The ‘Urbanisation’ of London’s suburbs?

November 19, 2007

A couple of recent press articles relating to Ealing and Croydon have raised the question of the extent to which various regeneration schemes in London’s suburbs are indicative of a gradual process of ‘suburban urbanisation’ characterised by increased building intensification and population densities around their town centres. They also suggest how London’s major suburbs (both are categorised as ‘Metropolitan Centres’ in the London Plan) are employing bold architectural statements to help them develop distinctive identities as attractive places to live, work – and (perhaps most pertinently) invest in.

A report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has strongly criticised the proposed regeneration of the Arcadia Shopping Centre in Ealing on a number of grounds. However, it is tentatively supportive of the policy of constructing tall buildings in the suburb, where this is done with sensitivity to the existing townscape.

Controversy concerning the proposed development in Ealing has been focused on the construction of a 40-storey tower block designed by Norman Foster, known as the ‘The Leaf’, which would host a mixture of retail, commercial and residential functions. Although it seems generally accepted that the proposed building is well designed in itself, the more pressing question is whether it is the kind of structure the suburbs should be welcoming.

According to the local press report, a spokesman for the campaign group ‘Save Ealing’s Centre’ (SEC), has stated that “a tall building in this area would be a radical departure from the suburban character of Ealing”. Although the absence of supporting health and transport infrastructure are cited as reasons to object to the scheme as a whole, the chief motivation for the SEC derives from a belief that such developments are at a fundamentally inappropriate scale for suburban centres and that the existing community is unlikely to benefit.

If the Leaf project provides a urbanised vision for the future of Ealing then Croydon is going a step further by using its planned town centre redevelopment to launch a campaign for city status. The architect Will Alsop – whose plans to make Barnsley the ‘Tuscany of the North’ received widespread publicity – has planned a 30-story ‘greenhouse’ (characterised by the press as a ‘vertical Eden project’ ) as the focal point for visitors to Croydon’s town centre.

The intention of Alsop’s ‘Third City’ masterplan is to reinvent the reputation of Croydon town centre as failed example of 1960s modernism by rebranding it as a dynamic modern urban hub. Intensification would increase the number of people resident in the town centre from 5000 to 50 0000. There appears to have been less organised criticism of Croydon’s plan for a tall building than in Ealing – perhaps because more care seems to be have been taken with public consultation there and because of the contrasting characteristics of the existing town centres.

Both the Ealing and Croydon schemes are examples of the ambitions of London’s larger suburban centres to become important nodes within the extended city region of Greater London and the south east of England. Certainly the ‘suburban urbanisation’ model might be thought to help prevent extensive decentralised sprawl. However, the extent to which these changes will benefit existing local communities and smaller, neighbouring centres is less clear – especially when they are not accompanied by parallel investment in infrastructure and public services. It is also important that such large scale redevelopments are sensitive to the historical suburban character of these centres rather than seek to impose inappropriate visions of the ‘suburb of the future’ – which would (ironically) be to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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