Category Archives: #regeneration

Placemaking, Community Projects and Citizen Participation

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

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the role of history and culture in the development of places, drawing examples from King’s Cross. This post will look into a more communal way of developing places, especially the so-called placemaking approach I referred to earlier.
Regeneration in London can not be examined without acknowledging gentrification. As I explained in my previous post, it refers to the changes where inner city working-class areas start attracting middle-class people. This is followed by rising rents, which eventually force former inhabitants to move out. Gentrification takes different forms in different areas. It is connected to a certain type of aesthetics and the presence of the so-called creative class, and an altered use of old buildings. (1)
Gentrification also threatens the established communities that have formed to an area if it leads to the displacement of lower income households. Gentrification can also happen in a state-led manner, following the so-called social mixing policy that most of the European cities – including London – practice. Gentrification can be seen as a positive phenomenon, as it could mean more diverse services to the area, better public services that benefit the existing population as well. These arguments are often combined with the notion that richer mix of people would mean more contacts between them, which would eventually lead to a harmonious but lively neighbourhood. There is quite strong evidence that this is not always the case, unfortunately (2).
The so-called contact hypothesis assumes that living side by side with people from different ethnic groups or socio-economic groups leads automatically to communication between these people. However, quite the opposite might happen; the boundaries between groups can also become stronger. (3)
If we want to support the formation of communities that include different people, it is important to provide them with means to participate in decision making. Gentrification researcher Loretta Lees writes: “My feeling is that if people prefer to live with people like themselves we should not be forcing them to mix, because ultimately this will fail; rather, we should be keeping the possibility for mixing open to them. This means a refocus on urban design, disallowing fortress-style architecture and gated communities and rethinking the architecture of insecurity and fear.” (2)
The need for including people is becoming more and more important in city planning and decision making, and we need to find new tools for that. Community development refers to an approach where public authorities give communities more power over their area, and provide support and training for that.

Community projects are collaborative practices where the responsibility of the main coordination is on a public authority, charity, or an organised group of citizens. They can also collaborate with businesses and other organisations. Britain has a long history of community projects, and it offers good examples that could be adapted to Finland as well.

Placemaking and community projects can be fitted together. Linda Rutherford wrote a blog post in Project for Public Spaces about placemaking: “I like to think of it as crowdsourcing meets urban and community planning”(4) and I find this comparison a very good one. Community projects could be a good way for crowdsourcing the information and know-how needed for building interesting and diverse public spaces.
There are several community projects at King’s Cross. One of the most interesting of them is the Skip Garden, a moveable organic garden built in old skips and placed next to York Way (and the Finnish Institute’s new office as well). The project is run by charity Global Generations (5) who work with young people, training them and supporting them in running ecological micro-businesses.  Their cafe provides a meeting place for local inhabitants and people working in the area. They also host several events in the garden and offer sustainability training for businesses.

King’s Cross environment is a local news media that provides citizen perspectives  for emerging issues (6). A very interesting entry (7) was made recently, where they claimed that “The King’s Cross Wikipedia entry has long been controversial with authors of this site having had references deleted as they did not fit with the ‘new’ view of King’s Cross. ” There is also a concern for the name King’s Cross used only for the new area, King’s Cross Central, and thus excluding the older residential areas to periphery. This could be seen as a battle for the ownership of the area and the call for a more diverse view to the area.

There are several cultural institutions and interesting businesses located in King’s Cross that could spread their know-how wider at the area, such as the British Library, Guardian newspaper headquarters and King’s Cross impact hub that promotes social entrepreneurship. Google is also building their new office to King’s Cross. There is a really dense and diverse knowledge capital in the area, which takes the form of organisations and companies of very different scale and forms a so-called “knowledge quarter”(8).
King’s Cross has a prime opportunity to make use of the innovative organisations, businesses and local community that exists and is developing in the area. The area’s developer, Argent,  is paying attention to this and supporting local projects in many ways, which I find very encouraging. Finding ways to engage the local community to participate in the development of the area is of the utmost importance, and finding the right tools for this is essential. Community projects like local media and gardens can bring diverse groups together and make them pay attention to their neighbourhood.
Laura Sillanpää wrote a report on participatory budgeting in the UK.  “The clearest benefits include improved service delivery through contributing to the variety of service delivery and especially receiving information about communities and its needs.” (9)  Participatory budgeting could offer another tool for the local people to have an impact on the development of King’s Cross.
Other community projects can have similar benefits for the community too, as those listed by Sillanpää. In my next blog post, I’ll be looking at the benefits perceived by the people involved in the community projects at King’s Cross.
(1) TC Chang. ‘New uses need old buildings’: Gentrification aesthetics and the arts in Singapore Urban Studies 0042098014527482, first published on March 18, 2014 doi:10.1177/0042098014527482
(2) Loretta Lees. Gentrification and Social Mixing: Towards an Inclusive Urban Renaissance? Urban Studies November 2008 45: 2449-2470, doi:10.1177/0042098008097099
(3) Valentine, G. (2008) Living with difference: reflections on geographic of encounter, Progress in Human Geography, 32(3), pp. 323-337.
(4) Linda Rutherford in Project for Public Spaces. Why public places are the key to transforming our communities. http://www.pps.org/blog/why-public-places-are-the-key-to-transforming-our-communities/

(5) Global Generations

(6) King’s Cross environment
(7) King’s Cross environment blog post:

(8) Ian Burrell wrote about Googles UK headquarters 3 November 2013. Unfortunately not much information about Knowledge quarter is to be found online  yet. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/media-studies-google-hopes-to-wow-us-with-a-new-hq-but-it-may-take-more-than-that-8919820.html

(9) Laura Sillanpää 2013, Deliberating Service Delivery. Survey on the outcomes and challenges of

participatory budgeting in the UK.

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.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS/countries?display=graph
(2) King’s Cross Voices
(3) Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work. http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_burden_how_public_spaces_make_cities_work
(4) Project for Public Spaces: What is placemaking? http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/

(5) A good introduction by Dezeen: http://www.dezeen.com/2011/10/18/campus-for-central-saint-martins-by-stanton-williams/

(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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