A few years ago, we were looking for a new office that the practice could grow into. A young company, we (reluctantly) accepted that the dream studio would be unlikely for our budget. However, in London’s melting pot of space and activity, we were still optimistic of finding somewhere with light and security that would be close to shops, similar businesses and transport links. From a base that was then in Muswell Hill, North London (N10), the search began locally and quickly widened through the travel zones until it became apparent that either our budget or expectations needed review.
During this time, two further things became apparent. Firstly, that ours was not a unique experience and in order to remain local, many SME’s and independents were operating from a network of home offices, short term lets, co-working spaces and pop-ups. Through this, the area has been able to retain a diverse mix of activities and a unique character. However, it is a delicate model and unless a sustainable solution is found then a once thriving artisan community is in danger of becoming predominantly residential with the usual retail offering.
Worryingly, this seems to be happening across the Capital as affordable commercial space is squeezed by escalating property demand and business rates coupled with the pressure to deliver more homes. Among those most affected are SMEs, creative industries and independents, which, like us, are decentralising in search for suitable offices, studios, kitchens and workshops. With the emergence of Brownfield Registers and the release of more previously developed land for housing, the situation will worsen with significant implications for the appearance, character and mix of existing commercial hubs.
The second realisation during our office search was the amount of ‘left over’ space that is located around busy shopping streets and local centres, supermarkets and showrooms across London – an abundance of blank façades, redundant garages, closed passageways and disconnected pocket sites next to prime real estate. Often constrained, such spaces are generally unsuitable for residential occupancy. However, being close to other businesses and transport connections, they provide a wealth of opportunities to deliver much needed affordable commercial space of varying size, character and purpose.
Returning to Muswell Hill, this was explored in greater detail – with very interesting results. Behind the main thoroughfare of the Broadway is a network of lanes and passageways that were planned to allow a rear service access to the shops. Unable to accommodate large vehicles, servicing is now from the Broadway outside of trading hours and without any activity or passive surveillance, the passageways have been closed while the wider spaces are reinforced with security lights, grills and cameras to deter crime. After the study was published in a local newspaper, it was particularly interesting to note how many residents were, like me, previously unaware of these spaces – despite passing them on a daily basis.
A high level Vision Strategy was prepared by Place-Make to consider how the lanes could be reconnected to unlock a variety of development opportunities and provide new streets and squares in an already built-up area.
The Vision Strategy was presented to the local authority and stakeholder groups for review and overall, the response was very encouraging. The local authority is currently reviewing the feasibility of two sites in greater detail and Place-Make has been invited by business groups in neighbouring Crouch End to see if the same principles may be applied here.
After further exploration, similar conditions to those behind the Broadway are apparent around local centres across London, particularly those that were planned in the early 20th Century; Golders Green, Palmers Green, Finchley, Hendon and Edgware. This is in contrast to the centres of older settlements where the city has grown around these to maximise all available space. Here, such spaces have become significant attractions and destinations; Islington Passage, Flask Walk (Hampstead), Pond Street (Highgate), Turpin Lane (Greenwich) in addition to St. Christopher’s Place (off Oxford Street) and the popular mixed-use mews that traverse Camden, Soho, Mayfair and Fitzrovia.
Perhaps the most expansive example of urban renewal as a driver for creative industries in the UK is The Lanes in Brighton, which is now home to +400 independent businesses including boutique retailers, cafes, artist studios and offices for SMEs. The Lanes has since established itself as such a popular shopping, tourism, entertainment and cultural hub that plans are underway to extend the concept into adjoining areas. The Ropewalks in Liverpool and Nottingham’s Lace Market follow similar models.
These examples show how a little catalyst investment, strong leadership and an integrated, creative approach can transform gaps in the urban fabric into much needed accommodation for employment generating activities and exciting additions to the public real.
If successful, the model can be adjusted for different conditions and activities - from live-work units and affordable homes to tourism and hospitality. Ultimately, in towns and cities across the UK where space is at a premium and expansion potential is limited, the scale of opportunity that is presented by left over space can no longer remain ignored.
By, David Edwards
Published in 'Planning in London', Ed. 107, October - December 2018