Friday, 15 August 2008

Even the City of London sometimes needs regeneration

The finale of the London Festival of Architecture included a ‘medieval fair’ on Cheapside, the oldest high street in London. Cheapside is at the heart of the city, lying between Bank in the East and St Paul’s Cathedral in the West. Dickens noted that this was the greatest thoroughfare in the City, and perhaps the then world’s busiest. The names of the surrounding streets hint at that mercantile history – Milk Street, Bread Street, Poultry. But Cheapside today has long been poorly served by retail services and its bustle has been lost in a mire of poor mid-twentieth century buildings and narrow featureless pavements. In a city that claims to be at the centre of global commerce, its own centre seems commercially sterile and moribund.

Cheapside’s situation is partly owing to the war-time destruction of much of the previous architecture, and its replacement with featureless offices which relate poorly to human scale. Very little earlier fabric remains, excepting Wren’s St Mary-Le-Bow church and some of the alleys which reflect the medieval pattern of building. But Cheapside is shortly to be regenerated, thanks to the Cheapside Area Strategy, upon which public consultation is currently taking place. 

It is considered that there is big potential to improve the vitality of the area through retail, particularly at the weekends, while providing a much improved offer to tourists who currently must be shocked by the retail desert east of St Paul’s. Many new developments are shortly to be completed in this part of the city, many also offering significant retail space. 20,000 square metres of retail will be created through the construction of Jean Nouvel’s No.1 New Change alone and the City Corporation sees Cheapside as a real alternative to established retail hubs such as Upper Street, Marylebone High Street and Long Acre, Covent Garden. 

A parallel theme in the regeneration effort is improvement in the quality of the public realm and an appreciation of the qualities of remaining historic fabric. High quality redevelopment of numerous sites has been grasped as an opportunity to improve the spaces in between. The significant widening of pavements gives pedestrians a better environment, and also one in which they feel less channelled from one point to another. Better crossing points will be provided across roads and trees will be planted. Pocket parks and places to stop will be refurbished and or built anew. Crossings will have guardrails removed, a policy that can be particularly successful in improving the environment, as in Kensington High Street, for example. In the inclusive urban design speak of the moment, the City has a vision ‘for a first class public realm that is attractive, uncluttered and accessible for all’.  

While retail and urban design improvements in the City seem certain to add to its vibrancy, particularly at the weekends, what of the danger of it becoming just another example of Clone Town Britain, with the ubiquitous high street stores seen across the country? While the weekend use of underused city tube stations seems sensible, what will be the outcome of unrestricted parking? The City’s links to its surrounding areas have undoubtedly improved in recent years, with the Millennium Bridge providing access to and from the South Bank, while new architecture in the City, such as ‘The Gherkin’, also draws in a new audience. The retail offer may be able to attract shoppers from the more residential fringes of the City, but could there be a substitution effect undermining the success of other regeneration areas, like Elephant and Castle, where improvement is much more desperately required?  

Other Links:  
http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/retailing/article3301195.ece
http://www.thetimes100.co.uk/additional/news--expensive-plans-for-cheapside--77.php

Author: Lewis Eldridge

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