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Future Cities Forum new series: best practice in city district development

Blackwall Yard - a new 'city district' in Tower Hamlets, London (CGI from LDA Design for Hadley Property Group)

Future Cities Forum was very fortunate recently to have Tower Hamlets Borough Council, Birmingham City Council, Hadley Property Group, LDA Design, Thurrock Council and developer Cole Waterhouse Group discuss best practice around new city districts.

The planning of new districts within cities is a new series for Future Cities Forum and will take in different cities around the UK and abroad.

This first discussion gave a focus to new developments at Blackwall Yard in Tower Hamlets and Upper Trinity Street, Digbeth, Birmingham. Questions were asked about how to use river and canal settings for the benefit of new residential districts and how to create a balance of housing, workspace and high quality realm to attract people to these new city quarters.

Paul Buckenham, Development and Planning Manager for Tower Hamlets Borough Council spoke of the rich industrial and maritime heritage along seven miles of the borough's river frontage, of the docks, their rise and decline during the 1980’s and 1990s and the challenges in development for residents and using the river as an amenity:

‘Managing growth that is sustainable is key but also the level of infrastructure that we need. We have the second highest housing targets in London. Part of the solution is having tools like our local plan 2020, with a methodology for looking at the size of dwellings, schools, medical facilities and new open spaces. We rely a lot on working in partnership with developers over sites that come forward such as Blackwall Yard with a river frontage as an opportunity.

Hadley Property Group’s Director, Steve Kennard commented on how wonderful an opportunity it is to be developing Blackwall Yard:

‘It faces south with a Kodak moment view of the O2 arena across the Thames. It has great infrastructure with a historic dock in the middle of it and next to Canary Wharf. We understand that the site is not an island on its own and that the understanding of communities around the district is very important. When we are thinking about the public realm and the ground floor plan with amenities, we know it is not just for people living there and we have carried out consultation with communities online because of the pandemic – and this has helped to reach a large proportion of people. We received 86 letters of support and 23 against our planning development and this is because we have helped people to understand our proposals and answer any criticisms.

LDA Design has been working on Blackwall Yard, to find ways of using the water not just as a feature of the setting, but as a proper amenity. Director Benjamin Walker said:

‘We would be remiss not to make much of the water, not just as a canvas. So we have proposed wild swimming and a floating cinema for instance. We have been pushing the idea of how to build on water and use it to great effect for years as landscape architects, in different weathers. There is nothing more miserable than walking along a waterfront in the rain, but with swimming you are already wet, so that doesn’t matter. We have also suggested community allotments and I like the idea of orchards in cities. It is a case of looking at the space and how it is going to be managed. Land is at a premium but our design has people at the centre who can take responsibility for their environment. There is much research on loneliness and it is a killer. It has been made worse by the last 18 months. I am a member of the High Streets Task Force and what we consider with retail is important here on this site at a smaller scale. You have to consider different shopping activites on different days and times and how these outlets link to other adjacent sites and facilities such as the school and café. Of course, it isn’t new to make sure there are a range of shops, the Victorians did it, but if you can then add in biodiversity as well, you are hitting your targets.'

Steve Kennard added:

‘The proportion of time we spend thinking about the ground floor plan is way more than in the design of the flats because the ground floor is so relevant. It has a bunch of uses and there must always be a decent shop, pub and café next to a school. But we don’t want to overdo it in area that isn’t going to have enormous footfall. One important thing we proposed is ‘the hub’ – a building for the community where weddings or yoga etc can take place. It is genuinely open for all, not just for private housing residents. We weren’t required to provide it but again it provides connections for other buildings, in this case, with the café to provide footfall.’

Upper Trinity Street, Digbeth, Birmingham (CGI from Corstorphine & Wright for Cole Waterhouse Group)

Gary Woodward, Planning and Development Manager at Birmingham City Council joined the forum to talk about the enormous work that is going into the Digbeth area of the city. Everyone wants to work and live in city centres he said but we have to work hard to make sure they do not feel ‘detached’:

‘Digbeth is a part of the city where all the heritage is, all the culture both old and new, and an active creative quarter which is happening on doorstep of HS2, so there is pressure to develop. It is setting the benchmark in our city plan and we are trying to ensure growth plans are met. We have got the funding to expand the metro into Digbeth and around that transform public realm. It will all be improved in time for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. We want to make sure that the creative industries and our charitable organisations don’t disappear as new homes go up and residents move in. We want a broader range of shops and activities and help our developers work with existing people.’

Cole Waterhouse Group's Head of Planning George Smith explained the importance of place-making at the centre of new city districts as well as looking at the ‘ground floor’ and how it integrates well with the wider community to ensure these places are successful:

‘We were set that challenge, and it paid dividends, of having chats with other organisations that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. The Section 106 made us think and provide formal workspace. We had conversations with occupiers who could accommodate in that space and a charitable organization and community sports foundation which works with disenfranchised youths in Digbeth, signed up to the space. We didn’t want to parachute in just a shiny new development, we wanted all the young local people to have some ownership from the outset. The Museum of Youth Culture was looking for a physical space rather than being a pop up, so we were able to provide that too. The city’s film and TV industry is growing as well, so that is providing buzz.'

‘Tom Cruise was spotted in the city recently and he has film interests. We want to find out how the heritage of the Peaky Blinders experience can integrate with the working community. But there is inclusive growth and jobs for everyone whether it is being a chippy on a filmset or as part of the new green technologies,’ added Gary.

‘How can we provide housing for all our different residents and in particular Key workers? Birmingham is a growth corridor and a real challenge for the city is affordable workspace and green space and we don’t always get the affordable housing benefit. The city does struggle with this and we need to concentrate on how we can do this better. The council has to be more inventive with how we work with developers,’ he continued.

Paul Buckenham of Tower Hamlets commented:

At Tower Hamlets, we look at different types and tenures of homes – affordable or shared ownership. We now have an in-house viability team which helps. Retrofit is an emerging challenge that we are having to deal with. External cladding for instance, needs to be retrofitted, But we are lucky that the Mayor of London can bring forward resources there.’

The supplementary planning document or higher density living prospectus that Tower Hamlets has produced was also mentioned as a good guide for design. Paul explained that it was based on real interviews with people living in high density places and while it touched on the issues that arose during the pandemic, more research would be needed going forward to look at them, which an accent on people are now using their homes differently to live in post Covid.

The discussion also approached the difficulties of designing spaces for different people and looking at it from a quality not quantity perspective. Ben commented that if designers get public spaces right, then people will flock to new city districts. We should put ourselves in the shoes of not only the young but older people or those with disabilities.

Thurrock Council’s Strategic Services Lead, Sean Nethercott, concluded the debate by saying how helpful it had been to hear about all the different projects discussed and how relevant it had all been to the future development of Thurrock:

‘We have heavy industry along the river but also a lot of green belt. We are looking to deliver over 30,000 homes and create 25,000 jobs through our new free ports. Our small district centres are looking a little tired and we are building new garden communities with opportunities for place-making, with open space, health and well-being. There is the also the proposed growth of film production facilities along the Thames Estuary.’

Future Cities Forum recently featured the latter, speaking to developer Ken Dytor of Urban Catalyst. He is also on the board of High House Production Park where the Royal Opera House has production teams, and this links with the regeneration plan for Purfleet-on-Thames which includes the creation of a new media village:

'The media village is an exciting part of the planning proposal that we have consent for. The move eastwards of creative industries is seen by the GLA and Film London as important and they recognise the Thames Estuary Production Corridor as the area of future growth as Pinewood is full up. Purfleet is a key hub for attracting interest and investment into media industries.

'At the moment, there is no spare capacity for media space according to Film London. The demand for visual output is huge, with organisations like HBO and Netflix producing new material. People like Amazon are constantly asking how they can better promote their products. Whilst our facilities deliver film and TV post production, other media areas will grow. The use of the studios may change and evolve but we think it is a good bedrock for developing Purfleet.'

Join us for more discussion through our forums in this popular new series of city district growth.

Royal Opera House set production centre at High House in Thurrock.


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