Learning from London

By Helen Lochhead, @helenlochhead, 19 October 2014

The challenge of the London Olympics was to secure a Legacy that benefited more of London

Think of the possibilities from Sydney Olympic Park through Silverwater and Camellia to Parramatta and beyond...Imagine the complement to the natural assets of Sydney’s privileged east, a Sydney Green Grid, linking Sydney’s south-west open spaces and waterways such as the Georges, Cooks and Parramatta Rivers. 

NSW Premier Mike Baird and Planning Minister Pru Goward recently announced plans to establish a Greater Sydney Commission to modernise the way the NSW Government’s major infrastructure and urban planning priorities are delivered. 
 
The Premier was quoted as saying “The establishment of a single agency will streamline the way the NSW Government’s infrastructure and urban planning priorities are delivered. The Commission is to be tasked with implementing the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy. It will ensure planning for Sydney’s future is done in a holistic way. Other major jurisdictions such as London have shown the way on how to better manage urban growth and provide choice and opportunity for housing and employment.

This initiative is potentially a great step forward for Sydney. As a city fragmented by multiple jurisdictions, coordinated decision-making and alignment has often been fraught. 
The Greater London Authority (GLA) is indeed a model of strategic regional governance that provides valuable lessons for Sydney.  Equally important is a compelling vision and an agenda for action with buy-in from the citizens of the city if we are to have a just and livable city for all.

The vision and leadership of successive London Mayors, firstly Mayor Ken Livingstone, who put climate change, sustainability, transport and design on the agenda and now Boris Johnson, who has continued to promote the importance of sustainability, public transport and the development of new opportunity areas as key drivers of a global city, demonstrate the importance of a clear strategy that can be delivered by many players.

Managing urban growth and housing affordability, inclusion and economic vitality is an enormous challenge in major cities around the world. Essential to getting it right is understanding what is needed to temper the relentless juggernaut of growth with our competing desires for a better city for everyone that also sustains the inherent attributes of the places we value. 

Despite their differing political persuasions, both Mayors have tried to find a balanced course by working closely with central and local government, local communities and private sector partnerships to achieve their goals.

Both acknowledged the need for accessible transport, affordable housing, employment and amenity are critical to an economically robust and livable city. It is the multipronged range of initiatives used to deliver these policy imperatives, including urban redevelopment and transport infrastructure that is noteworthy and provides valuable lessons for Sydney.  

Carrots and sticks 

Tough policy decisions such as London’ congestion charge was sweetened with massive public transport investment and integrated ticketing to gain public support. While London’s mega Crossrail project is benefiting not only the properties and centres along the corridor (with up to 54% uplift in land value) but the implementation is supported by a levy to value capture in the Boroughs that benefit from this infrastructure investment to support provision of public facilities. 

Recognizing such projects have the power to transform a place, a precinct or a city, they have harnessed the opportunities of major infrastructure projects to deliver transformational benefits to the city. The most compelling examples are the regeneration of King Cross/St Pancreas, the largest urban regeneration project in central London propelled by the transit investment in Eurostar and the transformation of London’s South East along the Lea Valley fast tracked by the Olympics and Stratford City station.  

London had an agenda for revitalization of the deprived south-east corridor as early as the 1980s well before the 2012 Olympics came into play. This forward planning enabled the City to springboard into the delivery of the 2012 Olympics with many policies and plans in place and a vision of the future legacy that it could create. 

 

City making a marathon - not a sprint

Like Sydney, London 2012 encompassed ambitious environmental commitments and targets but also included a broad social and economic agenda. This embraced regeneration of the surrounding areas and waterways, providing over 100 hectares (ha) of new open space, 3 new town centres, over 5000 new dwellings, new schools, employment, new rail and cycle networks.

The Olympics provided the impetus to accelerate many initiatives that would otherwise have taken years to realize, to push best practice and embed commitments in delivery plans. Government was able to mandate a diverse range of strategies through design, procurement and construction. Requirements included 20% renewable energy and at least 30% affordable housing in all new development to specifics such as green roofs. In addition, unique community infrastructure was provided. This included a new 24/7 educational campus to meet wider community needs.  
 
Learning from previous regeneration programs London was determined that the Olympic investment would not only focus on the site but also create a wave of regeneration in the surrounding communities. It is estimated that the Olympic Fringe has the capacity to deliver as many benefits to the surrounding areas as the Olympic site and Stratford City, another 15,000 homes and 10,000 jobs, overall up to 70,000 new residents.  
 
In contrast to the Olympic site that had a single delivery agent, the fringe areas had many delivery agents across many Boroughs. The challenge here was to ensure quality was delivered. This is where a shared vision and co-ordination of strategies, plans and public domain connecting projects was essential to capitalize on the opportunity of the Olympic investment. Design for London as a design champion and facilitator was central to driving design and quality in the delivery of the public realm and new development. 
 
Revitalization projects in the surrounding areas included Stratford Town Centre, Leyton, Hackney Wick, Sugarhouse and Canning Town, all linked by a new open space network being created along the Lea River.  Some of the most valuable insights come from the smaller interstitial regeneration projects such as the Hackney Wick Fish Island arts precinct and The Fatwalk, a transformation of the working canals and towpaths. It forms the backbone of the Lea River Park linking the Thames to Olympic Park.

Think of the possibilities from Sydney Olympic Park through Silverwater and Camellia to Parramatta and beyond.
 
With new cycle ways, bridges and open spaces this rejuvenation has recast this formerly inaccessible and polluted industrial waterway as a highly valuable recreational and environmental resource. Lea River Park will add 6 new parks linked by The Fatwalk and will complete the 40 km metropolitan river park. This is part of the All London Green Grid, a city wide green infrastructure strategy enhancing flood resilience, biodiversity, mitigating urban heat island and enhancing health and well being through quality public open space, pedestrian and cycle networks. 
Imagine the complement to the natural assets of Sydney’s privileged east, a Sydney Green Grid, linking Sydney’s south-west open spaces and waterways such as the Georges, Cooks and Parramatta Rivers. 
 
While the Olympic and transport infrastructure megaprojects provided catalysts for urban renewal, the smaller fine grain projects demonstrate the importance of understanding and valuing what is there, working with the community and identifying and releasing the potential within. It is clear that, through smaller interventions and a rolling project list, as well as new skills development for local communities and cultural programming, socially sustainable and culturally rejuvenating urban regeneration can be achieved incrementally by many players over time, long after the Olympics has left town.

The delivery of these projects relies on common values and collaboration between government, the private sector and local community.

 

Many centres - not just one 

Other parts of London undergoing change, like Barking Central and Elephant and Castle, also demonstrate this more holistic approach to regeneration - repairing the blight, building on what is good and responding to particular cultural and community needs. These projects have delivered affordable housing, local jobs and amenity, while managing the demands for growth. 
 
There are multiple benefits that flow from all these projects but there is also a cautionary tale. Regularly such urban interventions result in unintended consequences that include gentrification, social displacement, divided communities, jobs for others and broader impacts not envisaged. 
 
Big projects can often silo, rather than spread the benefits such as at Stratford City where Westfield is the main economic beneficiary as train travellers are channeled from the new station through the mega mall to the detriment of the town centre.  More incremental transformation can also be troubling. For example, creative communities while seeding regeneration, gentrification and dislocation soon follow as evidenced in London’s digital hotspot Shoreditch. Since the 1990s the original working class population has been gradually displaced by the creative digital community who are now being displaced by multinational IT companies. 
 
The challenge for Sydney is to learn from cities like London, the good and the bad. Making cities is complex. The leadership of the Greater London Authority by successive Mayors and the stewardship of Design for London, CABE and other delivery agents including local government private sector and community - demonstrate that a shared vision, clear strategies, collaboration and commitment to implementation over the long term are key to success.

If we adopt many of these lessons it will provide a robust roadmap for the delivery of infrastructure and urban planning priorities. However, if Sydney aspires to be one of the most vibrant, livable cities in the world we also need to ensure that the remit is a sustainable, diverse, inclusive and enriching place to live for all Sydney-siders. 

Helen Lochhead is speaking at 'Growing a Greater Sydney', 7 November at Parramatta Riverside Theatre as part of the 2014 Sydney Architecture Festival. http://www.sydneyarchitecturefestival.org/events/the-colloquium-details

 

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