Why everyone is going mad for ‘placemaking’

One was organic and unmanaged, the other carefully constructed by a developer. The remarkable stories of Shoreditch and Kings Cross have come to define urban regeneration and define the modern business of placemaking.

Turning urban wastelands into areas of social, cultural and economic value has been one of the great achievements of British enterprise in recent years. And one where creativity and startups have been at the centre.

It’s led many property developers to see the value in remodelling themselves as curators; shaping the atmosphere, experience and identity of an area rather than just putting up big buildings.

Placemaking as a strategy is being adopted with gusto as developers and landowners look at transforming the value of some of London’s most unloved areas. The metamorphosis of two areas in particular has sparked this enthusiasm: Shoreditch and Kings Cross.

Transformation frenzy

It has left much of the property market in a state of barely contained frenzy about where else such fairy dust can be sprinkled.

You can’t really blame them. Such is the intense demand for homes and workspaces in areas like Kings Cross and Shoreditch, the prospect of turning other frogs into princes has become irresistible.

Differing recipes of that magic dust are being concocted to apply to any number of run-down London districts, as well as theories on what efforts will be needed to perform such a makeover.

Everyone has a view and an agenda: politicians (jobs and housing targets), developers (legacy projects), landowners (increasing value), agents (selling lucrative stuff) and employers (nice places to work).

The creative ingredients

In the delicate business of place- making, the contribution of startups, artists and creatives clustered together has become a key ingredient to that magic dust. (The cringe- inducing acronym ‘SACs’ has been adopted in the property world and used here for brevity).

But those SACs have quickly become victims of their own success, making the areas they colonised attractive, resulting in them pricing themselves out after making the areas special and desirable. It’s been the same story in San Francisco’s Mission district, Williamsburg in New York and even Kreuzberg in Berlin.

It’s a tension that pits two seemingly opposing forces against each other: a self-sustaining startup scene and the force of today’s property market.

Relevance for startups

It begs the questions of whether SACs can maintain a credible commercial relevance for landowners and developers in the face of expensive offers from corporates and luxury flat developers? It’s certainly a difficult pitch: ‘You need us to maintain the value of the area.’ It certainly isn’t as if demand in Shoreditch has declined since many of the artists, clubs and creative studios have been elbowed out.

There is nevertheless growing recognition of value to an area of a buzzy local atmosphere of galleries with the work of raw artists, caffeinated people making things, independent food trucks and divey bars.

Part of the product

Landowners and developers are increasingly attuned to the risk of creating expensive soulless ghettos of luxury flats, corporate offices and chain restaurants despite the obvious immediate returns.

It’s driven by hard-nosed commercial impetus; a decline in the value of an area can be fatal as its daytime economy shrivels and it’s luxury flats are either empty investments or places where overworked high salaried city workers do little other than return for five hours sleep.

To combat this scenario the idea of placemaking is taking root. The SACs become part of the ‘product’, as well as the audience, in an evolution of urban development.

A wave of placemaking schemes are being orchestrated with urban planning sitting somewhere on the spectrum between Shoreditch and Kings Cross.

On one side is the laissez-faire chaos of Shoreditch; the product of an unmanned, unmanaged blank canvas that ran riot while no one was looking. On the other, the velvet touch of Argent, the all powerful developer behind the vast Kings Cross regeneration project.

Identity issues

Kings Cross is a work-in-progress, but a landowner with a 30-year horizon is calling the shots over the entire estate, working to a brief of creating a fresh and desirable new part of the city.

Contrived but able to stave off the threats to its atmosphere that have driven the SACs out of Shoreditch in recent years. The extent to which it can be a natural home to raw companies and creatives remains to be seen.

Shoreditch, further ahead in the development cycle, having undergone a spectacular and rapid transformation, has quickly become a parody of what it once was. It’s now way beyond the reach of the original SACs which gave the area its precious identity.

New developments inspired by Shoreditch and Kings Cross are now in progress all over London. Whitechapel, Deptford, Shepherds Bush, Tottenham, Finsbury Park, Kentish Town, Silvertown, and Hackney Wick are all spots the property industry considers ripe for development. Looking to London’s outer perimeter there’s also enthusiasm towards the likes of Brent Cross, Wembley and Croydon.

Canary Wharf gamble

Perhaps the most pioneering placemaker was Canadian firm Olympia and York behind Canary Wharf. A bigger gamble than any regeneration project ever to take place in London today, they relocated some of the world’s biggest financial institutions to what had been marshland in the early 1990s.

Although a success, even the Canary Wharf estate is known to acknowledge it has a ‘sterility problem’. The talented well-paid workers based there largely don’t want to be there, casting envious eyes at life and soul they see in other areas. It’s why in the modern market of hiring talented young people, big internet companies Facebook, Google, Amazon and Uber are choosing Soho, Kings Cross, Shoreditch and Whitechapel.

Demands of employees

David Silverman, a partner at property firm Derwent London, says: ‘One of the big shifts today is how people leaving university are telling employers where they want to work, and employers recognise they have to respond.’

Demands include working in buildings that inspire, being among companies of varying sectors and sizes, and in locations of character with good transport links to affordable residential areas.

Creating these environments is where a lot of London’s urban development is centred. In the next few years, London will see the fruits of several such placemaking projects. Within these experiments it will soon become apparent if and how any have managed to infuse the areas with the kind of vibrancy of pre-developed Shoreditch.

Small businesses themselves may have to embrace being used as part of the placemaking projects to build value for the buildings and areas they’re residing in before they can no longer afford it. They will just have to hope that they grow faster than the cost of their lease does.

SHOREDITCH CASE STUDY: From artists to bankers in 20 years

Anyone in the business of buying and selling property loves a story contrasting the price of a building in the past compared to today. It’s usually accompanied with a shake of the head and a rueful reflection over missed fortunes.

The stories of Shoreditch are guaranteed corkers given the speed and scale of the transformation. Michael Raibin, an estate agent, recalls a visit to Hoxton Square in
the early 1990s.

‘It was a scary place to go, even during the day.’ He was dispatched to the area as a young agent where a 5,000 square foot space was given to a tenant for free (yes, no rent at all).

Giving space away

‘The tenant simply had to commit to paying the business rates and we’d give them the keys. You could never attract any real companies or even justify spending on fixing the heating so these big warehouse spaces were sometimes just given to artists and other creatives simply because no one else wanted them.’

A three bedroom flat by The Book Club off Commercial Street was on sale at the time of going to press for an astonishing £6m. That all happened in just 20 years. If nothing else, it’s a stunning story of financial value being created out of nothing.

Shoreditch towers

The artists have since been kicked out, and this small patch of London has become the scene of manic development. Recent news of a 50 acre development by Shoreditch Station, featuring two Canary Wharf-like towers was given the go-ahead by Boris Johnson despite widespread local objection.

The criticism is focussed around the aggressive nature of the vertiginous buildings being mooted, the impact on Shoreditch’s creative spirit, and the fact the majority of tenancies will be expensive flats inaccessible to most Londoners.

Welcoming density

For some, it’s the latest milestone in the egregious commercialisation of London’s creative quarter; for others, it’s just natural evolution as demand for space in London intensifies. It might sound ridiculous today, but punk started in Chelsea after all.

Supporters say the kind of dense urban development planned for Shoreditch station should be welcomed. The question is whether it can be done sympathetically to the spirit of the area, and be relatively affordable.

For many, ‘Shoreditch is over’. Rather than the fashion-speak the phrase is often used in, it conveys the feeling that the spirit of creativity and innovation has died given the cost of living and working in the area.

Changing residents

Corporates have been moving to the area in bigger numbers in recent years. McDonalds opened a large office on Curtain Road earlier this summer, agreeing a 15 year lease to the tune of nearly £9m over the period. Aviva insurance spent roughly £11m to buy outright a 12,000 square foot space on Hoxton Square for its digital team.

The area’s new flush residents have been petitioning Hackney council to shut bars and clubs, complaining about the noise.

Haphazard charm

Although the reclusive Bard family own vast tracts of Shoreditch, the area’s development has been entirely unplanned. Leases have been changing hands with little evidence of a co-ordinated strategy governing the changing identity of the area.

This chaotic approach is widely seen as an asset to the area’s idiosyncrasy and authenticity. It hasn’t had the paw prints of a slick developer; instead Shoreditch developed a haphazard charm that would’ve been impossible to build by blueprint.

It’s provoked developers of new areas to take an intentionally hands-off approach. ‘Let the artists run amok’ is the cry from those hoping the replicate the Shoreditch miracle.


But Shoreditch wasn’t the only run down central-ish area with cheap rents. So why did it boom while others didn’t? Undoubtedly, the fact so many young students and creatives could afford to live around east London was the biggest factor, effectively making Shoreditch a central magnet.

But other factors played a part too. The Tea Building (see page 20) came to symbolise the area’s promise of new enterprise. Events company Three Beards acted as a glue and amplifier for the various businesses and ideas.

Finally, there were the amenities. It may be held aloft as evidence of the kind of frippery symbolising hollow Showditch, but the role of Allpress Espresso on Redchurch Street made the area a place young ambitious people simply wanted to be in.

It’s an elusive and difficult recipe to replicate. Big cheap industrial buildings which can be converted to lease to a multitude of small firms are rare in London. It’s not easy to cast a new wave of original food and drink operators into an unproven area, let alone force a vibrant startup scene.

But over studying Shoreditch is widely seen as a dangerous path given the importance of allowing an area to build on its own identity. After all, the magic of Shoreditch was once the fact it was unseen before and exciting.

KINGS CROSS CASE STUDY: The pursuit of authenticity

‘There was a lot of pacing the streets,’ recalls Nick Searl, partner at Argent, the company behind the 67 acre Kings Cross regeneration. Resembling anthropologists, Searl and his colleagues had walked around Shoreditch and countless neighbourhoods around the world for months before making specific plans.

Argent was tasked with turning around one of London’s most notoriously unloved districts. Kings Cross is now set to be the location of Google’s vast new European offices and filled with cafes, restaurants and already attracting visitors in droves, despite still being a building site.

Ground floor

The point of all the walking, says Searl, was to capture the essence of what made certain areas magnetic. ‘We believed everything needed to be built from the ground floor experience, what you see and feel from street level.’

It formed the backbone of a project that has become the pioneering example of what used to be called urban regeneration, but now referred to as placemaking.

‘A reason to go there for everyone in London’ was a fundamental part of Argent’s thinking, and although perhaps obvious, was different to most regeneration projects.

Luring St Martins

One of the first and biggest moves was to persuade Central St Martins to ditch its historic Soho campus and relocate. The logic was that its young art and fashion students would set the tone for the area, and their mere presence would drive broader curiosity.

Argent drew inspiration from Shoreditch’s DNA, and although forced as opposed to organic, the St Martins deal has already proved to be a masterstroke.

Despite still six years away from completion, placemaking at Kings Cross is already been pored over by urban planners and developers the world over.

A human city

The project started in an unorthodox fashion: ‘The temptation was to start drawing, but we didn’t. We wrote a book.’ It was called ‘Principles for a Human City’. ‘That book became our guide’, Searl continues. ‘It was the compass for every decision, big or small.

We came back to the book and at every juncture we continually asked: “Does it meet the criteria in the book?” If the answer was no, it meant we weren’t achieving what we said we would.’

The circumstances and ambition make it difficult to imagine a project on this scale would be possible anywhere else. There was an extraordinary amount of space Camden Council had carved open in the disused space behind Kings Cross station which Argent had full control over.

Single controller

Rarely before (and possible ever again) has a single private company had such autonomy over a piece of land that big, that centrally located in a major metropolis, and that steeped in history.

Kings Cross will never have as real and natural an identity as somewhere like Shoreditch by dint of being the product of developers and designers, regardless of the attempts to mask the design and planning.

Argent is making decisions piece by piece, over each building, every detail, every street and tenant. That said, the defence of this sort of managed placemaking with a single controller has gained some unlikely supporters in light of the recent ructions in Shoreditch.

The argument is that disparate landowners and interests will always pursue short-term commercial opportunities, as opposed to the big long term vision of a developer with a masterplan.

Fake accusations

Argent appears highly sensitive to the common brickbats thrown at urban developments — fake, Disney, sterile. One theme appears to have characterised its approach to Kings Cross to the point of obsession: authenticity.

‘We’ve taken the pieces of the past, the buildings, the history of the area, we’ve worked hard to keep everything we can, not clean it too much, open up the natural amenity; the canal, and use it as best we can,’ says Searl. Visitors can’t fail to notice the spruced-up old buildings and signs of old railway tracks on the ground.

Bottling it?

Argent considers independent retailers and restaurants to be vital to the identity of Kings Cross. So far, a cluster of smart indie-ish restaurants have opened. Caravan, Dishoom and Granger and Co among them. But couldn’t it have gone further, allowing real unknown operators to get a foothold and create an even more daring mix?

In this sense, did Argent bottle the opportunity? Searl sharply responds. ‘We’ve been incredibly careful, and given what we were presented and what others have done, believe me, that’s not bottling it.’

Retail coming

Retail is the final piece of the jigsaw. A massive 100,000 square feet of retail space has been put aside in a restored building with brick arches. It promises a mix of well-known brands and a clutch of international ones making their first steps outside their native countries, with around 70 units
to come in 2018.

‘You can open restaurants one by one, but shops come in a clump, people don’t go somewhere for one shop,’ says Searl. Argent’s attempt at placemaking with authenticity has undoubtedly set a new standard for what’s possible in urban regeneration, but the contradiction in the idea of ‘authentic placemaking’ is problematic.

Kings Cross isn’t supposed to be a cradle for startup or creativity, and its location means it doesn’t need to be. But Argent has laid down the gauntlet for other developers and councils in less well located areas, pointing to the potential value of sowing the seeds of regeneration with authentic startup and creativity.