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The City 2040: perspiration outweighs inspiration

Updated: Jun 7

The draft City of London local plan, at 44,000 words, is a prodigious effort, suggesting future development can be directed or fine-tuned to suit a very decent set of strategies reaching 2040. The product of a process which began in 2016, which has been subject to five public consultations so far, the latest version of the draft is still open to addition or amendment if you get your comments in quickly.

So the CAF event at Temple Bar on 14 May, chaired by Lee Mallett, was a timely opportunity to hear about the plan from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Or rather two horses, the first of whom was Shravan Joshi, Chair of the City’s Planning and Transportation Committee, who stressed the importance of metrics and  data in the planning process.

This showed that while footfall in the City had risen to about 80% of pre-Covid levels, the people in the Square Mile now are very different to the previous world of traditional business office-workers. More tourists, more digital tech start-up types, more media-tech folk. Having said that, legal and insurance sectors were still critical to City activity – with no sign that demand for office space would evaporate.

In fact quite the opposite. Joshi noted that predicted demand for additional office space suggested a minimum of 1.2m sq m of space would be required, with that sum increasing to a potential maximum of 1.9m. These figures take into account hybrid working and are partly based on current activity, with 0.5m sq m of space under construction currently – 18 Gherkins, as Joshi noted. The City may be changing, but the assumption is that it will continue to be an engine for growth, the first priority of the City plan, which is intended to enable and encourage rather than prescribe (though there is proscription too, for example, a ban on any automatic conversion to residential use of redundant office space).

But along with growth comes policies aimed at whole-life carbon ‘optioneering’, with a retrofit first test applied to new development; protection of heritage given greater priority, perhaps, than has been evident in the recent past; taking into account the visitor implications of the Elizabeth Line; and not least the opening up of the planning process, providing ‘more security for stakeholders’.

A confident and coherent overview was supplemented by the second ‘horse’ in the person of Rob McNichol, Assistant Director (Policy and Strategy) at the City, who put some flesh on the bones of the overview, talking about the suite of policies which would achieve the vision that had been set, which apart from economic growth included the importance of making the City ‘vibrant’, which everywhere wants to be these days, and welcoming to all, irrespective of gender, ethnicity and all the other wokescript definitions of people making up what used to be called the general public.

Some refreshing pointers to new ways of thinking included the idea of fast-tracking retrofit projects through the planning process, and the importance of educational and cultural facilities forming part of major development proposals. All this would be combined with clear guidance on the location of tall buildings in respect of views and heritage, without any instruction as to style or appropriate height. We were invited to think of the policy on height contours as being like a ‘trellis’ with, as it were, different sorts of plants with different dimensions.

We also heard that sustainability should mean designs showing the possibility of dismantling buildings which had outlived their usefulness, in order for building elements to be re-used or recycled in the line with circular economy principles, though there is little in the document showing exactly how 50-storey towers would be made in such a manner, or indeed what longevity might be expected of the contemporary City office.

Thoughtful responses came from a handful of invited contributors, and then the audience as a whole. Taking the positives first, the development growth strategy was warmly welcomed by David Ainsworth of CO-RE London, who noted the incredible demand that still existed for space in what is London’s Central Business District, including companies migrating back from Docklands like HSBC – what a change from the era when some thought the City would ‘be the Latin Quarter of Canary Wharf’. It was the creation of Lloyd’s of London which had changed all that. His plea to the planners was not to become too prescriptive about height, style and precise location – he didn’t want to be blocked or boxed (he might have cited Bing Crosby’s yesteryear hit, ‘Don’t fence me in’, particularly in relation to a trellis . . .)

Urbanist Kathryn Firth of Arup liked the retrofit-first approach, the concept of the provision of ‘affordable offices, and the way the plans addresses diversity, edges and delivery. She had some warnings, however, including what she thought were inadequate additional housing numbers (though in good locations), given the City’s ambition to be a seven-days-a-week hub. This in turn would have implication for the location and nature of the retail offer envisaged. She also worried about the dependency on big developments to supply cultural facilities which might result from  ground-plane voids, and the too-heavy reliance on the private sector to deliver public realm benefits. What happens if there is an economic downturn? Would it result in a rash of ‘stranded assets’?

Townscape consultant Peter Stewart had a more fundamental criticism of the plan, which referenced a point made by Lee Mallett in his introduction about the architectural relationship between plan and section: ‘If the plan is prose, the section is poetry’. Stewart was concerned that the enormous quantity of words in the plan were not accompanied by visuals giving an idea of what the City’s vision of itself might be. (And what about a concise statement of aspirations?’)

He noted the success of the ‘Eastern cluster’ of tall buildings, which had shown it is possible to combine the big, new and shiny with the old, traditional and smaller scale. There were no surprises (and therefore not much interest) in the design section of the plan, but nor had it addressed what Stewart called the ‘in-between areas’, where architects were grappling with the challenge of finding forms, designs and materials which have little to do with the rivalry between the extravagant new and the quiet old. But the big question was why we couldn’t be shown more? Why couldn’t we have some visionary propositions of the sort produced by John Robertson, Gensler and others in a Developing City exhibition organized by Peter Murray in 2012.

This was picked up from the floor, with a plea for more proactive policies in relation to the north bank of the Thames; the City does indeed want to see improvements but one got the feeling that the policies are all about guiding what other people want to do, rather than setting out positive planning ideas that the City would itself promote.

Rob McNichol defended the words-based approach, suggesting that things had moved on from the world of the Abercrombie Plan, with its diagrams and illustrations, but surely the intention to make the City ever-more desirable suggests that, in our new world of digital visual culture, more attention to look-and-feel in a weighty plan would not go amiss.

A lively discussion continued after the formal event ended, in the Temple Bar room overlooking both Paternoster Square and St Paul’s cathedral, in the end a successful piece of town planning and civilised architectural responses to the past and the future. As Lee Mallett had noted, David Cameron’s criticism that planning ‘is the enemy of enterprise’ is quite wrong. Bad planning might be, but good planning is exactly the reverse. Illustrating the desired outcomes would be worthwhile.

Paul Finch words

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