Richard Brown: a New London Mix can get London’s new places right

by Richard Brown

Unite Student Accomodation Camden

For 20 years or longer, mixed use has been an article of faith in urban planning. The best places, the argument goes, are not sterile and segregated commercial and residential districts, but those that mix live, work and leisure activities, creating vitality around the clock and minimising the need to travel around the city.

But like many articles of faith, belief in mixed use has been professed more than practiced. Many new housing developments cloak themselves in the language of mixed use, only to provide some rather apologetic ground floor retail units, which may be picked up by a convenience store or stand empty until they can be flipped to residential.

Meanwhile, London’s stock of workspace is being steadily eroded. Big industrial areas – which house “bad neighbour” uses like aggregate yards, car breakers, waste and recycling – have been eaten away three times faster than planned in recent years. Sadiq Khan’s draft New London Plan proposes tightening protections for strategic sites, but smaller scale workspace – studios, light industrial, storage, food processing – is still vulnerable to being squeezed out, draining character from those neighbourhoods and pushing up rents in industrial areas as it relocates.

Can we tackle London’s housing crisis without creating high density dormitories in London’s districts? Can we provide for flexible workspace across the city?

Places that Work, a new report prepared by GVA, Architecture 00 and Real Urbanism, with support from Centre for London, argues that we can. Some industrial activities will never mix well with residential, but many can sit happily alongside or underneath it in what the report calls New London Mix.  And in most areas of London, New London Mix makes commercial as well as planning sense, accommodating both homes and workspaces, while delivering reasonable returns to developers.

A few good examples, like Travis Perkins’ trade counter with student housing above at King’s Cross, are cited. But they invite the question, why aren’t more models coming forward? The principal problem is one of compartmentalisation within the worlds of property investment and development: commercial developers work in different teams, with different business models and different clients from residential developers, and anything that mixes the two looks risky. And anything that looks too risky gets squeezed out in a highly competitive market.

The report makes recommendations to help move New London Mix from the margins to the mainstream. Rather than expecting residential developers to manage commercial space, the Mayor and boroughs together with operators and investors should set up Local Economic Growth Companies [LEGCOs].

These companies, in many cases not-for-profits loosely based on the model of housing associations, could specify, take over and manage commercial space from residential developers, much as housing associations take on affordable housing from commercial housebuilders. Following the same model, LEGCOs could mix rents and levels of support provided, using commercial rents to cross-subsidise sub-market rents and business support to help start-ups to find their feet.

Alongside these new structures an investment fund could help develop and prove the viability of early projects, planners could encourage the adoption of New London Mix, and demonstration projects could prove not only commercial viability, but social and economic vitality in London’s newest neighbourhoods.

To ensure success in times of economic uncertainty and rapid technological change, London needs adaptable employment space as well as homes, workshops as well as logistics sheds and scrappy studios as well as smooth office blocks. New London Mix offers a model of development that can meet these needs, and in doing so create places with vitality, resilience and personality.

Richard Brown is research director of Centre for London. The Places That Work report can be read here. Photo from Cooley Architects, designers of the Travis Perkins/student housing development.

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