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From Industrial Estates to Innovation Districts

What are we to do with the industrial estate? How can we reform the collection of crinkly tin sheds, surrounded by roundabouts, loading bays and car parks that can be found on the edge of every city, town and even many villages? Are these places beyond the reach of the urban designer, governed by function and practicality rather than the frivolities of place making? This article was published in Urban Design Quarterly and draws upon a couple of URBED’s recent projects to argue that there is an older tradition of design for industrial uses that we can learn from when designing modern industrial estates.

Call yourself and urban designer? This probably means that most of your work involves housing, maybe with a smattering of other uses so that your scheme can be called mixed-use, but mostly housing. Towns and cities, of course, are made up of more than just housing and, as urban designers, we do sometimes get to work on retail quarters or business districts. But what we don’t do is work on the other parts of our settlements, the bits that make up the majority of our urban fabric – the malls and business parks, leisure complexes and industrial estates. These are the unreconstructed parts of the city that we rail against, the dark side of car-dominated, nowhereville that the urban design profession exists to reform.

Well we may argue that retailing, leisure and office uses should be brought back into the urban fold and designed as street based layouts, but what about industry? Ever since Josiah Wedgwood moved his porcelain factory from the centre of Stoke to his model factory at Etruria in 1769, The Lever Brothers moved their soap factory to Port Sunlight or the Cadbury Brothers decided that the polluted streets of Birmingham were no place to make chocolate, there has been a realisation that some types of Industry might be better outside cities. Today we continue to draw inspiration from the residential neighbourhoods that these industrialists and others built for their workers, but we pay very little attention to their factories. Nor do we study the great business parks built a little later such as Speke in Liverpool, Trafford Park in Manchester, Park Royal in London or Team Valley in Newcastle. Instead we build industrial estates on the edges of our cities set within a sea of parking and lollipop landscapes, accessible only by car and cut off from the creative exchange, innovative workforce and inter-trading networks on which business thrives. Urban design apparently doesn’t apply to industry. Making things is a practical no-nonsense activity and the frivolities of design (other than the landscaping of roundabouts for some reason) are of no relevance.

The economic impact of urbanism on business was the main focus of Jane Jacobs’ work. Much of the ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and all of her subsequent book ‘The Economy of Cities’ is concerned with business and urban economies. She argues that a healthy economy needs a constant injection of new ideas and products, without which it atrophies. These new ideas almost never arise in large corporations once they have moved their operations to a corporate campus on the edge of the city. New ideas need the intensity of activity, ideas and interchange that can only be found in cities. Big business feeds of this creativity through the acquisition of smaller companies and by poaching creative staff and they can’t survive without it.

This was Bruce Katz’s theme last year when he visited the Advanced Manufacturing Park between Sheffield and Rotherham last year. He talked about his book written with Julie Wagner “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A new geography of innovation in America’ in which they describe a new type of business park that is ‘physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired’, offering a mix of housing, office and retailing alongside large-scale industrial and business uses. His point is that even ‘traditional’ manufacturing needs to be linked into innovation networks for research and development, design and marketing. No business can afford to cut itself off from the creative people that supply this innovation and these people are now overwhelmingly urban in their outlook. Where it is not possible for companies to locate in central areas, they must create environments that promote this innovative milieu, even in peripheral locations. Large tech. companies like Apple or Google may be able to do this on their own, but for most companies the solution is an Innovation District: focused around a local centre with some good bars and coffee shops, strong links to an academic institution, with a range of business accommodation – from start-ups to factories for multi-nationals – apartments, hotels and serviced accommodation for workers and a convenient tram service into a really good city centre. In recent months URBED has been asked to masterplan two such innovation districts. The first is a scheme in the midlands called Brookhay Waterside and the other is an International Advanced Manufacturing Park outside the gates of the Nissan factory in Sunderland. In both cases the brief has been to develop something more than a industrial park. We have therefore turned for inspiration to the original industrial estates mentioned above, particularly Trafford Park and Team Valley.

Trafford Park in Manchester was the first modern industrial estate. Indeed, having originally been a deer park owned by the De Trafford family, it might be the first industrial area to be be called a ‘park’. In the 1890s The family watched the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal along the northern edge of their ‘beautifully timbered deer park’. Once it opened and industry started to spring-up around the new docks, they decided that the time had come to sell. There were moves by the buy the estate as a municipal park, but these were outbid by the London financier Earnest Treah Hooley who paid the family £360,000 and established Trafford Park Estates Ltd in 1896 with the aim of creating what he billed as the ‘world’s first industrial estate’. He had overreached himself and within a year bankruptcy had forced him to step down, but the company continued and within a few years industry had started to develop. This was given a boost in 1911 when the Ford Motor Company chose Trafford Park for its first factory outside the US, introducing the revolutionary concept of the production line simultaneously in Detroit and Trafford. The park would also become home to the Rolls Royce factory making Merlin engines for Spitfires and was a major centre for wartime production during both world wars.

Image 2 Trafford Park DetailIn the very early days a tract of land was sold for Trafford Park Village in the centre of the park. This was masterplanned with an American grid of avenues numbered 1-4 and streets numbered 1-12. By 1907 the village was home to 3,000 people and was entirely surrounded by industry so that became a self-contained island with pubs and shops, three churches, a school and community halls. By the 1930s the wider park provided 75,000 jobs and its private railway system handled 3% of the UK’s freight traffic. In the interwar years it was a phenomena, making Manchester an industrial powerhouse long after its textile industry had started to decline. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the park hit the skids, losing much of its employment and seeing the village demolished by Stretford Council as a slum. In the 1980s it was designated as one of the UK’s first Development Corporations and saw widespread environmental improvements. Today it is once more a successful employment location as well as being home to the Trafford Centre shopping mall, the Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum of the North, Old Trafford Football Ground and a new set of terraced streets – the relocated set for Coronation Street.

Image 3 - Team Valley DetailTeam Valley on the edge of Newcastle and Gateshead has a slightly different history. This was an initiative of Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government in the mid 1930s as part of the economic strategy following the Great Depression. They set up the North East Trading Estates Company in 1936. The contract to layout the estate was let soon after and within a year the first factory had been let to the haulage company Messers Orrell and Brewster Ltd to be followed within 12 months by a further 75 companies. Today the estate remains in public ownership, having passed through the hands of English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agency. Today it is home to 700 businesses employing 20,000 people.

Because of their age the design of these two estates is very different to modern industrial estates. It is true that in both areas much of the development is pretty functional and not at all attractive. However they are both structured in such a way that they create some sense of place and a degree of identity. This is more evident in Team Valley where the central boulevard, Kingsway, is still lined with factories. In the centre of the street is a roundabout with the crescent shaped offices built for the North East Trading Estates Company and now occupied by the Homes and Communities Agency. In Trafford park the sense of place is harder to see because many of the original buildings have been demolished including the village, however even this retains hints of its former identity, particularly the areas refurbished by Urban Splash as a location for smaller companies.

The underlying design structure of each of the estates is in fact very similar. At URBED we have been analysing this structure in a attempt to reconstruct an urban design language for the design of industrial areas. From this we have drawn the following six principles that we are applying in our industrial master plans:

Grid: They are based on an open grid rather than a closed set of cul-de-sacs. This has a certain logic since factories are generally orthogonal and fit best onto rectangular sites. In both cases the grid is based on a module of roughly 100m by 300m (measured to the centreline of the streets). At the centre of the estates these blocks might be further broken down as they are in Trafford Village. Towards the edge of the estates the blocks are combined to larger plots accommodating larger companies.

Hierarchy: There is a hierarchy to the streets of the grid. Team Valley has a central boulevard while Trafford has a series of primary routes. These traditionally were the ‘shop windows’ of the estate with companies building their offices to line the street with their administrative functions and visitor entrances (although this has sadly been lost in much of Trafford Park). The streets parallel to these ‘front of house’ streets are much more business-like providing servicing, loading bays and employee access. The streets of the grid tend to alternate between front of house and service streets, like a terraced housing layout but on a much large scale.

Plot Divisions: The development blocks are broken down to create a huge variety of plot sizes. A 100m deep block may contain a single company or could be divided into two 50m deep plots or further broken down into smaller trading estates. Elsewhere blocks are combined to accommodate much larger companies. Generally the plots are smaller towards the centre and larger on the edge of the estate.

Orientation: traditionally factories have had a front, designed for show, and three elevations that are purely functional. In these estates the fronts all face onto the main streets and the loading and other functional operations happen around the back. In the past the front would include the board room and offices with the flag flying proudly over the main entrance and the chairman’s jag parked outside. Modern factories have much smaller front-of-house operations and are less concerned about making a corporate statement with their buildings. Nevertheless orientation is important.

Building line: On the ‘front of house’ streets factories all tend to follow a common building line. The illustration to the right shows a cross section of the Team Valley boulevard with 20m wide street and 20m ‘front lawns’ on each plot which includes parking, corporate branding and landscaping.Image 4 - Team Valley Boulevard Section

Centre: Finally both estates originally had local centres, including pubs, shops and local facilities as well as bus stops and administrative offices. The clearance of Trafford Village has largely seen this disappear in Trafford but it still exists to an extent in the Team Valley.

We combined these elements into an idealised layout for a new industrial estate or innovation district (below). This combines our six principles into a framework for industrial urban design that we are working to apply, particularly in the International Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sunderland. The aim is to create a flexible open grid that can accommodate companies of different sizes with a coherent and legible street network with the plots becoming smaller at the centre to create a local heart that would be linked to the wider city by public transport.

Just as we have spent the last twenty years rediscovering the lost art of designing residential neighbourhoods, there is a similar job to be done with industrial areas. As with housing estates we need to challenge the car-dominated, cul-de-sac based layouts that have dominated in recent years by reaching back to an earlier tradition. We won’t succeed if these grid layouts are seen as being uncommercial or impractical, which is how some will regard them. However it is hard to see how there can be anything more practical than an open grid and we believe that this type of approach is required to turn today’s industrial estates into the innovation districts required by tomorrow’s economy.Image 5 - Model Innovation District




4 Recessions Part 2: The 1980s: Manchester and Thatcher’s Britan

I arrived in Manchester for the autumn university term of 1979. The previous winter had been the Winter of Discontent and I had been a month too young to vote in the May election that had seen the Thatcher Government come to power. The recession officially lasted only for my first autumn and spring in Manchester, but its effects were to be felt in Manchester for much of the following decade. That first winter inflation peaked at 22% and the new Government introduced monetarist policies to bring this under control. This involved bringing the unions to heel, slashing public spending and ‘improving’ industrial productivity by closing down inefficient industries. All of this succeeded, at least as far as inflation was concerned, which, by 1983, had fallen to 4%. The cost was however paid in deep cuts to the public sector, mass unemployment and the decimation of manufacturing industry. By the time I was doing my finals unemployment had risen to 12.5%, three times it peak in the 1970s recession and a level not seen since the Great Depression.

These changes disproportionately affected the industrial north. Manchester had been in steep industrial decline since the 1950s and was particularly hard hit. The city lost 207,000 manufacturing jobs between 1972 and 1984 and its unemployment rate rose to 20%. The city was also haemorrhaging people with the population of the council area (only part of the conurbation) falling from just over 700,000 after the war to around 430,000 by the end of the 1980s. As in London eight years earlier, there were fears that the city would collapse. The difference in Manchester was that this collapse did actually happen ­– it is just that Manuunians refused to accept it. One of the conceptual problems of regeneration policy is getting people to understand what a place was like before it was regenerated.

Most people find it impossible to conceive how far Manchester, and indeed most northern cities had fallen by the early 1980s. The best way I can illustrate it is to describe a walk we took one Sunday afternoon when I was a student. We started from the Town Hall and walked out through the derelict Central Station, to Castlefield with is scrap yards and derelict mills, on through Pomona docks and Salford Quays as far out as Barton Bridge. From the heart of the city to its edge, a distance of some 6 miles, we walked through uninterrupted dereliction. We could have done the same along the Irk Valley to the North or the River Medlock to the east. Even in the city centre there were large areas of dereliction, including the two sites facing the town hall on Albert Square.

Hélène on that walk through Castlefield in the early 80s and from the same spot last year  

IMG_2496 Castlefield scrap yard

My first job in Manchester Council in the mid 1980s was to work with the Derelict Land Grant team who spent all of their time demolishing factories and covering the sites with grass and occasional trees. The idea that these sites would ever be developed was inconceivable, the productive heart of the city was being tidied away and grassed over. The bits of the inner city that were neither derelict nor reclaimed green spaces, were council estates (at the time over half the city’s residents were in council housing). The city centre was ringed by some of the ‘boldest’ experiments in social housing from Turkey Lane in the north to Fort Ardwick in the east, Pendleton in Salford (the only one still standing, if not for long) and, of course, Hulme. The Hulme estate on the southern edge of the city centre was a phenomena. The redevelopment of the 130,000 strong community of Hulme had been underway since the 1930s. The last and most iconic scheme was the Crescents completed as late as 1971 and named, without any sense of irony, after the architects Charles Barry, John Nash, William Kent and Robert Adam (A small block in the centre was named after Hawksmore).

The Crescents soon after completion – the grid of the demolished terraces can still be seen to the right

The Crescents, c 1966

The redeveloped Hulme was perhaps the most complete vision of a modernist city ever realised in England. The neighbourhood included six estates, all but one of which were concrete deck access blocks of 6-9 storeys interspersed with 13 tower blocks. By 1984 when I lived there, 59% of Hulme’s adult male population and 68% of its young people were unemployed. All the families had been moved out after the tragic death of a child in 1976 and it had become home to every waif and stray, student and drug dealer in the city.  The redevelopment of Hulme swept away Stretford Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in the city. It was replaced with the Clopton Walk precinct that struggled to sustain a newsagent and an off licence behind vandalite and graffiti. Just opposite this embattled precinct stood a brick box without windows that had been built as the Public Service Vehicles Social Club, for the city’s bus drivers. In 1978 a local television reporter called Tony Wilson took a lease on the place and opened it as a live venue that he called the ‘Factory’, partly as a homage the city’s industrial past and partly as a reference to Andy Wahol. The birth of the Factory was to be the first tentative step in Manchester’s renaissance.


The original Factory in Hulme photographed by Kevin Cummins and the Hacienda less than ten years later

Within a few years The Factory spawned Factory Records, Manchester’s own idiosyncratic record label that signed Joy Division, which then, after Ian Curtis’s death, became New Order. In 1983 Wilson opened a much larger club which he called the Hacienda, in a warehouse on Whitworth Street on the edge of the city centre. With an interior designed by Ben Kelly the club became the centre of the Manchester scene (so much so that it was recreated for the V&A Museum’s exhibition of the best of British Design). By 1988 the club had become the focus of the Acid House movement had become the epicentre of ‘Madchester’s’ Summer of Love. In the ten short year after  Anthony H. Wilson (as he later liked to be called) signed the lease on the Factory, Manchester became the centre of the music world. What is much more important, it became cool. It became a place with cultural significance and with an international profile for more than just football.

I remember at the time a friend of ours spent a few days in hospital in San Francisco at the time. When his fellow patients found out he was from Manchester he was treated a minor celebrity. To my shame I never went to the original Factory (being entirely unaware of its cultural significance in my first year at Uni). I later made the perilous journey from Oxford Road across the glass-strewn footbridge over Princess Parkway to its subsequent incarnations as the Russell Club and then the PSV Club. By 1983 I had moved into a flat in Hulme with my then partner and now wife Hélène, and we found that the dark forbidding area was no less scary as residents. It did however have its consolations and throughout the 1980s it would be the powerhouse of Manchester’s creative community.

The Punx Picnic in Hulme sometime in the mid 80s

UK - Manchester - Hulme - Punks PicnicThe Hulme flats were large, having been built for families, and yet were let to, or squatted by, students and young people. A study of the area undertaken in the late 1980s found that a third of the population had university degrees, equivalent to the city’s leafiest suburb, while another third had no qualifications at all. But it wasn’t a divided area – qualified and unqualified, most people were unemployed, looked the same, drank in the same pubs and ran the gauntlet of the same muggers and drug dealers. This was Manchester’s version of Copenhagen’s Christiania or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, a place on the edge, barely tolerated by the authorities, full of ‘crusties’, anarchists and new age travellers (who overwintered their convoy in Hulme). Yet it was also full of musicians and writers, artists and actors. The big flats provided space for studios and rehearsal rooms, some were turned into recording studios, others into cafes and ‘Blues’ clubs. People published magazines out of apartments, ran design companies and even ran a green produce home delivery company.

In short the conditions in Hulme, extreme as they may have been, created just the right growing conditions for Manchester’s creative economy, the same economy that has pulled the city back from the brink of collapse. In her Book the Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs has a chapter entitled ‘Birmingham Good, Manchester Bad’. Writing in the 1970s she makes the point that Manchester with its tradition of large industrial workforces was singularly ill-equipped for the economy of the late 20th century. Manchester’s economy had always been based on large mills employing thousands of people in relatively unskilled occupations. This created ideal conditions for the growth of working class politics like the Chartists and indeed for music and sub-cultural expression as Dave Haslam has documented in his history of the city’s music scene. However it was not ideally suited to entrepreneurship, innovation and flexibility unlike Birmingham, which was known as the ‘city of a thousand trades’. The lock manufacturers, gun makers and jewellers of Birmingham were based on production chains of small companies each concentrating on one part of the process. Thus Birmingham had the ideal conditions to supply the component chains needed by the car industry – the big economic story at the time that Jacob’s was writing. However today’s economy is based on intellectual capital, creativity and culture. Ironically the working class culture of Manchester, fertilised with the products of its universities, and cultured through the dark days of the 1980s recession created a city much better placed to compete in the economy of the early 21st century.

It is not that far fetched to draw a line between the informal creative economy of Hulme and the decision in 2005 of the BBC to move four departments to Manchester. The recession and collapse of Manchester in the 1980s contained the seeds of the city’s recovery just as will happen in Detroit in the coming years. This is the resilience of urban economies, they go through cycles of growth and decay but it is during the latter that conditions are most propitious for innovation and creativity.


The 1970s: London and the Three-day week

The recession of the mid 1970s was the back-drop to my early teenaged years. When not blacked out by power cuts the television was full of stories about strikes and trade union militancy. The recession had been triggered by the 1973 Oil Crisis and the miners strike later the same year. In January 1974 the Conservative Government imposed a state of emergency. Very soon we were in the three-day week and the country was plunged into an uncertain world of power cuts and strikes. The British economy – already branded the ‘sick man of Europe’ – was struggling under the burden of 20% inflation, unemployment of more than a million and a huge national deficit. 1974 saw two elections, the first of which resulted in a hung Parliament and the second a majority of three for Labour under Harold Wilson. 

It is hard today to imagine, but there were very real concerns at the time that London was a city in danger of dying. The early 1970s saw the closure of many of the city’s docks causing the number of dockers to fall from 60,000 after the war to just 30,000. Unemployment in London doubled between 1970 and 1976 reaching 7.2% and the population fell below 750,000. 1973 saw a Labour administration elected in the Greater London Council but high inflation and the oil crisis forced them to raise rates by 200% and the Labour group eventually split with a radical left wing group breaking away led by the unknown figure of Ken Livingstone.

The 1970s were turbulent times in London full of political struggle and conflict. The Barbican was opened at the start of the decade and the political and professional view was that London’s fabric needed to be updated and ‘modernised’. The great battle of the era was fought in Covent Garden, a district laid out by Indigo Jones in the early 17th century on the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey. The Fruit and Vegetable market that had traded on the site since 1649 was widely agreed to have become impossibly congested and inefficient. A decision was taken in 1971 to relocate the market to Nine Elms and in 1974 Covent Garden was vacated.

Covent Garden MarketCovent Garden redeleopment

The old Covent Garden Market (above) was relocated and plans drawn up for a Barbican-style redevelopment. This is the only image I can find of what was planned.

The GLC, which had inherited the freehold beneath much of Covent Garden, started planning for the redevelopment of the area a soon as its closure was announced. Its plans were very much of their time and the aim was nothing less than comprehensive redevelopment of some 75 acres of land, with high-rise offices and grade-separated roads. It was a plan drawn up by the Conservative GLC but supported their Labour successors, by Conservative Westminster Council, by Labour Camden Council and by National Government of both colours. The only dissenters were ‘a motley vociferous collection of locals who had no evident power or influence’1.

This motley crew in the form of the Covent Garden Community Association chaired by the Reverend Austen Williams, was the lone voice of dissent at the 1972 public enquiry into the proposals. They were ridiculed by the barrister for the GLC as ‘fanatics standing in the way of progress’ and they faced an almost total political consensus ranged against them. Following their inevitable defeat at the enquiry, the campaign took to the streets, staring with a huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1973 followed by a campaign of civic disobedience. Protestors set up a picket outside the Mayfair home of Lady Dartmouth, the chair of the relevant GLC committee, they occupied offices, disrupted press conferences, squatted buildings at risk of demolition and generally caused as much nuisance as possible.

Many years later I was interviewing architects for the Homes for Change housing cooperative in Hulme in Manchester. One of the interviewees was MBLC Architects and their presentation, led by George Mills, opened with a black and white slide of a press conference of the Architects Revolutionary Council in Covent Garden in 1975. The ARC was a group of students from the Architecture Association led by their tutor Brian Anson. He had formerly been principle planner at the Greater London Council and had been sacked for ‘taking up cudgels’ on behalf of the Covent Garden Community Association in 1971. The ARC’s manifesto proclaimed that architects should immediately stop working ‘only for a rich powerful minority or the bureaucratic dictatorship of Central and Local Governments and offer [their] skills and services for the local community’. There amongst the committee arranged like the Last Supper behind a long table with long hair, sideburns, velvet jackets and sunglasses sat George. Needless to say MBLC got the job.

ARC CompositeThe Architects Revolutionary Council meeting in Covent Garden – George being the third from the right.

Unthinkable as it had seemed in 1972, the campaign was eventually successful. By the mid 1970s the national mood had changed and in 1974 the Conservative Secretary of State Geoffery Rippon was persuaded to List 250 buildings in the Covent Garden area forcing the, now Labour, GLC to rethink its plans. There followed a difficult period of cohabitation with the Covent Garden Community Association and the GLC sitting together on the Covent Garden Forum, a body that lasted until 1978 when the community withdrew their support. However an Action Plan was agreed in 1978 to renovate rather than redevelop the district with the old market being converted to a speciality shopping area that opened in 1980 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Covent Garden Can Make itThe story of Covent Garden is however not just one of political strife and community action. The battle for Covent Garden was won not just through marches and occupations.  What also happened was that the area was colonised by creative business in the years following the closure of the market. It was a neighbourhood that had become vacant during of one of the bleakest economic periods that the UK had ever faced, yet it filled up rapidly with small businesses and creative industries attracted by the cheap rents, the heady atmosphere of dissent, alternative culture and an increasing concentration of like-minded people. It was this burgeoning of economic activity as much as the political campaigning that the argument about demolition. A debate that started as a discussion about the demolition of vacant building evolved into one about extinguishing a thriving business community.

My company, URBED was founded in Covent Garden at this time. Two former management consultants, Nicholas Falk (McKinsey & Company) and Christopher Cadell (Boston Consulting Group) set up URBED to apply business ideas to the process of urban regeneration. With help from John Worthington on the design side and Ronnie Lessem on enterprise development, they used Covent Garden as a source of ‘action research’ and as a testbed for ideas such as the adaptive reuse of old buildings, and training for entrepreneurs. One of the first initiatives was to set up a Space Exchange to put creative businesses in touch with building owners, and an exhibition revealed what was really going on. Today these would be called Meanwhile (or ‘Pop-up’) Uses. Our research discovered some 1500 businesses employing 30,000 people in eight or nine clusters. We pioneered the idea of ‘working communities’ an idea that David Rock pioneered at 5 Dryden Street which developed into the ‘managed workspace’ movement. The businesses that populated the shabby staircases and vacant floors of Covent Garden were the vanguard of a creative economy that would eventually transform the whole of London.

The story of Covent Garden is shared by other districts that emerged through a similar baptism of conflict in the 1970s. The North Laine in Brighton was a humble neighbourhood of terraced houses threatened with demolition to build an urban motorway. The area was occupied on a temporary basis prior to demolition by another ‘motley collection’ of radicals and creatives who, having fought off the road scheme, became the nucleus for a creative quarter that thrives to this day (in a way that Covent Garden, struggling under the feet of tourists and buskers has not quite managed to do).

However perhaps the best example of a creative quarter to emerge from the dark days of the mid 1970s is Camden Lock. Like Brighton this was the ‘victim’ of a proposed road scheme. There were plans in the 1960s to complete a London motorway box by linking the Westway through north London on the line of the Grand Union Canal. The canal would have disappeared as would much of Camden under a motorway junction. In the early 1970s the canal wharfs and railway arches of the area were blighted by the prospect of this scheme so that British Waterways were happy to grant a seven year lease to Northside Development Ltd. a company formed by Peter Wheeler and Bill Fullford initially to do up vacant houses but which was looking for a commercial opportunity. They gambled that the road scheme would be dropped opening up the prospect of a proper redevelopment. However in the meantime they had to make a return from the site with uses that could be easily removed if the motorway scheme materialised.

To do this they found (or were found by) a 27 year old called Eric Reynolds. As he says; ‘there was an explosion of arts and crafts in the Sixties and Seventies, but there were few places for people to sell their wares. I walked round London looking for an open space and came across this yard. In the week, it was a printers’ delivery yard, we got a short lease and on Saturday, March 4, 1974, we opened. There were 40 stalls, which we let out at £3. They were mostly craftsmen and artists – silversmiths, people selling home-made buttons, knitted children’s clothes, plus a woman who sold decorated traffic lights and milk churns. But the weather was appalling and we only got a few hundred people. Later that year, the canal was opened up. Then Sunday trading became legal, so the market opened on Sundays as well.’ The rest again is history, Camden Lock today includes a series of markets with more than a thousand stalls and has changed forever the character of Camden. It is now one of the most visited attractions in London and while it has been accused of selling-out and losing its authentic edge it remains a lively, boisterous place full of independent businesses.

Liberty MillsThis scheme in Merton South London was done by Eric Reynold’s company Urban Space Management and URBED. The scheme involved the conversion of the old Liberty Silk Printing works to a market and creative workspace.

Today when we use Camden Lock as an example of what could happen in some northern town, the response is generally, ‘ah well that’s different’, ‘it was never as run down as we are’ and, ‘in any case, it is in London’. The lessons from the 1970s suggest firstly that London as bad if not worse in the 1970s than many northern cities are today. But more importantly it tells us that it was this decline that created the conditions for Camden Lock and indeed Covent Garden to emerge. If the development market had been strong these areas would have been smothered glass and concrete. Space for diversity, and time to grow things incrementally wouldn’t have existed.

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4 Recessions

This piece was originally written as a chapter for an Academy of Urbanism book. The format of the book has now changed so that the chapter will not be included. I therefore thought it was at least worth posting the material on this blog before it becomes too out of date. It was originally called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ and was inspired by our work in Stoke-on-Trent in the depths of the recession. A much shorter version appeared in the first issue of the Academy of Urbanism’s journal also called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ even after the section of Stoke was edited out so that the title mystified many people. The piece includes case studies of the recessions of the 70s, 80s and early 90s focussing on London, Manchester and Bradford respectively – these are included as separate posts. This introductory piece sets out the central idea that the seeds of urban regeneration are almost always sown during times of recession. The final post tries to apply the lessons to the recent recession.

It has not been easy working as an urbanist in a time of recession. In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were plenty of people who wanted to build things, land values were positive and change seemed possible even in the most deprived urban neighbourhoods. The job of the urban designer was to mould and shape this development pressure into successful urban areas. It was therefore quite a shock in the autumn of 2008 to see this development pressure evaporate overnight. Suddenly no one wanted to build anything, and the notion of masterplanning seemed slightly absurd. The question became not, how can we shape development, but how can we make something, anything happen? However a lack of demand to put up new buildings doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Just as the harshest eco-systems often have the richest ecology so in the depths of recessions all sorts of community and economic activity can grow and develop in a way that is impossible during economic upturns.

The sustained economic upturn in the fifteen years leading up to 2008, a period when we had apparently abolished ‘boom and bust’, means that many planners architects and urban designers had never experienced anything different in their professional lives. However for those of us who are a a little older, the frustrations of working during a time of recession have been reminiscent of our formative years as professionals. For me I am reminded of the dark days of 1979 when I moved to Manchester to study planning and again of 1990 when I started working for URBED. Rather that the grand masterplans and iconic architecture of the 00s the 1980s and early 90s were all about working incrementally, stimulating grassroots activity, bring buildings back into use bit by bit, promoting ‘meanwhile uses’, working with artists and independent businesses and using festivals and events to generate interest. There are many parallels with what we and many others have been doing for the last five years. It is difficult and messy work and much harder to do in today’s risk-averse world than it was in the early 1990s. However it goes back to the roots of why I got involved in urbanism.

So in October 2010 when I was asked to present a paper to a conference in Bradford being organised by Beam on the theme of Creativity & Regeneration in the New Economy it seemed a good opportunity to explore the link between recessions, urbanism and diversity. Once I started looking into it, it occurred to me that many of the urban places that I most enjoyed, and many of the organisations and businesses that I most respected had started life in the recessions of the 1970s and 80s. Received wisdom suggests that these recessions ripped the economic heart out of urban Britain as industries went to the wall leading to mass unemployment, dereliction and urban depopulation. Without wishing to diminish the pain of these recessions, it also became clear that they created space for new ideas to emerge, for diversity to flourish and for values other that the maximisation of profit to take root. Were it not for those recessions we wouldn’t have the cities that we have today.

4 Recessions

In the following blog posts I explore legacy of previous recessions; the ‘double dip’ recession of the mid 1970s and the way it transformed London, the decimation of the north in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and the way it created the city that Manchester would become and the negative equity slump of the early 1990s and how it almost revived Bradford (but not quite). It is a personal story because the London of the 1970s was where URBED was founded, the Manchester of the 1980s was where I studies planning and the Bradford of the early 1990s was where I worked when I joined URBED to work in Little Germany. The message from these  recessions is that they held within them the seeds of recovery.

To understand this process let us start by making it personal. What would you do if you were made redundant next week? In the last five years it is something that most of us have had to think about and many have experienced. It’s not something you would wish on anyone, but it has happened to thousands. People react to redundancy in very different ways. To some it is a blow to their self-esteem and financial stability that they never really recover from. To others it is an opportunity to do something different. In a world where new job opportunities are limited this ‘different something’ might include voluntary or freelance work. If that goes well, who knows it could grow into something bigger? Maybe this is the chance to write the great urban novel, to focus on that long-neglected hobby, to do a PHD, to learn how to play the guitar or to get fit. Maybe it is an opportunity to take a lease on that vacant building and let it to people selling alternative clothing (which is how Urban Splash started). People respond in very different ways and while no one welcomes redundancy, for the lucky ones redundancy it is an opportunity to do something new rather than the end of everything.

This has economic implications that are relevant to the economy of our urban areas. If you look back into the history of many of today’s successful small and medium sized companies, I suspect you may find a disconsolate person clutching a redundancy cheque.  If not this then you might find a graduate unable to get into their chosen profession and dabbling with computers or indulging their passion for music or graphics. When I was first writing this first my son Luca was working 12 hours days for no pay on an independent feature film with a crew of 40 people all in the same position. This is not something that would have happened if they had all been sitting comfortably on the first rung of the career ladder. Many of them today – including Luca – are making a living in film and media in Manchester, most are self-employed or have set up their own businesses and while they may not yet be prospering, they and thousands like them, are at the heart of the city’s future economy.

Recessions are incubators of new ideas and business. Figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that while the total number of businesses registered for VAT and PAYE fell by 2.4% between 2009 and 2010 in England and Wales the number of new business registrations per month rose from 32,412 in March 2009 to 40,748 in March 2010 year, an increase of more than 25%. You would think that the best time to develop a new business would be in a time of economic prosperity. It is true that there are advantages in buoyant economies; expanding markets, customers with disposable income and available credit. However the entry costs for new business in boom times can be very high. Premises and employees are expensive the competition is well-established and difficult to dislodge. What’s more, people in well-paid stable employment need a lot of balls to give it all up and strike out on their own. By contrast, someone with a redundancy cheque, time on their hands and few other prospects has little to lose. Gaps are created as established companies contract or fail, and customers shop around for cheaper alternatives to established products and services. Maybe innovation needs the occasional downturn, a brush fire to clear away all the dead wood and allow new shoots to grow.

The link between urban decline and innovation has of course already been made. Jane Jacobs wrote that new economic activity can only be created in old buildings. New buildings are too expensive and too regulated in how they can be used, whereas new business needs cheap, flexible, low commitment space. There is also a well-understood cycle in which city quarters that fall into decline attract artists and creative people. These urban pioneers help bring the area back to life but tend to end up being squeezed out by the upsurge in values that they create. The process documented in the 1960s by Jacobs, has recently been updated by Sharon Zukin in her book Naked city: the death and life of authentic urban places. In this she plots the decline, creative colonisation and subsequent gentrification of six New York neighbourhoods and laments their loss of urban authenticity as affluent incomers displace the very independent local businesses and ‘funky restaurants’ that attracted them in the first place. However unlike Jacobs, Zukin sees this as an unhealthy urban process. It is always sad to see a lively creative quarter such as Covent Garden become gentrified, but provided that there are other parts of the city that can be colonised by young creatives the process will roll on, regenerating the city as it goes. The following posts explore this process both spatially and over time showing how recession and urban decline create conditions in which new activity can take root. Just as cities are often regenerated by the activity that comes out of their run down neighbourhoods so city economies are refreshed by activity that starts in times of recession.