Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea – building on history

The February 2011 NLA conference has refocused attention on the future of the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea (VNEB) “Opportunity Area”.  The Framework Plan produced by the GLA asserts that the area will be “vitally important to strengthening London’s CAZ  [Central Activities Zone] and World City status”.  It also acknowledges the deficiencies of the wider area and the “opportunity to upgrade the existing public realm, provide strategic open space and new facilities such as schools and health services”.

These two objectives do not sit comfortably together, particularly as paying for the  infrastructure required to achieve the “vital” expansion of the CAZ is already challenging the viability of the whole idea. There has been general support for the project among the surrounding communities, but resentment and rejection could set in if the ‘local’
improvements offered cannot be achieved, or repeatedly deferred.

Better to accept now that the primary purpose of the area is to meet the needs of central London – as it has for many centuries.  Originally  an area of market gardens, it was the location from the mid-17th Century of a number of pleasure and tea gardens offering recreation and welcome respite for its occupants from the stew of the ‘central activities zone’ of the time. The riverside accommodated the noxious, noisy and sometimes toxic industries on which London depended.  The inland areas, still sparsely used in the mid 19th Century allowed the construction of the new railways from the west and south to serve London – first at Nine Elms and later Waterloo.

By the mid-20th Century, the railway works and yards were disused, and this facilitated the next stage in the area’s service to Central London. The Covent Garden fruit, vegetable and flower market had outgrown its hopelessly constrained central location and antiquated buildings.  Nine Elms offered a large, unconstrained, cheap and accessible alternative, no more than two miles away.  What happened next is an epic story in itself, but secured the long term future of one of London’s most historic areas, and a thriving mixed-use area of international acclaim.

This relationship with the centre of London has recently been reprised, with the relocation of the US Embassy now a commitment. Again, the relocation of a major institution to Nine Elms will enable the reinvigoration of a historic area of central London, this time part of
Mayfair.  While not an area in particular need of regeneration, this offers an opportunity to develop activities and facilities for a wider public and open up access to an area that has been restricted for years.

The intensive redevelopment of VNEB will remove this capacity to accommodate central area relocations, and London will have to look elsewhere in future, but the form and process of development presents another issue. Designs are now advanced for many of the development sites identified. They are all high-density and multi-storey, as you would expect in a central activities zone. The GLA Framework Plan preserves the space at the core of the area for a linear park, which establishes some form to the distribution of development, but is unlikely to meet the acknowledged need for “strategic” open space.

More importantly, there is no co-ordination of the design and layout of this space with the “public realm” being provided by developers. Individually these may be a reasonable use of the space left outside the footprints of their massive blocks, but together they will lead to duplication or absence of some amenities and will fail to make best use of public space,
already a scarce resource in the wider area.

This is where a more carefully integrated approach could help meet the combined needs of the expanded CAZ and the wider area, and also instil a degree of local and historic  distinctiveness.

The success of the pleasure gardens laid out around the time of the Restoration lasted for  over a century, and, for the time, offered a level of access and inclusion that must have felt quite modern. That role was revived in the 1950s when Battersea Park was refreshed for the Festival of Britain,  and now would be a good time to do it again.

The plan for Battersea Power Station includes a substantial public space, and promises a diversity of recreational and cultural activities.  The reconfiguration and modernisation of New Covent Garden Market already offers a spatial contribution to the linear park, and its many locally- based wholesale and food preparation businesses could be encouraged to develop into a public market facility.  This would add character and vitality to a site that has been historically under-used and unnecessarily enclosed.

The idea of a theme-park proved the undoing of Battersea Power Station 25 years ago, but a sequence of pleasure gardens, re-interpreted for the 21st Century, would provide a  historically resonant theme to inform the design and layout of open space throughout the area.  It should include not just open areas, but public spaces typical of London’s historic core – urban squares, courts, walks, galleries and promenades, stairs and prospects. Such devices would help connect with the wider area, and introduce opportunities for small scale businesses and activities.  It would raise the profile of the Covent Garden Market Authority as a key public agency in the regeneration of the area, just as Tate Modern did at Bankside, and the University of the Arts is doing at Kings Cross Central.

This historically-informed approach to the future character of the area may not make a great impression in the marketing suites for the development sites in China and the Middle East, but in the long term (and this is likely to take a very long time to implement) it will secure for London an expansion of its central area that feels like part of it. It will instil a sense of continuity that will become an essential component of the area’s
success. VNEB will be recognised and valued, by its residents, its visitors and its future investors, as unmistakably part of London. But it will need a better name.

©Steven Bee March 2011