Where Shall We Go This Afternoon?
A million families say it in a Saturday. But what turns an area into a destination?
Paddington Basin was developed in a public-private partnership. The area was run down, light industrial, largely inaccessible land before the works started. The ground was contaminated with industrial waste, the waterways clogged and polluted, and a network of overhead power lines prevented piecemeal development.
It became a grand scheme, replacing derelict buildings with, well, lots of indifferently designed offices. To individualise this dead area some unusual bridges were put in across the canal, including one that rolls up, and some dreadful corporate statuary was added. One, comprising a series of green glass blocks, was already badly chipped when I walked past it. At the weekends the only people you see are security guards. There’s something askew here; it feels derelict, lonely, depressing. Nobody goes there unless they absolutely have to. You could be anywhere.
Then there’s King’s Cross, built on slum land – one of the poorest areas in London – now incorporating an entirely new postcode of streets, again with the emphasis on offices. This time the developers added play areas, 1,080 water spouts lit in rainbow colours, terracing that is greened and packed most sunny days. It helps that it’s full of arts school students but local kids love to play in the fountains – and miraculously, nobody stops them. The gas-holders are now being returned, theatres and swimming pools, galleries and a market have populated the area at weekends so that it never feels dead. You’d go there for a walk. It feels Londony.
London has always been littered with places that died out. Clare Market, Limehouse, Norton Folgate, Horselydown (once known as ‘London’s Larder’), Ratcliff, (‘Sailortown’) and White City were not places where most people wanted to be. Lee Valley kept its mix of countryside areas, lakes, trails and sports centres covering an area of over 10,000 acres. You’d go there on a Saturday.
But of course families also go to M&M World at the weekends, although God knows why. In any town where I appear at a public library or an event space you can bet a tiny handful of people will attend to do something they see as cultural while the rest will be mooching around identical pedestrianised streets full of chain stores.
I think people don’t like to be told they will enjoy something. It’s human nature to want to explore and discover for yourself. Finding that balance is the crucial trick. Right now too much of the old explorable London has gone. The developer that builds in a pointless alleyway, a peculiar folly or weird, purposeless bit of grass gets my vote.