Walking through King’s Cross today, I pass office workers eating lunch by the water in Pancras Square, children playing on the grass in Lewis Cubitt Park and visitors relaxing by steps to the Regent’s Canal.
By inhabiting these spaces all of these people are connecting with nature, and often prioritising this choice sub-consciously. However, the green and blue infrastructure enjoyed by our residents, workers and visitors is the result of conscious, careful curation on the part of King’s Cross.
Today, the benefits of integrating green infrastructure into urban environments is well understood, with policy now mandating the performance standards for green space to maximise the benefits to health and wellbeing for those who use the spaces, as well as the positive impact on air quality, biodiversity and, of course, climate resilience. The pandemic further placed a spotlight on the value of public green spaces and green infrastructure on people’s wellbeing.
When the Estate was designed some 20+ years ago we didn’t have the guiding structures of environmental, social and corporate governance. The original team did still recognise the importance of what enables urban life to prosper. In Principles for a Human City, the 2001 document which set out the principles which underpinned the design and delivery of King’s Cross, we made a commitment to creating a ‘robust urban framework’. This referenced more than just a physical framework of streets and squares, but also the parks, gardens and plazas – the green spaces – which connect them and generate both economic and environmental value.
It is thanks to this long-term thinking that more than 40% of the 67-acre estate is public parks, squares and open space, that we have more than 600 plant species and 400 trees and much more that’s not immediately visible at ground level, such as 33 green roofs. And while we’ve much to be proud of, there is always more we should be doing.
We recognise that what is deemed to be ‘gold-standard’ sustainable performance is constantly evolving, and we need to continually adapt to new research, best practice and industry innovation to stay at the top of our game. Interestingly, this was something that Principles for a Human City also noted, saying that to continue to be successful and desirable, places need to be able to adapt over time and reflect the rhythm of our changing seasons, weather and lives.
This means even when the final buildings at King’s Cross complete in a few years’ time, our work is far from done. We must consider how the estate adapts to its new occupiers and users, as well as the changing climate. We want to integrate green infrastructure into the estate in a way that optimises the experience and outcomes for both people and planet. This could mean planting more trees to provide natural shading as temperatures increase and doing so in a way that supports the broader ecological network that King’s Cross sits within. Any interventions made at King’s Cross should not just support the experience of our users or the biodiversity of our estate, but also connect and contribute to Camden, our neighbouring boroughs and London.
Considering green infrastructure from the outset is clearly the best approach, giving developers of new schemes an advantage over some of the more established developments. However, ‘retrofitting’ green infrastructure into a well-established development isn’t unachievable. It is, we know, difficult to retrospectively add new green infrastructure to a space once landscape designs have matured, but challenges drive creative responses, and we are exploring semi-permanent green infrastructure as well as innovations around planting.
If Principles for a Human City were written today, I think it would have greater emphasis on green and blue infrastructure and building in even more flexibility to our public spaces, so they can continue to flex and respond to our needs in another 10, 20 and even 30 years’ time. I’m certain that sustainable, biodiverse places will be the ones which continue to be high quality, high value and resilient assets in the long-term.
By Rob Miller, Sustainability Manager at King’s Cross