More than half of Londoners believe that London is a sterile city, respondents to a poll indicated in advance of the first ever Open City debate
Asked the question ‘Is London building a sterile city?’, 52% answered yes and 48% no, making a fascinating background for the lively debate which prefigures this weekend’s Open House, and proved one of the most popular events.
At the time that the ballot for tickets closed, 9,200 Londoners had applied to attend the event, chaired by BBC correspondent Razia Iqbal, putting it on a par in popularity with the London Eye and the Shard. The lucky few who secured tickets (the venue held 150) heard a discussion, at times impassioned, chaired by BBC correspondent Razia Iqbal.
The speakers were more optimistic about the city than the respondents to the poll, seeing its bright points, but also worrying about threats. Stephen Howlett, chief executive of housing provider Peabody, said, ‘For me “sterile” is about having no people, a lack of diversity, no trees, no grass and no birds. It is about a loss of leisure facilities. I do believe that we are at a risk of that.’
His worry is that high house prices and an influx of the super rich is driving those on low incomes out of the centre of London to ‘suburbs where they live in not very good housing’. This could replicate the infamous ‘doughnut’ effect of Paris, which has become a rich ghetto with the poor on the outskirts, one of the causes of social unrest. London, in contrast, said Howlett, ‘is a patchwork of diversity and tolerance. We have got to keep that.’ He saw promise in east London, in new development in Stratford, Hackney and Elephant and Castle.
For Leo Hollis, a historian and urbanist who has written two books about London, the largest threat came from the privatisation of public space. ‘I think we read the city wrong,’ he said. ‘We need to discuss public space. All we see are big temples to capital.’
Public space is animated not by shops or ‘events’, Hollis argued, but by the interactions between people in that space. And this has to be allowed to happen rather than made to happen. What cities need, he argued, is to ‘create life between the buildings’.
Architect Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison, which has designed a good few temples to capital in its time, argued that some feeling of sterility was unavoidable in new places, which had not yet enjoyed the accretions of time. ‘The most important relationships are those between the new buildings and what already exists,’ he argued.
Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute, felt that there were some great areas of London, with fabulous open spaces, and others that were much poorer. And, she argued, we need to think very differently about cities in the future. ‘How we plan and design our urban spaces is critical to creating liveable cities,’ she said. ‘There is an urgency to redesigning urbanism from a sustainable standpoint.’
There was some heated debate from the floor. One speaker reminded the panel and audience that London might be a great city from the standpoint of the relatively wealthy, but it was a very difficult city in which to be poor. Another said that we should recognise that London is better than it has ever been. There was a recognition that, with projected population growth of a million, and with ventures like Crossrail which will change the geography, there will be massive change in the city in the coming years – an opportunity, and a challenge that must be grasped and not ignored, if poll respondents in ten years’ time are to make a more positive response.
The Landscape Institute partnered with Gleeds and Open City to run the debate.