At Canada Water, over 50 acres of former dockland are about to be transformed into a new town centre for south-east London by developers British Land. This neighbourhood, bordered by Canada Water and Surrey Quays stations, will feature a mixture of workspaces, retail, leisure, educational and culture facilities alongside new homes. What does it take to create a new ‘place’ on this scale? How do the skills of designers, architects, planners, developers, community workers, cultural strategists and others combine to create an authentic location that will meet the needs of both current residents and incomers? CR’s Making Places project will examine how those roles come together to regenerate our cities. To set the scene, we spoke to Emma Cariaga, British Land’s Head of Operations for Canada Water and Head of Canada Water Roger Madelin, who previously led the redevelopment of King’s Cross, about the project, what it means for London and how it reflects current thinking about how we will live and work in the future.
Creative Review: We’ve heard a lot about London’s ‘shift to the east’: what is driving that and how are developers responding?
Roger Madelin: London’s changing because homes are being built and infrastructure has been invested in out in the east, driven by the Olympic Games. I sometimes think about what London would be like if we hadn’t done the Olympics: for decades we had people like Michael Heseltine talking about the growth of London to the east and the estuary, but it needed the transport and for someone to do something that would raise spirits and show you can build stuff where people would want to go to. [But] it is led by transport, as it always has been and always will be. People are just pretending otherwise if they think anyone is going to move places before the transport is there. I’m sitting in the Olympic Park in Sydney [CR interviewed Madelin by phone] and it’s struggling due to lack of investment in public transport.
CR: Canada Water will be a ‘mixed use’ development, whereas previously sites such as Canary Wharf were more ‘monocultural’, mainly office-led with some retail on the side: how has thinking changed in terms of the most effective way to create new places in cities?
RM: Canary Wharf was built in those days when people assumed that office people wanted to be next to other office people. If you just go back few decades, up until 1985, London was decreasing in population and the general thought was that that would continue. Planning policies had separated working places from residential and suburban housing estates were the norm. It wasn’t until the early 90s with Brindleyplace in Birmingham where [developer] Argent built houses of reasonable density in the city centre and they sold like hot cakes, that this renaissance [in city living] suddenly happened, it’s quite a recent phenomenon. Now developers are waking up to the fact that where people live, they also need cultural facilities, they need entertainment facilities, play facilities. There are very few opportunities for big chunks of land where developers can think ‘I can build a new town centre’. British Land has been phenomenally lucky at Canada Water where we have a genuine opportunity to build a new town centre for the first time in inner London for as long as anyone has been alive. No-one has built an Islington or a Richmond or Peckham recently, most were built 100 years ago when the underground went out there.
Emma Cariaga: Part of the challenge at Canada Water is that development there has been quite piecemeal, from a whole range of developers, since the docks closed – infill projects that have delivered quite a lot of housing but no-one has had the scale we have. Our role and vision is to make it a mixed-use urban place where people talk about it as a place to work as much as your home.
CR: In terms of the design of workplaces, the space around them and what companies want for their offices, how is that changing and how will it be reflected at Canada Water?
EC: Occupiers are becoming more discerning. If you want your new HQ to be a fabulous place with lots for your staff to do, that typically is much more about being in a mixed-use space than relocating to an office park. We’ve had a lot of conversations over the past 12 months with potential occupiers of all sectors and they are saying quite similar things – they are working hard to attract the best talent and hold on to them and the workplace plays a massive part in why people choose to work for a company – where it’s located and what there is to do when you are there. The environment around a building is kind of as important as what’s inside. A lot of the conversations are about the journey from tube to desk, what staff will be able to do for lunch or after work.
RM: What I think is starting to change quite radically is that businesses do talk about health and wellbeing and mental health and wellbeing. We can say to them, ‘do you know that on Wednesday afternoons we are going to facilitate all your employees to socially connect [with others in the community]’. Whether that’s through doing sport together, or sport with kids, or going into an old people’s home, or going for a walk or doing some gardening. We are going to facilitate that because we are looking after 30,000 people, not in a big brother way, but it takes a lot of managing. That social connection aspect is really striking a chord with most of the big occupiers we are talking to. It would be wonderful to have a society, a community that was genuinely able to meet each other and discuss things.
EC: We already have some programmes up and running. The Paper Garden is a social enterprise that has been operating at Canada Water for about 18 months. It is developing a programme of engaging with the existing community, primarily with children, to envisage what the public realm might be like. Through the use of paper, they have been creating sculptures, workshops, and storytelling to work out what people want in terms of new spaces and parks and, in doing so, starting to connect communities who live there already but don’t necessarily know each other. We had an amazing evening recently with Time & Talents [a local community charity] where they invited older people who live locally and who had once picked fruit on the site, and they made jam together with local children. It shows how, with proper management and some investment and time from people who know what they are doing, you can get people together who otherwise wouldn’t have met. But you have got to start early – we have started before any office occupiers will be on-site so that, by the time they arrive, this thing already has legs.
CR: What about the role that creative people – artists, designers and so on – play in regenerating previously neglected areas of a city? There is a truism that artists are the ‘shock troops’ of gentrification – that they help make an area seem more cool, and that paves the way for development. What about their role in new places – are you purposefully trying to attract creative people to Canada Water in order to make it more attractive to others?
RM: You have to be very careful about buying ‘cool’ or making ‘cool’. Part of the joy of being in the public realm and going out and walking around are serendipitous encounters with people making things and creating things. That needs to be choreographed to an extent but you want to allow the serendipitous to happen. We are going to try to create some opportunities but some of the best things to happen at Canada Water will not be pre-planned. We will be managing it a bit, and we’ve got some great cultural strategists helping us, but I always find the best way is that you meet someone, and they introduce you to someone else, you talk and meet and let things morph and try to say, ‘why not?’ and try stuff. We could have the biggest open air art gallery in London – why not? When you go to Canada Water, there will always be something exciting going on, but we won’t know what just yet.
CR: One good example of a somewhat serendipitous creative project at the site is the success of Printworks, the old Daily Mail printing plant that has now become one of Europe’s best clubs and a venue for all sorts of cultural activities. Can you tell us how an abandoned factory was transformed in this way and what benefits it has for the development?
EC: The original plan, if you can call it that, was that we had a building sitting there vacant, costing quite a bit of money to maintain. We had worked with the Vibration Group at The Leadenhall Building and we said to them so long as it’s legal and attracting a broad range of people, come in and have a go. It’s turned into this really interesting mixture of spaces that lend themselves to daytime music events but also spaces for recording, shoots, private conferences, training days, right through to having the Canadian Royal Ballet there doing an experiential evening with the Royal Ballet. What’s been amazing – and a delight for us – is that something that started out as being about covering our cost exposure and making the building safe, has been able to attract 300,000 people in the last 18 months who would never have come to Canada Water until we were well on-site. In terms of profile and in terms of footfall, it’s been incredibly helpful. The other thing that has helped us is with our view of the long-term future of the building. It’s given us the chance to see it in action and given us more confidence for the building’s long-term retention in the masterplan.
CR: When it comes to creating a place like Canada Water, what role do branding agencies play and when do they get involved?
RM: I always believe if you can start to make a place change, you can then see what is evolving and market that. It shouldn’t be led by ‘let’s come up with a brand and make the development in tune with that brand’. The challenge sometimes with branding agencies is that, when they come up with something, it’s new and almost by definition not following on from what the place is starting to evolve into. The brand should evolve as the place evolves.
EC: With Canada Water, we’ve taken the view that we will do the running first ourselves. We’ve been out talking about this scheme for four years. It’s quite important as these projects and these sorts of places aren’t something you can just cook up and then start to talk about. They need to be born out of a really intense programme of listening to local people and the market, getting feedback about what their hopes and dreams for a new town centre are like. As we start to get on-site, undoubtedly we will need partners to help us sharpen our messaging into something elegant and beautiful, but it’s really an authentic story that’s already started and the partners will need to build on that, rather than create it from scratch.
CR: This is a site with a lot of history and heritage: are you going to draw on that for the new development or look more to the future?
RM: We’re going to reach right back! I’ve seen some great schemes in Sydney but they could be anywhere – there’s nothing to embed them in that location. We are so lucky at Canada Water with that heritage and we’re going to bloody milk it as much as we can! Up until 1969, when the docks closed, about 50% of the current land mass was water. So we are working with the world’s best water engineer – we’ll have water in all its forms for you to enjoy and look at. Not Las Vegas-style big, squirty fountains, but it’s going to be a place where people will travel to from all around world –really wonderful and clever and joyous! And there will be loads of old materials – we like brick and we like wood!