Beyond the Pandemic: An ALT CMD Future
Using Alternative Camden as a springboard for innovation and experimentation, we imagine our future neighbourhoods when its business as un-usual…
We have spent decades scratching our heads and thinking academically about responding to global recessions, changes in consumer behaviour, an insurmountable climate emergency and dwindling local authority resources. But a global pandemic has catalyzed all those changes we mused over, and is demanding that our actions are radical, decisive and now.
The country’s functioning has been stripped back to a skeleton of our former lives and the infrastructure, economy and services that we took for granted. If we are able to grasp the uniqueness of this situation, the opportunities to make drastic changes become clear. There’s no doubt a pandemic of this gravity is devastating in all manner of ways. It would be an additional tragedy if we didn’t use these exceptional circumstances to make the radical changes to society that only a shock pause could allow for. We choose to take stock of what is required to build happier, healthier neighbourhoods with eclectic high streets that nurture small business and act as a community lifeline.
With a cohesive approach to implementing impactful changes, our neighbourhoods and high streets can form a network of forward-thinking and resilient places that make up a visionary and agile city. We are ready to champion the bold, radical ideas required.
Alternative Camden believes the themes to develop our neighbourhoods of the future are:
PUBLIC REALM DESIGN | THRIVING ECONOMIES | CONNECTED COMMUNITIES | CLIMATE CHANGE
Allow yourself some escapism and fast-forward your mind to 2023. We’ve applied Alternative Camden themes to Euston and Camden Town neighbourhoods as experimental test beds that realise our dream future neighbourhoods. Lockdown is a distant memory, the economy is recovering and we have re-calibrated the vision of our cities. It’s an exciting future…
REDISTRIBUTING SPACE, BREATHING EASIER
And dare we say it? — PEDESTRIANISATION
The Covid-19 crisis has catalysed a change in public realm design that we didn’t know we needed — leading to an ambition for civic spaces that enrich our lives, foster a sense of belonging and a connection between residents and their neighbouring businesses.
It was understood that bold policies were required to feel long-term benefits to local economies and public health. Walking and cycling infrastructure and even total pedestrianisation would be key to this.
Extinction Rebellion called for car free cities in 2019 but their demands were rejected as harmful to business or considered too radical a shift from convenience and habit. During lockdown our world was breathing easier, but as cities gradually lifted restrictions with social distancing still in place, there was a risk that personal vehicle use would skyrocket, as we saw in Wuhan. Centre for London’s Rob Whitehead said ‘Unmanaged, this could lead to a huge reversal in the progress made over recent decades to persuade Londoners out of their cars. Before the crisis, private cars were used for around a third of all journeys. Even small shifts back towards car use will be devastating in the battle against congestion, poor air and climate catastrophe.’
But we chose a more sophisticated, low-carbon future that would accommodate both a healthy society and thriving local economy. High quality and cohesive cycling and walking infrastructure was implemented to allow high streets to continue to function with social distancing. Without it, halving the capacity of shops and restaurants would have meant policies such as furloughing simply delayed an inevitable failure.
Commercially, walking and cycling infrastructure was essential if businesses were to re-open with social distancing in place.
Cities including Paris, Milan, New York and Bogota lead the way during lockdown with new cycle lanes and widened pavements which shaped a new appreciation for the rights of those using carbon-free means of travel. As we envisaged the future of our neighbourhood — not just temporary lockdown measures — we were bold in proposing the pedestrianisation of streets. Drummond Street in Euston provided a perfect testbed, with a buzzing commercial scene which would be sure to benefit from new outdoor seating areas and an improved environment, without the changes interrupting traffic flow.
These reimagined spaces have been genuinely created for and run by the communities that use them — and consultation has transformed in to co-design. Now that we have the infrastructure, environmental and cultural attractions, returning footfall and hungry businesses in place, the priority is to empower social groups to change the use of the space as needed.
A digital platform facilitated by the local authority now allows people to apply quickly for temporary licenses to host street food festivals or community days with ease. A level surface, wide open spaces for stalls, a popup stage area and street furniture provide a flexible setting.
LIFE AND VIBRANCY IN VACANT BUILDINGS
‘The reality is that demand for retail has decreased, and with its environmental impact this is not a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean the high street should remain empty. There are so many other uses of buildings that could contribute to an area’s economy and vibrancy.’ — Jan Kattein, Jan Kattein Architects
We were prepared for many businesses to fail. The vacant buildings they left behind loomed over the high street like a scar of the previous year. It was time to make innovative meanwhile and permanent use, from coworking to cultural, in order to continue to support the high street.
The Camden Collective coworking space model has been replicated in several empty buildings in Camden Town and Euston. Collective’s bright branding, cohort of small energetic businesses and lively events has introduced a spirited ecosystem of knowledge sharing and collaboration. Hundreds of socially-conscious freelancers and founders now spill out on to the high street choosing carefully where they buy lunch, supporting their fellow independent businesses and injecting the economy.
Our precious high streets have transformed with experience at the forefront of their offer, with traditional retail a much diminished feature. Buildings are occupied with things to do and see rather than stuff to buy; popup cultural destinations, child care, manufacturing and education bringing in new audiences who in turn explore the high street for its amenities.
The high street is now a place for experience: seeing and doing, being immersed in different cultures and involved in new conversations. Shifting our focus has kept our high streets alive and reinstated them as essential community arteries.
Our new high streets also see more imaginative functioning of underused spaces. A popular pub that doesn’t open till 6pm have hired out their space for community services, diversifying the use of the building which in turn becomes more energy efficient, runs at full capacity and earns the business owner an additional income. Not only does it then demonstrate additional value to its community and provide a source of footfall to the high street, but it also becomes a financially viable, resilient and adaptable multi-purpose business model.
CULTIVATING THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
We hope for a new generosity towards the community from both public and private clients, that places values other than monetary ones at the forefront of their endeavours. — Louisa Hutton, Architect.
We recognized that the experience economy has never been more key to the successful recovery and reinvention of the high street, and inclusive place-shaping initiatives have been essential to engaging broader local audiences. The uniqueness of each high street and its demographics has been essential to success, allowing us to customise solutions that respond to localised circumstances such as high vacancy rates or fragmented ownership.
Civic spaces have been made more accessible, incorporating ‘incidental play’ elements and creating friendly environments that encourage people to dwell. Our high streets are transforming from places of necessity into destinations, an environment that invites visitors to have a second cup of coffee or relax in a parklet. Much like providing the right infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking, desirable civic spaces enable people to sit, unwind and enjoy at their leisure.
High streets are adopting methods of enlivening spaces at nighttime, too. The use of art, culture and creative lighting schemes have attracted new audiences, which in turn encourages small businesses to extend their opening hours. Museums and galleries run evening exhibitions and workshops, and pedestrianisation has allowed for seasonal late-night markets and events throughout the year. The nighttime economy no longer exclusively features pubs, bars and restaurants but is a landscape of variety, with a diverse audience base and new opportunities for businesses.
MOBILISING COMMUNITIES IN CLIMATE ACTION
‘In built up urban areas gardens and green spaces run by communities are reclaiming the space. We can end up siloed in our own social groups but nature brings our worlds together. There is an opportunity to connect in a unique way.’ — Nicole Van den Eijnde, Director of Global Generation.
Individual action can feel futile and demotivating with results impossible to see or monitor. Bringing communities together around a mutual sense of purpose has galvanized a powerful collective effort, having an impact on a neighbourhood’s carbon footprint, catalysing more ambitious measures and ideas led by the entire community. Education is a game-changer in energizing and empowering communities. Grassroots organisation Global Generation is paving the way, providing the infrastructure to allow community groups to develop their own urban green spaces, to develop an understanding of the natural world and improve their public realm. Director Nicole Van der Eijnde argued that these initiatives are essential at building self sustaining, resilient community networks — and local authorities and developers should do everything they can to remove complex red tape that prevents the transformation of disused space.
Other innovative actions have flourished among informal groups as a result of knowledge sharing and collaboration. Rain gardens incorporated in to street design which clean rainwater for reuse are a source of local pride and are maintained by a growing group of volunteers. A scheme of moveable allotments provides vegetables and herbs to local restaurants and inspires consideration for the heritage of ingredients. Groups are even experimenting with technology such as hydroponic farming, something that used to be inaccessible except for professional and commercial operations. It’s made easier by relaxed rooftop regulations which have enabled businesses and residents to re-purpose their space for green infrastructure that helps to improve air quality, feed locals or simply provide a new natural habitat.
It was apparent there was a level of distrust and perceived lack of transparency between local stakeholders and those who are responsible for local pollution and community wellbeing. To tackle this we now have air quality and carbon emission data displayed on our high streets. This motivates people to make conscious changes which contribute to data that is real and visualized and enables them to hold polluters to account.
People breathe easier, coexist harmoniously and interact with their neighbourhood in a new way.
(The pandemic) has shifted the relationship between technology and culture. Before the crisis, technology seemed to be the panacea, the bearer of all utopias. No one — or only a few hard-boiled people — still believe in great digital redemption today. The big technology hype is over. We are again turning our attention to the humane questions: What is man? What are we for each other? — Matthias Horx, Futurist.
The British public were fiercely split down the middle following 2016’s all-consuming, heartbreaking referendum (which has admittedly struggled to get any limelight since the pandemic). A resurgence of community spirit rose from our new vulnerable state. We stood on our doorsteps on Thursday evenings to clap our support for the NHS, we sang happy birthday to neighbours out on the street, and we organized remote Beethoven recitals to share on wider community networks.
Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist and founding director of the Science Gallery said: ‘As we emerge from this period, we have the opportunity to fix a new sense of our values as a community, and stabilize this notion.’
Daniel Glaser identified this as a golden opportunity to harness the mutual aid spirit and allow it to absorb local businesses too (who are after all a part of the community). We’ve seen how small grocers adapted to serve the vulnerable, and how people purposefully chose to shift their shopping choices to independents. Mutual aid linking businesses to residents already existed, and we have managed to embed that culturally.
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo was re-elected in March 2020 on her plans for a ’15 Minute City’, an ambition that connects communities to their needs within 15 minutes of their homes. Much of Paris was being reclaimed by walkers and cyclists already, but this next step signified a more drastic remodelling method. According to Hidalgo advisor and professor at Paris-Sorbonne university, urban communities require 6 things to be happy: “Dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, [being able to gain] provisions, well-being, education and leisure. To improve quality of life, you need to reduce the access radius for these functions.”
We used this model to reimagine our own London neighbourhoods, particularly relevant as working from home, at least on a part-time basis, has become the norm. Not just to allow for social distancing initially, but also because technological advances mean teams are still productive and collaborative, and businesses require half the office space.
A day in the office used to be punctuated by a quick coffee before a meeting, a hurried sandwich at lunch time — often both at a branch of Pret. Now, employees are embedded in their local communities, they are more consciously contributing to a local economy and they value the familiar and loyal relationship they have with the businesses the frequent.
Localisation means that employees are embedded in their home communities, bring new life to their local high streets in the week and spend consciously on the independents that make up a vibrant economy.
Office space became more available and therefore affordable. Camden Town is now managing to retain more small businesses who previously looked to move operations outside of London where rent and business rates were less punishing. Their presence benefits the local economy and establishes the area as home to disruptive and innovative startups.
This shift in footfall between neighbourhoods and high streets will of course mean that business collectives need to adjust their offer and read their new audiences. As always, pragmatism is key.
AGILE BUSINESS, SUPPORTIVE POLICIES
To help local economies recover and eventually thrive, support for businesses is essential. Our business rates system was hugely unfavourable to those on the high streets and placed a burden on businesses that many simply could not manage — explaining the high turnover rate of businesses on Camden High Street south, for example.
We can effectively curate a diverse high street that offers a holistic experience, by enticing the businesses who will make a valuable contribution to the community with business rates relief.
Instead of punishing businesses who bravely attempt to set up in a hostile capital city, our new business rates model rewards those who are adding value to the area, in grades that assess a business’s contribution to the community in terms of services, social worth, green agenda or innovation. We’ve managed to entice many businesses to our high streets via business rates relief. Inversely those who are considered to have a negative impact on the community they serve (such as betting shops, particularly in economically deprived areas) are now obliged to pay higher taxes. This dual approach is working to attract a diverse range of businesses who seek to fill gaps in the market, effectively curating a diverse high street that provides a holistic experience.
Fragmented ownership created high streets that were less responsive and resilient to change, meaning they would suffer terribly as consumer trends shifted. To remedy this, players such as local authorities and business improvement districts have created overarching guidelines that enable small businesses to be a part of a wider strategy and benefit from the success of the high street as a whole. This includes design guidelines, access to knowledge sharing, collaboration opportunities and shared public spaces such as seating which is collectively maintained.
The public demand for high quality civic spaces which provide experiences and culture has filtered in to major developments such as the new HS2 Euston station, too. The station’s commercial offering will now envelope the eclectic and diverse communities, with kiosks for local restaurants and space reserved for art and performance from local creative organisations and galleries. New developments now have a chance to trailblaze a brave but ultimately rational inclusion of local small business and communities, placing themselves ahead of the curve in post-lockdown society.
BUILDING BUSINESS RESILIENCE
Smart Licensing is a brand new initiative that allows businesses to apply for permits to host temporary events such as live music or a street food festival. A digital platform now enables a hyper-localised and quick assessment of the proposal based on a set of criteria, and responds with guidelines on the applicable regulations. This has cut the red tape that prevented such activities taking place whilst making more appropriate use of our new community/commercially-focused public realms.
One of the crises our high streets have faced time and again over the past four decades is their inability to move with speed to fulfil new demands, keep up with consumer trends and adapt to new environments. The complete shutdown of the high street was unprecedented and required very pragmatic thinking for some businesses.
Jan Kattein believes the future success of local economies in part depends on the agility of businesses themselves.
“It’s about identifying a niche that allows a business to slot in to the high street and become a part of that experience, without unnecessarily competing and diluting the street’s offer. Therefore, the success of one business is important to the success of its neighbour, and a more supportive and collaborative network is born.”
Harnessing digital skills and opportunities built resilience among our business communities facilitated by skills-sharing networks has enabled them to devise hybrid business plans. We cannot deny consumer trends, which show that people want to spend their money on experiences rather than stuff. So businesses need to have a well-planned online offer, and to use digital platforms effectively to take on feedback, adjust the offer and of course reach new audiences.
Time to return from your time travelling holiday back to 2020, in the thick of lockdown. Sorry. But let’s consider this bizarre situation a thrilling opportunity to mold a future that would have been almost impossible without this unique break.
This future vision didn’t require exotic new technology, just a re-calibration of the vision for our cities. The proposals were built through hyperlocal iterative testing, using the infrastructure and resources at the finger tips of the nation’s BIDs, business communities, community organisations and local authorities, resulting in:
- High quality cycle and walking infrastructure, pedestrianisation where possible
- Bookable public realm
- Coworking space models supportive of startups
- Multi-purpose function of underused buildings
- Enjoyable, functional civic spaces co-designed with stakeholders
- Communities empowered to create own climate action plans
- Relaxed rooftop regulations for tackling air quality and lack of green space
- Harnessing of lockdown community spirit, expanding mutual aid to independent businesses
- Localisation: remote working resulting in increased footfall on home high streets and bolster to independent business community
- Business rates system that rewards those adding value to local community
- A precedent to include local business and community in commercial offer of major developments
- Smart Licensing to remove red tape for temporary events
… And whilst lockdown might feel like a lull, there is plenty to do in ensuring that we make the right choices, and start carving the path to our future neigbourhoods.