s hierarchy of ‘place’ well beyond the basics to offer an enhanced urban quality and experience. Yet the appeal of this contemporary, successful, London has ushered in new challenges, unwittingly beginning to erode the progress we have made.
A record population, coupled with economic growth and changing lifestyles and technology have heralded unintended consequences.
Demand has outstripped housing supply, and Londoners face new levels of unaffordability. Our transport infrastructure is struggling to absorb not only millions of people, but the varied fabric of our lives – from luggage to gym bags, pushchairs to tool kits. Technology-enabled personal mobility – from Uber to home deliveries – has put even more vehicles on the road. The welcome uptick in cycling adds another layer into the mix.
A welcome uptick in cycling has added another dimension to London’s streets
We carry our lives on public transport
In fact, it feels like the tipping point we’d reached in the late 1990s when I was first running Central London Partnership. We focused on solutions; leading the charge to import BIDs, encouraged local authorities and developers to prioritise people in city planning, to deliver quality places.
Together, we helped deliver the urban renaissance. Yet its impact, and wider circumstances, have brought new issues to tackle. We have been busy fitting more and more homes into the capital, in denser neighbourhoods, and that comes with a price – on the way London works, its amenity and quality of life.
Which takes me back to my breakfast; my weekend feast includes a fresh grapefruit, my preferred cereal, washed down with lots of my favourite coffee. Yet I can’t easily buy these where I live in London, SE1. Numerous new developments have provided plenty of ‘convenience’ supermarkets, about 20 at last count, but nothing of enough scale for a decent range of produce.
I watch as plumbing suppliers and electrical stores go the same way as petrol stations, making way for ‘apartment’ blocks. Much needed homes, I know, yet these trading estates and suppliers are the underpinnings of a living city.
To my point: just recently a new kitchen tap came missing a small part, so the plumber nipped down the road to buy it, completing the installation within an hour. That will be impossible in a year when that plumbers’ merchant is demolished to make way for housing, necessitating a much longer drive – or more likely – a new appointment and additional cost. Our congested, polluted, streets are already full of service and delivery vehicles, so adding additional miles to white van journeys is plain bonkers!
Why add even more miles for “white van man”?
Hopefully, the draft London Plan will give enough attention to this, since it is slated to refocus on industrial land, to stem further loss. But as well as large scale sites, it is the small stuff of our everyday lives that we are in danger of losing.
An endangered species?
The London Plan will also prioritise ‘good growth’ – a concept I helped create as former Deputy Chair of the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group. This focus is crucial, especially, since – as Mark Twain reminded us – we are not making any more land: we need to get the best out of London’s footprint as we add more people, more homes and workspace, in a constrained city. If London is to accommodate that pressure, if we are to create homes and places that are pleasant and truly functional to live in - and help encourage less reliance on cars - we must pay proper attention to what it means to actually live well in a densifying city.
That should mean ensuring we are planning and building neighbourhoods that offer services and amenity - whether that’s hardware shops or nurseries and supermarkets in close proximity - that makes it easier to live our day to day lives, with less ‘friction’ and anxiety.
Twenty years on since I first championed improvements to ‘quality of life’ in London, this now needs to involve so much more than public realm, cultural riches and a decent restaurant or coffee shop at the end of the road. We need new measures of success and liveability that embrace the fundamental amenity we once took for granted. It also requires empathy about peoples’ real lives and needs at all levels, with work to support, not thwart, those needs. In doing so, we can hope to sustain a truly enjoyable, liveable, functioning, modern – and growing – capital city.