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Polycentric Pressure

Can outer London’s defined and newly developing urban centres provide capacity for the cities radical need for expansion? Perhaps a Polycentric approach is the answer.

Polycentric development is a spatial concept with an underlying economic objective. When regarded through policy, it implies promoting growth in numerous centres in order to encourage growth that is equal across an area, as opposed to its concentration in one central area or city. On a more descriptive stance, it refers more to the number of places within a network which work together to create a critical mass utilising good transport links, digital connections, and joint working.

Could the realisation of this complex and layered concept add direction to the debate of how to solve central London’s mounting problems of transport infrastructure overload, rising house prices and over densification of the Inner London boroughs?  Much academic grey matter has been applied to these questions and we do not hope to do the debate justice within one blog post but we would like to introduce some of the concepts and allow people to comment.

The New London Architecture organisation has an exhibition exploring these concepts starting in October 2017 and they have summarised the pressure of growth on London as follows in their introductory literature.

‘London is growing all the time, but how can we manage this growth to make sure it remains an attractive place to live and work? The facts and numbers are widely acknowledged – a projected population of 10.5 million and 50,000 new homes needed by 2040 and an additional 46,000 extra jobs per year – but what does this mean in practice?’

Polycentricity is not just about infrastructure and development, it is also about social systems and media & marketing infrastructure so that these self-sustaining satellite towns have a clear identity that attracts certain individuals and businesses to locate there. Some outer London towns really do deliver a multi-use offer with Croydonleading the way in not just redeveloping its unused spaces in innovative ways but also re-defining and giving clarity to its USP. With its ‘Tech-City’ brand and organisation, Croydon is coordinating and assisting the growing tech community there.

polycentric london

It is not just Croydon that has radical plans; Barnet, Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham, Redbridge and Haringey all have ambitious masterplans that have the potential to deliver well-coordinated and multi-layered communities, but it is the linking of these areas and the transport infrastructure delivery that will really facilitate success in achieving a truly successful polycentric city.

Although the spatial strategy within the London Plan references its support of moving from a single centre city to a multi-centre city (to align itself more strongly within the global market), it has failed to deliver on this. Instead the focus has been on spearheading unused land within the outer London boroughs for residential use as a way to resolve the ever growing housing crisis Greater London faces. London continues, therefore, to be viewed as a central activity zone, a hangover still felt from the Mayor of London’s predecessors.

It is outer London’s established and new urban centres, therefore, that could provide the key to great places to live and to work in the coming decades as the numbers of both businesses and residents settling beyond the centre grow exponentially. London’s outer town centres provide a great opportunity to stimulate exponential growth and they need to be taken into greater account. If we allocate more funding to better the infrastructure in these areas, then we can shift the attraction of living within inner London to outer London and create the “inner city buzz” which often attracts people to the centre of the city. This will allow for better, more successful and attractive developments, complete with employment & opportunities for people to live, work and play which central London currently offers. Town centres are no longer seen as the administrative hub they once were, but instead serve to function as an area where leisure, learning and living combine together to create a nucleus of activity for the catchment area.

polycentric london

(image above: Grahame Park Regeneration, Colindale, Barnet)

Pursuing a more polycentric focused vision for London would shift the tendency of planning discussions being dominated by the greater need for residential development and instead refocus the conversation onto economic drivers and how to achieve them. After all, polycentricity is not just about abstract spatial constructs, it’s about adopting a strategy within London that provides a greater choice of employment locations and premises for the major growth centres (namely cultural and high-tech industries) and other business services that may suffer from the unaffordability that Central London rents exhibit especially if growth pressure continues to persist. This is undoubtedly relevant for SME’s like ourselves whom are particularly vulnerable to increasingly prohibitive office real-estate within inner London.

Furthermore, economic growth in London’s outer towns could reduce overall commuting journeys and could contribute to networks of “mini-cities” working together to achieve critical mass.

polycentric london

(image: Duncan Smith PHD:Polycentricity and Sustainable Urban Form in London)

Given the weak demand for suburban offices, competition from multi-channel retail, and haphazard office-to-residential conversions under permitted development freedoms, there will be considerable challenges to overcome in creating stronger employment centres in Outer London. But it is certainly not within the realms of impossibility. Some of the better-connected centres are already undergoing major reconfiguration, for example Croydon, Bromley and Kingston town centres whilst redevelopment at higher density within other towns, for example at Hammersmith, may benefit from new public transport infrastructure, such as Ealing from Crossrail 1. More proactive London borough planning, more investment and consideration and consolidation of desirable modern office space into fewer locations, will help to strengthen the economy of many of these town centres. And this is certainly a step in the right direction.

At Unit One Architects we aim to understand the wider economic patterns and needs of London in relation to development not just of housing but the many layers of community and social infrastructure. Feel free to get in contact to contribute to the debate.