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'New Districts' forum - report part one

Future Cities Forum held its 'New Districts' forum in the City of London, looking at the recent announcement by the UK government to increase development on brownfield land for housing.

As part of its long-term plan for housing, every council in England according to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will be told that they will need to prioritise brownfield developments and will be instructed to be less bureaucratic and more flexible in applying policies that halt housebuilding on brownfield land.  

The UK government stated:

'The bar for refusing brownfield plans will also be made much higher for those big city councils who are failing to hit their locally agreed housebuilding targets. Planning authorities in England’s 20 largest cities and towns will be made to follow a ‘brownfield presumption’, if housebuilding drops below expected levels. This will make it easier to get permission to build on previously developed brownfield sites, helping more young families to find a home.'

In a major intervention before Christmas, Secretary of State Michael Gove asked Christopher Katkowski KC to lead a review of the London Plan – in light of consistent disappointing housing delivery in the capital.

In part one of the discussion, Westminster City Council talked about the revising of the London Plan and the design of Ebury Bridge and Church Street housing developments. The expansion of the brownfield Granton Waterfront district in Edinburgh was examined, along with Newcastle City Council's struggle with connected housing and transport, pedestrian movement strategies with Cross River Partnership and the levelling up funding for new housing at Coronation Square around Leyton Station in east London.

Future Cities Forum asked questions around the balancing of density and preserving high quality public realm. the affordability for local authorities in further developing brownfield land, and how new districts could be planned with consideration for all members of communities.

Westminster City Council's Head of Place-shaping, Deirdra Armsby, joined the forum to talk about these issues and the evolution of the historic John Nash 'Park to Park' master-planning for new public realm.

Deirdra stated:

'The development of brownfield sites is far away from being a new idea. Our whole borough is brownfield and increasingly every London borough is almost all brownfield land. It is post industrial, classic brownfield land and there is a lot of practice and expertise in how we develop that. Yes, it is more expensive with constraints and costs such as the putting electricity infrastructure underground. Some local authorities do not have this big kit to deal with but with the issues of community uses attached. There are sites that are linked and can average out what you are trying to achieve collectively in development terms and we should do a bit more of that.'

The question around the revision of the London Plan was discussed and Deirdra responded:

'I did participate with the London Plan review. The Plan is large and quite detailed and often repeated in local plans. It is a different issue about how strategic it is and whether there is too much in it? The question is how cities are evolving. Some of the issues in the Plan have now gone away and there are new ones on the table. There are some common frameworks between all of the London local authorities and there are distinctive qualities to each borough. It is quite hard work all of it. The current narrative won't take us forward to enable good growth of the city.'

Deirdra continued:

'In terms of density with high quality public realm, our Church Street project is in one of the densest wards in UK - how do you deal with it? You have to have breathing space for residents and in the future this will mean things like the utilisation of roof tops etc. Let's talk about schools - we have in our built environment lots of space that is gated off. In Germany all school gates are open 24/7. We need to have a different attitude to existing space in London. We have looked after them for 100 years and then we shut them off. The intensity of climate issues means that our flats or homes won't accommodate high temperatures and we have to enable children and families to get into shaded areas of public realm. So it is not just the public square, there are more opportunities to investigate.

Future Cities Forum also asked Deirdra about demolishing heritage to make way for new estate development and the inspiration of the early 19th century ideas from John Nash on creating connected public realm in the Capital, referred to as 'park to park'. In 1811, the Prince Regent asked John Nash to design a scenic urban landscape, planned as a Picturesque Route from Carlton House ( now Carlton Terrace) to Regent's Park. Could this concept be adapted to modern, walkable cities?

Deidra suggested:

'We are very proud of our municipal legacy in the borough. We want the best quality for our residents. If there is a case for demolition as in the case of the Ebury Estate, the replacement must be more fitting. We are never going to want to down-play the heritage issue. Our residents are worthy of heritage preservation but it is an enormous balancing act. In addition, the sustainability features that are put in must be monitored through collecting data for 'show and tell' and used as an incentive tool and part of our sustainability city charter.

'John Nash's 'park to park' idea - who can object to that but we have broader ambitions of walkable cities, liveable cities including being able to cycle rather than use the car. Our Strand Aldwych project has been about that. Of course, public realm improvements have to be safe and they have to have a richness to them, they have to be resilient and sustainable and combine the interests of all partners involved.'

CGI of Ebury Bridge Estate, image courtesy of Westminster City Council/Bouygues UK

Arup has been working on the Ebury Bridge Project for some years. Becci Taylor, Director at Arup described the firm's involvement:

'The project has included quite a lot of demolition but the quality of homes that are being built are of a much higher standard than could have been produced through retrofit. The heritage question is an important one but there is always the quality of life to be considered and the need for more social housing.

'We have been gathering data and there will be checks around sustainability in the future. The ground source heat pumps that we have put in as part of the infrastructure in the first phase, have been an important feature. The new homes are next to Victoria Station railway tracks and the new infrastructure has been planned to allow for the impact of noise to be reduced, so that residents can sleep at night and so that homes do not over heat.'

Ebury Edge is a further development and a temporary work and community space at the heart of Westminster designed in collaboration with Jan Kattein Architects, combining affordable workspace and retail units with a café, a community hall and a public courtyard.

As part of the Ebury Bridge Estate redevelopment, which will see 781 new homes created and existing housing blocks retrofitted just south of London Victoria, Westminster City Council (WCC) was keen to provide the local community with an immediate sign of regeneration.

Arup worked with WCC to deliver the concept of Ebury Edge, supporting the design and construction of two modular, meanwhile-use buildings with sustainability embedded in their DNA. It developed the fully electric buildings from concept design to tender within just two months, featuring an innovative demountable timber structural system that can be adapted and re-deployed after use in 2025.

Arup stated:

'The project sets a precedent by embracing the creative potential of the regeneration process. By bringing community amenities to the Estate in advance of long-term redevelopment, the scheme provides residents with valuable social spaces to meet and the infrastructure to facilitate local business. The design and consultation approach has resulted in a striking appearance, reflecting residents' wishes to invite communities old and new into the renewed Estate.

'The design concept consisted of two buildings: a two-storey building with a timber frame workspace and retail at the ground floor and a single-storey block containing a café and community hall, open internally to an asymmetric pitched roof using prefabricated timber trusses. A scaffold frame links the buildings and will provide the substrate for greenery to grow.

The use of timber within the buildings' design allowed for easier customisation while keeping them light and minimising foundations and embodied carbon.

'To get optimal value from WCC's investment, we needed to ensure the building design was flexible, reusable and simple to construct. The construction combines prefabricated timber components, common in residential homes, in a system that can be re-erected elsewhere, together or individually. Working with specialists Flight Timber, we refined the timber frame design and developed a screw fixings pattern to enable the assembly and disassembly of the structure at least five times.

These aspirations advanced the traditional timber cassette systems beyond standard practice, marrying speed of construction and robustness without compromising the integrity of the structural components.'

Granton Waterfront - image courtesy City of Edinburgh Council and Aerial Photography

Granton Waterfront is an important housing project for the City of Edinburgh Council, which is being built on brownfield land and involves the retrofit of a former gas cylinder and addition of cultural attractions. The development sits just three miles north of the city centre, in a ‘necklace’ of coastal communities from Cramond in the west to Portobello in the east. It is one of Scotland’s largest brownfield sites set on a dramatic urban coastal green space.

The Council's goal is to create sustainable growth and help Edinburgh become a greener, fairer economy. Granton Waterfront will be the blueprint in urban development and regeneration for Scotland. High quality design and place-making principles have been used to develop a framework for how Granton could look in the future.

Michelle Fraser, Project Manager for the development, joined the forum discussion to describe the difficult work that has been undertaken so far:

'It has not been easy and started early on with a 1999 masterplan. It has developed piece meal since 2008 in the process of designing affordable homes. It has been difficult to get market homes in there. Edinburgh Council then bought the site and gas holder along with a station building and this has kicked off the cultural side. We had to get funding for the gas holder as it is Grade II listed but it will be an iconic feature and will be lit up throughout the year. We plan to build three and a half thousand homes and we have 200 hectares of space with a beautiful waterfront that has been so much untapped as an area, but it will not be an easy path to bring it all to fruition.

'In terms of having the right infrastructure in place, we will have a tram route in 2030, and we will be doing a business case for that. Buses will be rolled out and there area plans to make it easier to cycle. A mobility hub will be essential to reduce car traffic and provide links into the city centre for employment.

'In some ways the infrastructure is already there, but there is a lot of inequality so we are putting in a lot of commercial spaces for employment. The National Galleries and Museums of Scotland will be down there on the waterfront, so there is significant cultural infrastructure going in too.'

The first spades were put in the ground in June 2021 to bring the historic former Granton Station back to life as a high-quality creative workspace within the community, with a new public square in front of the building for pop-up events and recreation. The building will be operated by the social enterprise charity Wasps, Scotland’s largest provider of studio space for artists and creative industries.

The towering Granton Gasholder has long been an iconic fixture on Edinburgh’s waterfront for more than a century. As part of the purchase of the wider gasworks site in 2018, the Council acquired the gasholder and committed to keep and restore it as a central feature of the ambitious regeneration of Granton Waterfront.

To mark the commitment to long-term investment to create this new coastal town, the City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh College developed a two-year light installation working with 21CC Productions. This transformed the Victorian-era Granton gasholder into one of Scotland’s biggest works of art. The Grade B listed gasometer, which is 73m wide and 43m tall, is one of three originally built for the gasworks, and dates back to 1903. 

Above: riverfront panorama (Courtesy Newcastle City Council)

How can local authorities ensure that new housing districts are properly connected with trains and buses, thereby avoiding car congestion, with climate change goals in mind?

The City of Newcastle has some historic streets which have recently been 'greened' with tree planting and famous infrastructure icons such as the Tyne Bridge, which help to weave traffic through the city. While it has been introducing important air quality measures, Cllr Marion Williams, Cabinet Member for a Connected Clean City at Newcastle City Council, said there are still traffic congestion problems to tackle:

Marion described some of the issues:

'It has been such a struggle to get any money and then how to spend it. The Tyne Bridge has been standing for 40 years and almost falling down now. Although we have been promised the levelling up money to repair it, we still don't have full funding. Of course the renovation will shut down the whole of the metro works and will be quite a hiatus, as if we don't have enough problems with connectivity.

'We have our CAZ programme and are looking at air quality around schools and improving measures on city streets through programmes with Sustrans. We have trialled a 'park and stride' idea where parents walk with children, but don't have the proper funding to do it just now. It will also not please everyone and these programmes can divide communities. I often meet with the view that it is alright to be sustainable if you are not trying to stop 'my car'.

'Pedestrians have a raw deal. I used to walk everywhere in Edinburgh when I lived there and walking through our cities should be a much more pleasant experience. Edinburgh has fantastic buses, but we are losing them here.'

Fiona Coull, Senior Programme Manager, Cross River Partnership, joined the conversation to talk about some positive measures that her organisation is carrying out on 'street movement' to decrease traffic congestion:

'We work with local authorities around understanding actual movement on streets and we have carried out a project with the University of the West of England on streets where schools are sited. When you have periods of closures with traffic cameras, this enables you not just to count people but how they are crossing the street. If there is permanent monitoring there is more crossing of streets. It highlights how people can interact with spaces. It proves that a change can have a desired impact.

We are keen to monitor because the data gives us a proof of concept. If you don't have data you cannot push for more permanent change. We want beautiful places but we also want restaurants where food and drink have to be developed. I think it is therefore important how we integrate freight, that doesn't detract from healthy forms of movement such as cycling.'

Marion commented:

'We don't have a movement strategy but we are consulting on that and there is the odd data that shows that more people come in every day to the city than leave! We need to understand how people move and why and when. But we know that if we want real change we have to take communities with us and get their input, rather than demand they do it. We have Homes England involved in a massive site in Newcastle which is brownfield and contaminated. The flats will probably be expensive because of the cost of the work, but we estimate there will be an extra 2,000 cars. Newcastle will grind to a halt!'

Newcastle's historic Grey Street with 'greening' - image courtesy of LDA Design

London has been struggling with traffic congestion for decades and the Mayor of London has been concerned enough about pollution to speak out on how children's lungs in the Capital can be restricted on growth because of dangerous chemicals in the air. Measures are being taken to ensure that new districts are more connected by public transport and that housing is planned and built around green spaces where families can relax and enjoy fresh air.

Levelling up funding has been agreed to extend the facilities for all who use Leyton Station the Borough of Waltham Forest and from that has come the funding for a new district next to it called Coronation Square.

Leyton station will receive £13.7m after a successful joint bid led by Transport for London and the Greater London Authority. The Levelling Up support combined with development contributions from local housing growth, secured by the Council will also help unlock significant further investment in much needed new affordable homes, workspaces and community infrastructure.

The plans include an additional ticket hall, two new staircases and two lifts for Leyton Station, making it step-free and fully accessible for the first time. Works are expected to begin in summer 2024, with the new station facilities opening in 2026.

The station will continue to operate through the construction period other than for planned closures on the Central Line.

Leyton station serves a rapidly growing community and will support major housing developments in the area, including the Council’s Coronation Square scheme which is under construction. Two thousand new homes are being built near Leyton Tube station with a further 5,300 new homes proposed. The upgraded Tube station will increase capacity, improve accessibility and provide a more comfortable and welcoming environment for users and gateway to Leyton town centre.

Fay Cannings, Investment Manager for the London Borough of Waltham Forest explained:

'The funding has really helped with capacity at the station and has been a spring board for regeneration for the borough. Leyton was already well connected, but this funding has meant that the station is now fully accessible. We have a new neighbourhood strategy and we are working to future proof for sustainability, particularly around the high street, making it more vibrant and supporting local businesses. It is giving a local pride and brand to Leyton as well as new housing.

'In our borough we have our planning and design which is giving a clear trajectory. We need to preserve commercial space and we have a commitment to industry first, protecting our industrial sites for manufacture and small start-ups. Coronation Square is a mixed-use development with high-quality public space and a model to copy in other areas. The health of the community is very important and we have a new health hub planned with nursery space, gardens, wayfinding and signage.'

Future Cities Forum is grateful to all our contributors and their insight for this part of our 'New Districts' forum. Read part two of the report to be published shortly.

Below: CGI of Coronation Square new housing development, courtesy of London Borough of Waltham Forest


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