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Pragmatic urbanism: London’s railway arches and small-scale enterprise


Marginal spaces are increasingly being taken up for commercial use in London. This includes railway arches, which are appropriated for many different social and economic activities. This article presents the findings of a study on 165 arches in three London neighbourhoods (Hackney, Bethnal Green and Bermondsey), which found the arches to host a disproportionate amount of manufacturing, in addition to concentrations of sectors such as food and drink; and taxi services. Despite being part of Britain's industrial heritage, the arches have proved highly adaptable 'hybrid' spaces supporting office, retail, wholesale and production. They are also modular – businesses move into neighbouring arches as they expand. The arches are therefore well-suited to the postfordist economy of the inner city, which incorporates a highly networked system of small-scale manufacturers and retailers that require flexible and affordable small spaces close to commercial centres. Being arranged side-by-side, and open onto the street, they support knowledge-sharing between firms, while also bringing life to neighbourhoods. The arches have a spatial/ functional configuration that might be copied in new forms of industrial development. Indeed, they suggest the possibility of a new spatial form – 'industrial streets' as opposed to industrial estates.

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