By Richard Upton, deputy chief executive, U+I
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the mayor’s London Plan was the fact that it embraced heritage and culture as being part of the fabric of London.
Culture is so important in any city but London, as a city of villages, is throbbing with it.
That texture and variety of histories is what makes London London. It’s London’s golden goose. It’s what attracts 31 million tourists to the capital every year.
If we keep jamming insensitive developments into London, we’ll crush that texture. We’ll kill that golden goose.
Developers have been part of this problem. They can’t always see a good reason for placemaking, or they don’t have the right people or the right skills to do it. That’s why the mayor’s vision – where access to great culture is built into the fabric of every part of London – is so welcome.
The good news is that we can get it right. We must create places where people want to live and work, that provide a leg-up for smaller businesses, artists and creatives and that are economically self-sustaining – but also places that recognise and chime with an area’s local history.
So how do we go about combining placemaking and culture? We do a lot of research to understand the place and find the history, stories and myths that make it unique.
Just one example from our portfolio to illustrate the point: our project in Hayes, west London. We bought a 17-acre site in 2011 that was a rather tired business park. But it fizzed and crackled with industrial history. It was EMI’s vinyl-record-pressing plant from the 1950s to the 1970s and where EMI’s Central Research Laboratory (CRL) invented airborne radar and the CAT scanner. Then there were the buildings: fantastic pieces of art deco industrial architecture.
We started the placemaking process early on. We engaged with the local community and we dug into the history of the site.
We decided to celebrate two strands of its history: popular music and ground-breaking science. We named the project The Old Vinyl Factory and organised live music events for young bands. In addition, we worked with Brunel University to set up an incubator programme for manufacturing start-ups – under the original CRL name.
By using placemaking and culture to deliver a revitalised mixed-use place, we turned the tired trading estate into a community of 642 homes, commercial offices and creative-use spaces, 11 product development start-ups and a college for music and media studies students.
It’s places like these that leave a lasting legacy for the benefit of local communities – and London needs more of them.
The mayor’s focus on the importance of culture and placemaking is a worthy step in the right direction.