If there is a theme to my Presidential visits this year, it’s to visit those places past Presidents haven’t reached – in the words of Robert Frost to take the paths 'less travelled by'.
I’m not sure there is really anywhere in London that would class as ‘less travelled by’ but there are places that have missed out and not just on Presidential visits: investment, growth and their benefits have too often passed them by as well. Such might be the unifying theme behind my recent visit to London, taking in Brixton, Peckham and Waltham Forest.
Brixton, within the borough of Lambeth, sits a little distance south of central London. I was told that nine million journeys a week are taken through Brixton station as people pour out of the town to work and pour back again each evening. The future could look very different. Price differentials and the growing spirit of enterprise and design in Brixton are attracting businesses, such as Squire & Partners who have moved their headquarters from Kings Cross to a converted Edwardian department store (it’s called 'The Department Store'). In the process, this imaginative, design-led initiative has unlocked space for enterprise and community groups.
Lambeth Council has a key role in unlocking potential in Brixton. Through the ‘Your Town Hall’ project, they have creatively opened up the historic building to public and business use (there’s a workspace venture on the lower floor) and delivered a stunning new civic centre together with 194 flats and a vitally important saving in the Council’s running costs as fourteen former office buildings become just the two. Lambeth’s planners have been at the heart of this project and its delivery.
The spectacular view of the City of London from the top of Brixton's International House
But it’s in the released space that invention really emerges. Rather than just sell or lease on at commercial terms, the Council has entered agreement with 3Space to open International House to social enterprise. Here on twelve floors, affordable workspace houses a range of small and growing start-ups. And a roof-top bar is planned to provide the opportunity to catch the views of central London from the top of the building. They are stunning!
Views of central London and Canary Wharf are a recurring theme in Peckham also. A range of buildings afford these views, from the roof-top bar and open-air cinema on the Bussey Building (a Victorian cricket bat factory converted to a range of business, leisure and community uses), to Peckham Levels (a series of 'meanwhile uses' of a former multi-storey car park managed by Makeshift, who are also behind Pop Brixton), to the roof-top restaurant due to open in the new Mountview Theatre Academy.
Planning has not been an easy ride in Peckham. Major controversy arose in the last decade over Transport for London’s Cross River Tram project which would have seen a major depot created in Peckham, obliterating a range of buildings and local businesses. The proposal was heavily opposed by local people and proved the springboard for the creation of Peckham Vision, a community group led by Eileen Conn MBE, who argues that planners too often fail to understand the complex interrelationships and knowledge that exists within the communities for which we plan. Fifty years on from the Skeffington Report, we still have work to do in engaging and involving communities in planning and delivery.
Ian Tant and members of RTPI London meet Eileen Conn MBE of Peckham Vision
Even so, there are successful and important planning interventions at Peckham, including the impending creation of a new square, opening up Peckham Rye station to the high street, Rye Lane, and hopefully leading to the restoration and reuse of the fine but sadly neglected Victorian station building. To make this possible, the Council has provided a new building close to Rye Lane, 'Peckham Palms', which provides modern facilities where many of the existing hairdressing businesses can relocate from the tired buildings around the station.
And the community itself is bringing forward important initiatives such as the planned 'Coal Line' pedestrian route, linking Rye Lane to Queens Road.
Waltham Forest is simply inspiring. An outer London Borough that started from a low base with poor transport links, a weak economy and high unemployment (15% at one stage), it is being transformed by strong political leadership and professional determination into a glowing success story.
Planning and culture sit at the heart of all that is being done to build resilience, liveability and economic strength into the London Borough of Culture for 2019. It’s hard to know where to start in recording the scale of change underway - from the aspirational levels of new housing being delivered, to the creation of a Borough-wide cycle network, to new and reformed stations.
At Walthamstow Wetland Visitor Centre with members of RTPI London and the London Borough of Waltham Forest
'Meanwhile uses' occupy future development sites (I met Adam Walker of Crate who was literally hands-on delivering a scheme at South Grove). Air quality improvement is being delivered and the natural capital of the Lea Valley is being recognised, alongside the artistic and cultural history of the Borough (William Morris, Damon Albarn and Matthew Bourne among many others).
Waltham Forest is already winning awards: look out for many, many more.
After two whirlwind days in London (10 km walked on the first day), I write this post buzzing with schemes that I could and should relate. Thank you, RTPI London, all three Borough Councils, community groups, developers, enterpreneurs and individuals for what you’ve shown me. The future’s bright!
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.