Developing Places through Culture and History

Maija Bergström blogs about redevelopment of the King’s Cross area. This is the first part of a series of posts about King’s Cross, the new homebase of the Finnish Institute in London.

Architects, historians and geographers have produced a vast amount of different perspectives on places. As more and more people choose to live (or have to live) in cities (1), their size keeps growing. So there’s a great need to develop cities that are unique and interesting environments, support the wellbeing of their citizens, are sustainable and functional and make different people feel like home; to make cities a great place to live. I examined one central redevelopment that is happening in London, the King’s Cross area. King’s Cross exhibits contemporary ways of developing an area. It’s going to be home for many cultural and educational institutions, our Institute among them. So looking at what is going on in King’s Cross is likely to offer new ideas that could be applied elsewhere as well.
King’s Cross has a colourful history at the heart of the industrial revolution of London. It served as a transportation hub where the goods from countryside arrived by railway and were passed on through the Regent’s Canal. Today, it is one of the busiest stations in London and home for the Eurostar that commutes to the continental Europe from St Pancras International.
Previously King’s Cross was seen as a synonym for crime and prostitution and it was a home for many poor communities.  The area that is going through regeneration is located in between of older residential areas. It was used mainly for storage and didn’t have residential buildings, so no people had to be rehoused. The lack of existing communities is also a challenge, as the new development has to be connected to the surrounding areas that share it’s name and history.
History can be noted on the level of architecture and cityscape by preserving old buildings and making it visible by placates and signs that refer to old incidents or happenings, or people that used to contribute to the area in some way. This is a more educative approach that produces “official” and “important” knowledge for people to learn.
The next step is to provide a platform for people to tell themselves, what they see as important knowledge to share with others. The history of a place is always entwined with very personal histories. It consists of thousands of everyday narratives how people used to live and work in the area.
King’s Cross Voices -project (2) was an oral history project that collected interviews from a wide range of people; factory workers, sex trade workers, police officers, housewives…  It aims at improving citizen participation on information production, and offering a platform to strengthen the voices of the community that once existed there.
Cities  have an endless amount of layers which are constantly renewing. That calls for the question, what should be saved for the future and how? We are familiar with conservation and heritage, but that has to do with the physical side of the city. As cities change, we talk about that change with social terms as well, as is the case with gentrification.


Gentrification means broadly the shift to a wealthier neighbourhood that follows from an enhanced commercial interest. That begins with the entry of creative class and is followed then by the middle-class. It is often seen as a process that overruns the old culture, or the ethos of an area, as new inhabitants change the face of the area. As the communities change, the former local cultures might disappear.  The changes that make the area safer, cleaner and newer can also leave it without any references to history and concentrate only on boosting the commercial opportunities.


Quite often unique places that attract people can not be commercial. Amanda Burden gave a great Ted Talk about public spaces (3). She spoke about New York’s successful High Line and the constant need to protect it for the attempts to turn it into a commercial space: “Hey, why not take out those plantings and have shops all along the High Line? Wouldn’t that be terrific and won’t it mean a lot more money for the city? Well no, it would not be terrific. It would be a mall, and not a park.” High Line is a good example of a historical structure, that has been given a new use.


In the King’s Cross area, something similar has happened with the canal that has been turned from a transportation route into a public space. The Regent’s Canal runs through the area, reminding from it’s connectedness to neighbouring areas, Camden, Angel and Islington. It serves as an open space for people to spend time, and works as a platform for events and happenings.


This approach of creating unique, distinctive places with their own identity is called placemaking. At it’s lightest form it can mean just focusing on the visual side of the area, of branding a new area for commercial purposes, though placemaking should focus more deeply to the conditions that would help people use public spaces and contribute for developing the area (4). I see placemaking also as a tool for encouraging citizens to explore and observe their surrounding environment.
Camley Street Natural Park is a tiny urban nature reserve that offers a totally different experience for those who find it. The Finnish Institute’s architecture project Viewpoint is situated there, in the heart of King’s Cross, at a curve of the canal. Projects like Viewpoint work as landmarks and foster curiosity. When you arrive to King’s Cross walking by the canal from Camden, it emerges from the curve and makes you wonder if it’s a gigantic water lily, a lost pyramid or a wooden island. It’s open to interpretations.
The possibility for several different interpretations is what makes a place interesting. Some aspects of the variety of interpretations can be made visible by simply googling the images. King’s Cross. A beautiful but endless collection of the railway station from different angles and an occasional tourist heading to platform 9 ¾, familiar from Harry Potter. And that is probably what people start to think now when you talk about King’s Cross with them.

If we look at what King’s Cross history gives us, there’s a way more lively narrative that comes visible. When looking at the pictures, ask yourself: what is missing? What is emphasized in these pictures? What would make you want to go there? The new image that can be found online might be too clean, too flawless and lacking in depth. Still, I feel that on the construction site, lots of effort has been made to reveal the older layers as well, and I find this very positive.

Parts of this history have been made visible at the construction area. In a place where no former residents live, bringing history alive isn’t always an easy task, but it’s worth trying. The fences have been decorated with stories and interesting facts about the area. For the people who take time to read it, it gives a feeling of being connected to the past, and gives a context for the new buildings by reminding what used to be at the area.
A lot has been removed but bits and parts of old buildings have been saved as well, and they are quite nicely highlighted in the area. Granary Square by the canal is a very positive example of a place that attracts people to spend time. The Victorian granary and two transit sheds now offer a home for the famous art and design college of Central Saint Martins (5). Ancient buildings work as surroundings for the contemporary every-day fashion show by art students.
Granary Square, King’s Cross.
© Chris Allen, CC-BY SA 2.0
In Helsinki, new areas use 1% of their budget to public art. Finland’s country brand committee supported the idea of so called percentage principle, and suggested that also the inhabitants and users of an area should have a say when designing public art (6). The works should draw inspirations from the areas uniqueness, and also deal with difficult questions. King’s Cross runs their own ambitious art project as well (7). In her blog post in Project for Public Spaces, Cynthia Nikitin wrote: “More than ever before, public artworks are stimulating and inviting active dialogue rather than just passive observation, thereby fostering social interaction that can even lead to a sense of social cohesion among the viewers themselves.” (8) Public spaces and public art that invite people to interpret and use them in different ways offer a sustainable way of developing places.
As a cultural institution with a focus on information work, being surrounded with historical buildings, clever and inspiring artwork and a lively neighbourhood is something that we all enjoy. Working in a place that provides lots of possibilities from basketball games to healthy lunches in a range of cafes and street food stalls followed by strolls by the canal feels like a priviledge.  We believe that we do a better job in a good environment, and that we should try to make the most out of the area.

Seeing how the area is changing during the redevelopment hopefully gives us new ideas and opportunities to reflect our own work as well. It will be an experiment as well, to see how the environment really affects us.

(1) World bank, urban population. After 2007,  more than 50% of the worlds population have been living in cities.
(2) King’s Cross Voices
(3) Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work.
(4) Project for Public Spaces: What is placemaking?

(5) A good introduction by Dezeen:

(6) p.6, Taidetta arkeen – Ehdotus valtion keinoiksi edistää prosenttiperiaatetta osana julkista rakentamista. Täydentävät taustaselvitykset, artikkelit ja seminaarit.

(7) King’s Cross art project:
(8) Cynthia Nikitin: Collaborative, Creative Placemaking: Good Public Art Depends on Good Public Spaces.

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