Can commercial space be better managed to create more inclusive cities? An exploration of opportunities and challenges in London

November 11, 2019

The word 'gentrification' dominates conversations about London these days.  There is an increasing awareness that London’s reputation as a city hosting ‘people of all backgrounds and hues’ is under threat. As house prices rise, city centre living is becoming inaccessible for many people, with those on lower salaries being forced out to London’s cheaper suburbs, particularly after having children. How far can the economic agglomeration and clustering that we see in cities such as London be held responsible for creating such inequality and gentrification? And can the effects of economic change be mitigated by public policy? This blog will explore in particular how city policy makers can create more inclusive cities through the management of commercial space – with the support of architects, designers and planners. It draws on research in my own local neighbourhoods, Hackney and Bethnal Green.

 

Cities have always offered the benefits of both economic diversity and clustering–dense agglomerations of firms and people allowing economic interdependences to develop, including shared supply chains, shared labour pools and the exchange of knowledge and innovation. However, more recently, it is the highly-skilled ‘knowledge-economy’ sectors (such as legal, advertising, finance) that are in particular benefitting from agglomeration, bringing highly paid and highly skilled workers into city centre residences, pushing up prices and making it harder for other types of worker to remain. These agglomeration tendencies can produce particularly marked effects in certain neighbourhoods.  An example is the tech companies that have blossomed around Shoreditch roundabout, causing house prices to rise in surrounding neighbourhoods. The presence of these highly paid workers is also pushing up local retail prices through generating new cultures of consumption (see Zukin, 2010) – Broadway Market in Hackney, for example, now offers upmarket goods at prices well beyond the reach of neighbouring social housing residents. 

 

However, London still offers locational benefits to sectors outside the high-skilled knowledge economy. For example, while manufacturing only constitutes 2.2% of London’s total employment, the city still hosts many micro-enterprises in this sector, with food manufacturing; fabricated metal products; printing and reproduction of recorded material; and manufacture of clothes being particularly dominant.  20 percent of jobs related to the manufacturing of clothes in the UK can still be found in London, for example, running from the bespoke tailoring of Saville Row to a factory supplying Asos with women’s garments in Haringey (Cities of Making, 2018).  In the future, manufacturing that links into the creative economy, and promotes industrial recycling and reuse is particularly likely to be associated with sustainable job creation – in 2015, the creative sector accounted for around 11 percent of London’s total gross-value added (GVA); while by 2036, it is predicted that circular economy developments could provide London with 12,000 net new jobs in the areas of re-use, remanufacturing and materials (ibid). 

 

Preserving the presence of such sectors seems to be crucial to maintaining London as a more inclusive city. This does not necessarily require top down sector-based policies. Rather local authorities, and planners, designers and architects can help to create a commercial and spatial environment that protects and allows such sectors to thrive. Economic activities tend to emerge organically wherever there is ‘fertile ground’ – as part of what Soja called the ‘self-generating economic culture of cities’ (Soja, 2000) – it is making sure that this ‘fertile ground’ is available and accessible to all that counts. 

 

Arguably it is how we manage commercial spaces in the city that influences whether such economic opportunities are available to all, or just a few.  The architectural theorist Howard Davis suggests that what is needed is a 'hierarchy' of spaces (Froy and Davis, 2017, Davis, 2013) - from the very small (even a doorway) up to the very large – in order to help local would-be entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in the economy.  Building on the ideas of Jane Jacobs (1961), we need commercial spaces in buildings of many different ages - meaning that some spaces are cheap and ‘messy’, allowing experimentation in the early years of business activity. We also need commercial spaces that are flexible in terms of contracts and rents.  In an analysis of Dalston, Whitechapel and Upton Park in London, Davis (2013) found that many entrepreneurs share small ‘marginal’ commercial spaces, bringing together retail, wholesale and production/repair activities under the same roof.  While some of this entrepreneurship will remain 'survival entrepreneurship' at the edges of the city economy, in other cases it can lead to a ladder of opportunity. Often such ‘marginal’ spaces are intermingled with residential and other uses - as opposed to being segregated into separate industrial or business parks. This allows new businesses to be fully embedded in the flows of the city - flows of people, goods, opportunities. In Gillett Square in Dalston, a popular local square has been renovated to provide a set of commercial spaces of different grades and sizes, for example a divided-up former factory, shops, galleries and small prefabricated metal kiosks. This allows small businesses and community organisations to work together at the heart of a buzzy community space (Froy, Davis and Dhanani, 2017).

 

Sometimes the most creative commercial spaces in cities are in fact ‘residual’ spaces, left over from other uses. Railway arches, for example, offer flexible spaces, that businesses can adapt and add to as they grow – more arches can be acquired on a ‘modular’ basis. The London Fields Brewery in Mentmore Terrace owns a number of adjacent arches, each being used for a different type of activity, including brewing facilities, a bar and an office (Froy and Davis, 2017).  Lines of arches can be found in many parts of Hackney and neighbouring Bethnal Green, bringing business into the heart of residential neighbourhoods. Often these firms have shown strong resilience to broader commercial pressures – in part due to the lower rents associated with the arches being leased by a public organisation, Network Rail.  A collection of taxi cab repair firms, for example, have occupied the arches in Bethnal Green for at least 30-40 years (Froy and Davis, 2017). 

 

Francis Hollis (2015) points out that live-work spaces are another essential strategy for people trying to get on the working ladder – working from home can be a sustainable and cheap way to start a business. Historically, some interesting purpose-built ‘live-work spaces’ incorporated production workshops into more residential developments. The Winkley Estate in Bethnal Green, for example, was built in 1900 combining terraced houses, workshops and shops in the same block. While the 1910 Estate hosted cabinet makers, boot manufacturers and French polishers, it now houses designers, architects and video producers - suggesting that more traditional manufacturers may no longer be able to afford the rents (Froy et al., 2017). 

 

Indeed, messy, small-scale, and even residual, commercial spaces are increasingly fragile, as demand for residential properties in London increases.  Railway arch businesses across the country are currently fighting a proposed sell-off by Network Rail of the leaseholds of the arches to private developers. Gillett Square is threatened with a new development plan which many fear will lead to rising prices and exclusion of the current businesses using this space. Business rates and commercial rents in London boroughs are high, and manufacturers that were once clustered around Vyner Street in Hackney have been pushed out to cheaper sites in other boroughs such as Tottenham.  

 

The Mayor’s new Draft London Plan marks a change in policy for industrial land in the city, requiring that there be no net loss of industrial space in the city. It mandates how this will be applied across each borough, requiring that they either maintain industrial capacity, increase it, or in a few situations that they may transfer a proportion of industrial land to other uses (Cities of Making, 2018). However, local authorities could do a great deal more to protect accessible commercial spaces in the city - through using planning restrictions to prevent or restrict redevelopment to residential use, and perhaps even subsidising commercial rents. If Network Rail does sell off its railway arch leaseholds, local authorities could do well to buy them up, to provide start up accommodation to local manufacturing firms.  

 

The way that land is categorised could also be made more flexible. Francis Hollis (2015) points out that current planning land-use categories do not recognise or encourage dual-use buildings. Section 106 agreements (which regulate planning gains) are often used as a blunt tool to ensure that commercial space is mixed in with residential. However local authorities and other policy bodies need to become more sensitive to the hierarchies of different commercial space that are needed in local neighbourhoods – from messy and cheap, to more high-spec. In Hackney Wick, for example, there have been widespread protests against the destruction of Vittoria Wharf by the Olympic London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), due to the building of a new pedestrian bridge (The gentle author, March 4th 2018). Despite promises by the LLDC to protect existing creative and commercial spaces as they develop a ‘mixed-use’ local community, this has included a plan to demolish a building called Vittoria Wharf & Stour Space which hosts 70 small workspaces and artists’ studios, along with a cafe and gallery. Instead, next door, there is now a residential block that includes only a ground floor modern studio space – not necessarily the type of space valued by local artists and makers. A local campaigner, Nima Teranchi, points out that the symbiotic relationships between makers and producers that have developed in the relatively run down old factories that were so dominant in the area will be hard to replace = 'What we've created is completely organic, it happens over years, created by the people that move in and out, building connections as they go. Once Hackney Wick goes there's pretty much nowhere left for a space like this to happen again’ (ibid).

 

Other types of local policy support will be important too, including seed-funding for local people starting up new firms and the promotion of shared-use technology (for example through increasing the funding available for maker spaces).  There may be limited incentives for local authorities to support such policies from an economic point of view - particularly when councils are increasingly clamouring for business rates, extracted from larger, more profitable firms.  Because industrial space commands lower prices than residential, private developers are also likely to be reluctant collaborators.  However, taking actions to preserve accessible, flexible and creative commercial spaces will be essential to preserving a more inclusive London - a London which supports broad networks of production, consumption and creative collaboration that are accessible to all citizens. 

 

References

 

CITIES OF MAKING 2018. Cities Report. Brussels: Cities of Making.

DAVIS, H. Making the Marginal Visible: Microenterpise and Urban Space in London. In: JARRETT, C., K. KYOUNG-HEE KIM AND N.SENSKE EDS., ed. The Visibility of Research: Proceedings of the ARCC Spring Research Conference, 2013 Charlotte, North Carolina.

FROY, F. & DAVIS, H. 2017. Pragmatic urbanism: London's railway arches and small-scale enterpise. European Planning Studies - Special Edition on Culture and innovation: implications for SMEs and micro firms Ed. Hugo Pinto.

FROY, F., DAVIS, H. & DHANANI, A. Can the organisation of commercial space in cities encourage creativity and 'self-generating' economic growth? A return to Jane Jacob's ideas.  Proceedings of the 11th Space Syntax Symposium, 2017 Lisbon, Portugal. Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal.

HOLLISS, F. 2015. Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.

JACOBS, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York, The Modern Library.

SOJA, E., W 2000. Postmetropolis: critical studies of cities and regions, Oxford, Blackwell.

THE GENTLE AUTHOR March 4th 2018. So long, Vittoria Wharf. http://www.spitalfieldslife.com/ 

ZUKIN, S. 2010. Naked City, New York, Oxford University Press.

 

 

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