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May 18, 2022updated 02 Nov 2022 4:23pm

From King’s Cross to Curzon Street: How placemaking can help cities prosper

Regeneration projects drive economic growth but they also create happier and healthier places to live and work.

Twenty years ago, London’s King’s Cross was a derelict industrial site. Now it’s a thriving social hub spanning restaurants, shops, galleries, public squares, a university and offices for the likes of Google and Facebook. The area’s regeneration has created thousands of jobs and homes, engaged dozens of schools in cultural enrichment and creates an annual gross value added of £1.42bn.

The King’s Cross development has revitalised a previously derelict area with cultural, business and recreational facilities, and better transport links. (Photo by Shutterstock/Wannadit Umpuch)

The benefits of such a project stretch far beyond economic growth. Miles Barnard, chief financial officer at leading engineering professional services consultancy WSP, which worked on the £1.1bn redevelopment of King’s Cross St Pancras train station, says that placemaking should result in areas where people want to live and visit, as well as work.

“It’s about making a real positive and sustainable difference to the societies in which people live,” says Barnard. “Great placemaking attracts people back to areas that have suffered degradation.”

Alongside revitalising an area with attractions, such development can also improve safety through better street and lighting design, he says, and increase urbanites’ access to nature through new gardens, green spaces and “green walls”, which can positively impact people’s mental and physical well-being.

Bridget Rosewell is a commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which conducts research into the UK’s infrastructure needs and makes recommendations to government. She says that a successful placemaking project needs to encompass and join up all elements into a “system”, from housing and workplaces to health and leisure, and cites King’s Cross as a good example.

“A successful place [is somewhere where] people to want to live, [and] has things they can do when they’re living there,” she says. “Building houses by itself isn’t going to do the trick.”

With large-scale construction there are always concerns about ostracising the existing community. To avoid this, placemaking needs to be integrated with existing public spaces and involve local people in decision-making from the start, she says. In King’s Cross’ case, the developers undertook a five-year consultation process and committed to a third of the homes delivered being social or supported housing, shared ownership or “affordable”.

“Gentrification isn’t bad in and of itself – it’s only bad if it’s pushing people out,” says Rosewell. “The purpose of it is that everybody’s better off. Placemaking works when it’s done ‘with’, not ‘to’.”

However, Rosewell says that communities should be empowered beyond consultations through mechanisms such as community trusts. “You need to involve people from the beginning, so it’s influenced by their preferences, not just the preferences of experts,” she says. “Early engagement really makes a difference.”

She also believes that infrastructure projects are most effective when done at scale, as this justifies the creation of more facilities, such as schools, hospitals and recreational buildings. The establishment of several leading universities in Newcastle has successfully boosted the local economy, she says, which in turn has helped to support cultural facilities such as theatres and cinemas.

Regional development is vitally needed across the UK, and large-scale placemaking projects are currently under way in several major cities. The Birmingham Curzon Street development will comprise a new train station, business and cultural hub that will sit alongside High Speed 2 (HS2), the rail line that will connect London, the Midlands and the north. The first phase of the line is projected to open between 2029 and 2033 and will run from London to Birmingham in 52 minutes. WSP is lead consultant on the design development of the new train station.

Although the new high-speed rail line will allow people to travel at speed to and from the capital, such projects are also helping to spread London’s wealth and opportunities across the country. The Curzon Street development aims to create a thriving work and leisure hub within Birmingham itself. WSP’s Barnard says the socio-economic benefits of such transport schemes extend “far beyond the creation of jobs”, improving access to skills, social interaction and cultural activities.

The development has attracted major companies such as BT Group and Goldman Sachs to establish offices in Birmingham and will see the creation of 4,000 homes and 36,000 jobs, alongside revived public spaces. Contracts for construction work have gone to 300 west Midlands companies, in a bid to further boost the local economy and jobs growth. At the same time, such projects contribute to the wider GDP of the UK by attracting international investment, says Barnard.

Any large infrastructure project carries a carbon footprint, so the designers have countered this with a focus on sustainability – Curzon Street station has been designed to be net zero in operation and includes renewable energy technology features such as solar panels on platform canopies, ground source heat pumps, and systems that capture rainwater. Curzon Street station’s detailed design is set to reduce carbon emissions by 55 per cent.

While connectivity is often heralded as the focus of rail projects, Barnard says that capacity is just as important; HS2 will increase capacity for both passengers and freight, going even further in cutting UK emissions. The new rail line aims to shift consumer behaviour and encourage people to ditch their cars, while Curzon Street station will also be a central hub for other travel modes, including cycle superhighways, walking routes, a metro and a hydrogen-powered bus network.

Deborah Cadman, chief executive at Birmingham City Council, says that HS2 and Curzon Street will have a “catalytic impact” on the city beyond shiny new facilities, and will help to tackle social inequality, particularly around education and skills.

“I’m an economist but I’ve never subscribed to the trickle-down theory,” she says. “You can’t have economic and infrastructure [development] without investing in communities as well. Levelling up is not just economically important, it’s morally important.”

Working with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), the council is orchestrating outreach programmes with schools and colleges to fill the skills opportunities coming out of the project, such as in engineering. The council is also collaborating with the Commonwealth Games 2022 (hosted by Birmingham) to join up with its 13,000 volunteers and help them retrain in future.

“We’re thinking about the legacy of keeping those young [volunteers] and using that to reinforce the training opportunities we’ve got available to them,” says Cadman. “The bridge from ‘community’ to ‘economy and infrastructure’ has got to be skills.”

Alongside the Curzon Street project, the Three Cities Retrofit Initiative in the West Midlands will see 165,000 social houses across Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry retrofitted with green technology, helping to address both the emissions caused by leaky housing and the cost-of-living crisis for tenants. This major refurbishment then ties in with a programme to train thousands of people in skills related to retrofitting.

Such a holistic model could be replicated nationally, says Cadman, and the aim is to collaborate rather than compete with other major cities. Birmingham is part of a cities forum that shares insights on areas including infrastructure, investment, skills and social mobility. “We all want the same thing: for our cities to be strong, vibrant, sustainable and safe,” she says.

A joined-up approach to regeneration is vital to ensuring its success, says the NIC’s Rosewell. Schemes involving transport, housing and social infrastructure need to work together, avoiding the “traditional transport model” that focused solely on the trip to work. Instead, there should be a focus on “chained trips”, she says – the mix of trips needed to maintain quality of life, from going to school and work and to the hospital and the shops.

She also believes that many developers could go further in reducing the carbon footprint of UK placemaking projects, through methods not yet widely used in the UK, such as: constructing buildings further upstream rather than constructing concrete flood defences; district heating – a system that delivers heat to multiple properties – which is effective for high-density locations such as cities; and boulevards (where trees are planted in pavements).

Ultimately, cities and regions need to be empowered to make their own decisions around regeneration through greater devolution from central government, she says. Rather than multiple funds for transport, housing and recreation, she believes there should be one large “levelling-up” fund, making applications less labour- and time-intensive and ensuring that all facets of regeneration are looked at in totality rather than in isolation. “It needs to all be brought together,” she says. “You can’t do that from Whitehall, you have to do it at a more local level.”

This article originally appeared on NewStatesman.com.

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