For most people growing up in London, Trafalgar Square’s greatest significance was for being where night buses of the world terminate. The gyratory system that previously choked the square was removed in 2003, meaning a whole generation has known the place mostly for being a bustling hubbub of foreign tourists, lunching workers and selfie-ing students sprayed over the steps of the National Gallery.

While removing roads inevitably irritates black cab drivers, most feel this generally adds to a sense of “place”, as nebulous a term as it is. Sadly, it has become one of those catch-all words gradually rinsed of any meaning and is now filed alongside “sustainability” and “pop up shop” in the vernacular of parroting property types.

It is however, the subject of a sharply curated Collaboratory Breakfast discussion held by law firm Mishcon de Reya, designed to bring together brains across the real estate and design worlds to inform debate.

Despite the considerable mix of people around the table – including prominent planners, listed property companies, office developers and residential landlords – there’s broad agreement around a number of issues.

I’ve included the key takeaways below and would welcome discussion and feedback from readers.

Patricia Brown, deputy chair of the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group among many other things, led a fascinating journey through change in London. It spiked many areas of discussion, which I’ve tried to capture here.

“Walking creates sticky places”

It always irks me slightly when people hold up places like King’s Cross as examples of “placemaking” that other areas could learn from. Yes, of course it’s great what Argent, the developer, has done. But being located centrally alongside a national and international rail station makes it rather incomparable to, well, anywhere else. The value created in that part of London allows for the level of investment we’ve seen there – and the startling results now emerging.

Yet that’s not to say that everything relies on being able to rent an office block to Google or sell studio flats for a million quid a pop. The opening up of space between buildings and the flow of architectural design between the different buildings gives continuity and consistency that helps define the district.

Above all though, as anyone who’s seen hordes of fashion students and lunching office workers marching along King’s Boulevard will note, the ability to congregate outside adds hugely. Granary Square on a hot day comes alive.

With luck, the same kind of buzz could soon shape one of north London’s most well known gyratory systems at Archway. The district is undergoing significant regeneration thanks to Essential Living developing 118 apartments for long-term rent above the Tube station. TfL is going to re-route traffic and pedestrianise the area, which will overhaul the way people interact with it.

By converting the empty Archway Tower office block, the soon-to-be-unveiled Vantage Point will provide homes for more than 200 people, reinvigorating the area that’s wedged between leafy Highgate and trendy Angel at the heart of Islington.

“Urban planning should tackle obesity”

This week, a new study widely covered by the media said that obesity could cause more than seven million cases of diabetes, cancer and heart disease over the next 20 years. The benefits of getting people out of cars and taxis and on to their feet are obvious.

“Our greatest needs are quite basic,” said a south London planner.

“Placemaking should encourage people to walk and cycle, to overcome chronic issues, particularly obesity and isolation. Indeed, the ability to create social cohesion must surely be a priority.

It’s true that London has gone to some lengths to accommodate cyclists in recent years. Many worry however, that this has been too reactionary and, with many cycle lanes empty for much of the day, not enough thought has gone into how these areas complement existing transport links. Anyone who can does their best to avoid going anywhere near Bank on a weekday or Oxford Street on a weekend. But in Tokyo, subways linking blocks and stations take some of the sting out of being a pedestrian.

Undertaking a citywide commitment to build tunnels is all well and good, but with most developments being little more than a building or two, it’s difficult for the private sector to tackle these sorts of issues on its own.

Argent’s Kings Cross scheme and Manchester’s NOMA neighbourhood are the obvious exceptions on account of their scale, Similarly, only in rare cases – such as with the Olympics or Old Oak Common – does the public sector have hold of enough land to strategically plan pedestrian routes in this way.

The view, unsurprisingly, from various major developers around the table at the Mishcon debate, was that major decisions like this cannot be taken by local councils and must be citywide. It comes alongside calls from the wider sector for housing targets to be centralised to avoid getting caught up in the horse trade of local politics.

“Planning should be for the young”

If there’s one group who rarely engage with planning, it’s the young. Quite whom this refers to isn’t clear, but it’s noteworthy that the idea is raised by one of the more senior listed company directors around the table. “Planning should be for the young – not for narrow bunch of opposers,” he said.

One issue here is that communities mistakenly see a planning decision as a referendum when it isn’t. It isn’t about having a vote – it’s about taking a decision that complies with policy and is positive for a location. What undermines the system is when a popularity contest that often ensues, fed by wealthy, informed, bored and self-interested (delete as appropriate) groups.

Often, they can have valid reasons. You only have to look around to see shoddy development, badly orchestrated road layouts or characterless buildings with cladding peeling off like an old potato.
However, planning shouldn’t just be for the young. It should be for everyone. A streetscape navigable by someone partially sighted or in a mobility scooter will also be easy for mums with prams. We should plan for everyone, but stop pandering to the whims of those who are old or old before their time.

A developer put it best when he said: “A city that works for older people works for everyone.”

Creative, adaptive re-use fuels successful places

Sticking in a Box Park (read as: small temporary boutiques selling expensive t-shirts) or attracting “creatives” has now become shorthand for how developers plan to “activate” places. But for those developers who take a genuine approach to regeneration, considering the how existing community uses the space has critical benefits.

As landlords think more about streetscape and ground floor use, whole districts can be reformed. Patricia highlighted Gillett Square, Hackney and Bermondsey Street, London Bridge as two great examples. The latter is thriving mass of culture and a welcome alternative to what Shoreditch has now become.

Views around the table differed on the policy approach needed to organically support positive outcomes and around whether a fixed strategy should be followed locally or citywide. Letting places evolve naturally can be both good and positive. But the sprawling metro areas across the US highlight the negatives. Manchester, despite its centralised control, has some truly questionable architecture splattered around some of its newer developments and historic old warehouses.

Yet the pressures of density and the obvious need to build up and use the green belt appropriately remain lost on politicians of all shades. As one of the major developers succinctly put it: “People are changing – we need to communicate to decision makers that this is the case.”

In adapting Maslow’s hierarchy (see image), Patricia outlines the idea of creating places people have genuine attachment to. Around the table, the broad opinion is that we’re still talking too much about fulfilling physiological needs. To get up the triangle, we need to do things differently. The challenge then is how to preserve the many attractive things cities like London, Barcelona, New York, Manchester and Paris have while also growing. London’s protected sightlines, preserving views of St Paul’s and Buckingham Palace, rile some developers but are a great example of
something that shouldn’t be changed. Clustering growth, so that the infrastructure (both hard and soft) can be funded and planned over the long term, is essential.

Old Oak Common offers a genuine opportunity to do this, as did Battersea, given the new Tube stations. But, as we’re now seeing with the slump in prime housing, the cake was over-egged towards top-end gain. These episodes do nothing but harden the clichéd glare of detractors who refuse to see the myriad benefits development brings.

In conclusion, one of the recurring themes that I have always agreed with is that local authorities do not have the capability or resource to take strategic decisions. Just because something is happening in a local area doesn’t mean it should be a local decision. Airport expansion or power are obvious examples. Britain has a mess of conflicting political interests and planning
initiatives – throwing national promises on housing against a central promise to localise decision-making.

It’s true that paving our streets with culture and liveliness can never be prescribed in a planning policy statement, but having open strategies which enable innovation are crucial. Moreover, citywide strategies need to combine the many functions of society – from housing and education to transport and health. An era where local politicians would be unable to
subvert common-sense for political gain by refusing planning decisions would also help usher in a more creative, risk-taking era of development. That could only be a good thing.