Is Building Tall in East London the Answer?

The East is awash with new developments, some good, some not so good. We speak to Martin Davies, of international architecture firm BDP, on what makes the best laid plans and how the future is shaping up for the area


Martin Davies, BDP London

How do you rate the quality of redevelopment so far in East London?
I’ve lived in East London for nearly 20 years and I’ve seen it change from a fairly run down and shabby area to a vibrant and diverse environment. There was a lack of investment and even streets of empty abandoned homes. In recent years it’s been an area that has seen a lot of innovation in building types and it’s now home to some of the most pioneering housing schemes and award winning buildings. Improvements to housing, schools and workplaces have all created opportunities for creative industries to move in, and together with its architecture, it’s given the area the unique characteristics that we see today.

Any favourites, and if so, why do you think they’re successful?
I love what the 2012 Olympic legacy has done for the area, and also for the wider city. It’s an incredibly successful development and home to some of the city’s best-known landmarks. The city has an amazing new park, around which new communities have developed, all of whom can benefit from the retail, leisure, work and planned education opportunities that have been created.

BDP’s Bridge Academy in Hackney: An innovation school for 11-16 year olds from a variety of backgrounds which has kick started the regeneration of it surrounding area

Do you see more opportunities? 
Maybe not on the same scale but good urban design has an incremental effect on its surroundings and new developments are well underway in neighbouring areas to the Olympic Park, benefiting from the improved transport links and increase in footfall.

What sort of timeframe might they have?
As long as there’s a stable economy new developments will continue to happen in areas like East London in order to fulfill demand for jobs and housing. High employment and low interest rates create the right conditions for development to take place, so now is the time to benefit from this and create places that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Which areas still offer potential?
BDP recently produced a vision for Whitechapel in preparation for the opening of Crossrail in 2019. We focused on six key areas, including the revitalisation of Whitechapel Road and the creation of a striking civic hub. Our proposals will deliver over 3,500 new homes, generate 5,000 jobs and create seven new public squares and open spaces. Walthamstow and wider Waltham Forest offer great potential too as a result of the overspill of higher value Hackney and Islington. The areas around the Olympic Park such as Fish Island and Three Mills are attracting a lot of investment for residential properties with affordable creative workspaces.

Whitechapel station: a new key interchange as part of the new Crossrail services

What sort of developments would you like to see in these areas?
The best developments are those characterised by a mix of uses that results in active, vibrant spaces for the local community as well as visitors.  New public spaces are particularly important to create places for meeting, relaxing, and outdoor events, allowing the mix of uses to spread into the surrounding streets and squares.

Is there anything coming up that fits the bill?
BDP is currently working with Boxpark to create new F&B (food and beverage) destinations in regeneration areas. East London can claim the original one that was built out of shipping containers on redundant land in in Shoreditch. This was followed by the one in Croydon which has transformed the town by creating a unique experience and new identity for it, while providing new opportunities for local small businesses. It would be great to see more types of innovative schemes like this in East London that can make a real difference for the local community and define an area.

What are the key constraints?
It takes a lot of vision and an element of risk to pull of a scheme like this. It relies on backing from developers and support from the local council, without this some schemes can fall flat. Also there’s still a lot of nimbyism which can stifle progress. As new communities are created older ones can be destroyed and feel marginalised by the process so developers need to be sensitive to this and create inclusive environments that benefit everyone.

What would you say is unique or special about East London?
I think East London is unique because of its diversity. Delis and quirky coffee shops sit alongside betting shops and nail salons on the high street near me. As factories shut developers move in to create housing with restaurants at ground level bringing a new dynamic to areas. Architects are using infill sites to innovate and experiment with new building types such as the award winning Vex House in Stoke Newington. Anything goes here and it’s creating a real melting pot of developments for the wide variety of people who live here.

BOXPARK Croydon: Pop up MAll constructed of stripped and refitted shipping containers including 96 units arranged around a covered courtyard space for year-round events

How do we preserve this?
Sadly a lot of talent and small businesses get pushed out of the developing areas due to rising rents and stifling business rates. These are the people who define the area and create its unique characteristics. It’s a common pattern but could better be preserved if there was support from developers and landlords. When Boxpark opened in Croydon it specifically targeted local and small businesses rather than the generic F&B operators in order to create a special and beneficial place with a unique identity. More opportunities like this in which small business thrive would be great.

What makes a new public space successful?
The spaces around buildings are just as important as the buildings themselves. Public spaces are key to attracting people to an area. They need to be well connected with high quality materials and be safe to use. Good lighting schemes can help enhance the safety of an area and attract a vibrant nighttime economy.

How do we get more social housing/affordable housing into East London?
Sadiq Kahn’s recent London Plan has some positive targets, though how achievable they are is questionable. It’s a tricky one as we don’t live in a philanthropic age and developers are driven by profits. Unless the government dig deep and come up with increased subsidies, I can’t see the incentives.  BDP designed a series of innovative micro-apartments aimed at first time buyers which have been very successful in Manchester. There are some great ideas floating around for this type of accommodation that can help get a foot on the property ladder, but it’s not a long term solution.

Whitechapel Vision: A collaborative masterplan with local stakeholders for the regeneration of the area

What’s your prediction for the next 5 years in East London?
The population of London is set to rise even further and the environment and infrastructure will need to improve to keep pace with this. Building tall may be an answer to this. There are currently numerous towers proposed across the city, and East London will get its share of these. Creating denser, tall environments can offer the best solutions for a growing city if there are done in the right way and respond to their surroundings appropriately. Tall buildings are already shooting up around the Olympic site both for housing and offices, creating new vibrant communities so this trend could spread to surrounding areas too.

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