By Martha Grekos, Planning Law Partner at DAC Beachcroft LLP
Post pandemic, the City is facing a unique set of challenges. The dual challenge of the impact of online shopping on our high streets alongside what hybrid working means for office space means that the City is grappling with a sense of identity.
The identities of places change over time as buildings are added, trees grow, new technologies are introduced, fashions shift, and events happen that are incorporated into place memories and meanings. These changes are mostly incremental so that place identity, somewhat like personal identity, has continuity and persistent sameness.
But the shift for the City has happened pretty quickly and unexpectedly due to the lockdowns and travel restrictions. Even if you take Fleet Street, where the area’s newspaper industry relocated in the 1990s from that area elsewhere which had a consequential impact on the pubs, restaurants, shops and small business, the current impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this pattern of decline.
The City now needs to cultivate a sense of place and my view is that this goes beyond just having a ‘Destination City’ vision that the City of London Corporation has launched to make the Square Mile more attractive by hosting events on weekends to attract footfall.
I believe that a sense of place has to be created through placemaking. We have to build our community – the workers, residents and visitors – around public spaces. As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving our City, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.
I believe that placemaking will facilitate a range of planning-related outcomes, such as: encouraging economic vitality, enhancing well-being, fostering engagement and a sense of belonging, and enabling better physical health. This can only attract footfall back into the Square Mile and help with the Destination City vision.
Planning has traditionally had a strong role to preserve or protect places with a recognised sense of place, most typically natural environments via designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). But, more recently, the importance of design in creating built environments that exude a sense of place has also been recognised in planning policy and practice -and the City can get back on its feet by harnessing growth and opportunities to breathe new life into the area. I believe that the City, and especially in the Fleet Street area, a vibrant, resilient, inclusive, green and sustainable district can be created through modern placemaking and good use of planning. This area has a rich history, and it presents us with an opportunity for reinvigoration through the modern renewal of its past.
And this is happening.
Launched on 13 January 2022, ‘An Area Based Strategy for the Fleet Street Quarter’ sets out an implementable vision for the improvement of the public realm of the Fleet Street area over the short, medium, and longer terms. The vision is based around three interconnected strategies – improving the public realm, encouraging activation, and connecting to surrounding neighbourhoods. This vision aims to reinvigorate the area into becoming a memorable, sustainable and vibrant part of London that is welcoming, inclusive, supportive of various uses while providing a high-quality public realm for the area’s remarkable history and future.
What is now needed is to turn this into a masterplan – a framework for all public realm proposals in the area to be drawn up in consultation with the City of London Corporation, developers, landowners, occupiers/workers, residents as well as our arts, cultural and historical institutions. For example, look at London Wall Place – the photo of me is taken sitting right in the centre of it – with an offering of 45,000 sq ft of new gardens. It is a commercial development where public realm is central to the scheme design, where retail thrives and people flock to enjoy the terraced gardens set amongst the restored realms of the Roman city wall and medieval St Alphage church tower. The ‘highwalks’ of the 1960s, meanwhile, have been reimagined as 350m of gently curving Corten bridges through and beyond the site. Loved by the Barbican residents, delighting workers, enjoyed by visitors to the Barbican Centre.
It is a new destination in the City that I helped gain planning consent for. Its strength is that it is not exactly like other successful open spaces. The reason for this is that its architects drew on what was already there. And this is what the City now needs to do. Draw on what is there and go forward.
I believe that the public realm can and should do more to support the growth and evolution of the City and especially the Fleet Street area. It is not just about what happens within buildings, but what happens in the spaces between them.
Great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenance, that is when we see genuine placemaking in action. That is when our City will thrive and we can say that it is truly a place for all people to work, live and visit. Elected members and planners will need to show strong leadership to steer development in this direction.
Meaningful and transformative change, creating the City of the future is possible. Our City has not lost its identity; it just now needs to be reimagined. We can build on the rich heritage and culture to ensure that it remains a world leader in professional services and finance through enhancing it as a place for work, rest and play. And that means every day of the week, Mondays to Sundays.
See below link for a copy of the Area Based Strategy for the Fleet Street Quarter: https://fleetstreetquarter.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/FSQ_Vision-Document_FINAL_digital.pdf
11th May 2023