Conversion pressure on London’s industrial land

April 3, 2013

During the past few months I’ve had the chance to speak at two events on the possibilities for reviving industrial activities in London. In February, a symposium organised by Plymouth University’s School of Architecture looked at potential for re-industrialisation in Warsaw, Birmingham and London. In March, Just Space included re-industrialisation as one of three topics framing its workshop on alternative economic strategies for London .

These were both valuable events, with cross-disciplinary exchanges between speakers and participants helping to move forward the discussion on industry in the city. At both events the intense market and policy pressure for converting urban industrial land to residential uses emerged as a common theme. Roy Tindle, speaking at the Just Space workshop suggested that before thinking about ‘re-industrialisation’ London policymakers need to first ‘save’ the existing industrial land that still exists.

Looking at the Charlton riverside in South East London, he highlighted the challenges of retaining dedicated space for the messy, noisy and smelly ‘underbelly’ that is an essential component of any city’s material metabolism. With new housing being built next to aggregate yards and metal recyclers there’s increasing pressure for these activities to shift further out of the city (and not disturb their new neighbours) – with implications for transport and ‘industrial sprawl’.

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Michael Edwards‘ analysis of property markets in London confirmed the extent of pressure for conversion to residential use. The price premium for residential space makes any other land use (schools, playing fields, shops, industry) vulnerable, threatening the diversity of the economy and the broader social reproductive capacity of the city.

Neil Bennett, a partner at Farrells talked about London’s industrial areas as the last remaining ‘soft’ parts of the city. These are the places he suggested with the most potential for redevelopment and for absorbing the thousands of extra houses needed in the city.

My own talk confirmed the struggle that industrial activities have surviving in London. Looking at the conversion of old industrial buildings on the Regent’s Canal in Islington demonstrated just one case where pressure for redeveloping industrial land is being driven by land value premiums for residential use and public policy supporting house building. I argued that we should think not just about ‘saving’ mono-functional industrial land (although sometimes necessary), but about redeveloping old industrial land in ways that support emerging light industries while mixing in other uses like housing.

It’s abundantly clear that land-use conversion pressure is a major factor threatening the continuing viability of manufacturing, repair and craft activities in inner-London. While it’s easy to be gloomy about prospects for industry in the city, there must be some examples where industry is thriving – or where the need for more housing is being delivered in a way that allows for industry/residential mixed use. Such cases seem rare on the ground, but searching out visionary design proposals for urban industry is my next priority for research.

Making space for makers

December 7, 2011

The ‘maker movement’ has been getting a fair bit of mainstream press of late. The Economist leads this week’s Technology Quarterly describing how a burgeoning culture of small-scale manufacturers might be heralding a ‘new industrial revolution’. FastCompany has Bruce Nussbaum’s talking of how ‘The Future of Capitalism is Homegrown, Small Scale and Independent‘.

Both articles identify a movement that is as much cultural as economic – an ‘Indy’ culture that celebrates direct connections with makers and small-scale industries while building a parallel economy that moves beyond mass production and the dissatisfactions with globalised ‘crony capitalism’.

Intriguingly, there are close affinities between this new culture of physical making and the more established digital culture of software and IT production. The Economist:

The maker movement is both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends. New tools and electronic components let people integrate the physical and digital worlds simply and cheaply. Online services and design software make it easy to develop and share digital blueprints. And many people who spend all day manipulating bits on computer screens are rediscovering the pleasure of making physical objects and interacting with other enthusiasts in person, rather than online.

So while we’re turning to making ‘real’ stuff as a reaction to all this computer time, we’re also using the tools and working methods of digital production. So the ‘hacker spaces’ of computer programmers become ‘maker spaces’ of collaborative craft. The open-source philosophy of digital culture is applied to craft, with design blueprints and techniques shared among collaborative small-scale manufacturers.

This is exciting stuff and perhaps is the start of a new economy, an ‘indy capitalism’ where, as Nussbaum says “good things come from and are made locally by people you can see and know”.

What I’m interested in is what the urban and spatial implications of this new economy might entail. If small-scale manufacturing really is going to become big – what spaces do we need to support them? What type of buildings and what type of city should we be building to make this a reality?

Providing workspaces for physical manufacture is not something city development during the past 30 years has done very well. In fact, small-scale industrial space is on the decline across the ‘post-industrial’ world, with factories and warehouses being renovated as apartments and offices.

Property developers and city governments need to think about how ‘making space’ can be supported in the inner-city; in the dense, mixed-use neighbourhoods that foster innovation. The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Centre in Brooklyn, New York offers an interesting model.

As does the idea of the mythical ‘Silicon Valley Garage‘ [pdf] that supposedly nurtured tech-startups. While I’m not a fan of building more suburban homes with garages, we do need to start thinking about what sort of basic and unglamorous spaces we might need in our neighbourhoods to nurture more homegrown making. Cornershop workshop anyone?

Is making stuff creative?

November 18, 2011

There was a well-read article published in Wednesday’s Guardian asking ‘Why doesn’t Britain make things anymore?’. It’s an interesting attempt at explaining Britain’s de-industrialisation since the 1970s.

The celebration of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ comes in for a bashing, with Florida’s influential ideas seen as contributing to the decline of manufacturing. If post-industrial cities and regions can only succeed by  nurturing and attracting a group of ‘super-creatives’ then older industries that ‘make stuff’ are side-lined in favour of a new type of ‘knowledge economy’.

While Florida’s idea of creativity is so broad to include occupations like IT support staff, it is also narrowly conceived to exclude occupations like factory workers where people physically ‘make stuff’. From the article:

what really stuck out was how Florida fenced off creative work. You were either a knowledge worker or a factory worker – as if the other stuff didn’t require brains. And running through a lot of the knowledge-economy talk was a carelessness, bordering on contempt, for what people did.

If ‘making stuff’ has had its day in Britain then ‘creativity’ becomes not about ‘making’ thing, but about branding, marketing, conceptualising, and designing objects that are then manufactured in China.

There’s something unsettling about this celebration of ‘white collar creativity’ while at the same time skilled craftspeople and factory-workers are laid off and manufacturing industries move offshore.

The new creatives appropriation of old factory buildings appears to almost spite the declining industries. Embracing a post-industrial grittiness, graphic design firms and marketing agencies fill these buildings with the white noise of macbooks and clicking mice, replacing the polishing, sanding and hammering that once signalled the working day.

In thinking about opportunities for once again making things in Britain how can we join the strengths of the now well-developed ‘creative class’ with industries of physical manufacture? There’s reasons to think that there are still advantages to be had in both designing, branding and manufacturing goods in London (or Newcastle or Manchester). Can we expand Florida’s idea of creativity to  also include manufacturing?

It might not be ships we build, but there’s plenty of scope for small-scale manufacturing producing ordinary goods for local markets; furniture, bicycles, kitchenware, and clothing. Urban-based industries are closer to their consumer markets and so more responsive to changing trends and needs. With people developing making and crafting skills, there are opportunities for further invention and innovation across the manufacturing sector.

At the higher-tech end, there’s also synergies to be had in closing the distance between design and manufacture. We might speed up processes of innovation by having design, making, marketing and retailing in close proximity. These ‘craft-like’ workshop producers might not be part of Florida’s celebrated class, but perhaps they’re the real creatives of the future.

The importance of neighbourhood industry

November 7, 2011

Pockets of industry are surprisingly common throughout London’s old inner-suburbs. Walk a block back from the high street shops and you’ll find small factories, car garages, scrap-metal recyclers and warehouses.

In Stoke Newington, three miles north of the City there’s this hidden pocket of industry tucked behind shops on Albion Road:

These unglamorous spaces fulfil an important function – adding to the mix of uses in inner-city suburban locations, offering a diversity of local job opportunities and providing work space to do the material tinkering that’s necessary for keeping our everyday goods in order. Places to fix the car, repair bikes or build kitchen joinery.

An aerial view shows the location of this small patch of industrial buildings behind the local shops and within a generally residential neighbourhood.

The Greater London Authority acknowledges that these small industrial sites help meet the city’s needs for industrial space. Greater London estimates that around 60% of the city’s industrial capacity is scattered across these small manufacturing, repair and warehousing sites.

While there’s official acknowledgement of the importance of these industrial pockets, it is also Greater London policy (pdf) to consolidate industry in what’s called ‘Strategic Industrial Locations’ – generally mono-functional estates and business parks in outer-London. These sites are protected from land-use change, while smaller ‘neighbourhood’ industrial sites are often subject to more lenient planning controls by borough councils and threatened with conversion to higher-value land uses.

Protected 'strategic' industrial locations are located in outer-London. Source: GLA Supplementary Planning Guidance

With enormous pressures for house-building and high residential land values, neighbourhood pockets of industrial buildings are vulnerable to being demolished, meaning inner-city spaces for making things become increasingly difficult to come by.

At this site in Stoke Newington this process is currently in play – with a new residential building being constructed over a former industrial site. There will no doubt be market pressure to continue this type of redevelopment on the adjacent sites.

There’s real value in keeping industrial spaces well dispersed throughout the city; providing opportunities for local jobs and locally-manufactured goods while adding to the interest and vitality of suburban streets. Protecting such spaces need not be about halting new development, but can involve keeping industry alive by including ground-floor space for industry within new housing developments.

At the political level, councils should do more to value neighbourhood industry and acknowledge the benefits of having spaces for making things in dense mixed-use locations. Rather than segregating all industry into estates on the edge of London, it’s important that we retain a real mix of land-uses in our neighbourhoods. It keeps the streets interesting and with industry around the corner from our homes we’re given everyday opportunities to see and hear the work of making things.

Re-scaling manufacturing for the inner-city

November 2, 2011

As governments and economists attempt to navigate a path out of the recession, there’s been a flurry of arguments for a renaissance of British manufacturing. A stronger manufacturing sector will apparently ‘re-balance’ the economy, revive the fortunes of the ailing middle classes, or spur innovation and productivity gains.

Less attention is given to the built and spatial form that a revived manufacturing might take. What’s often in policy-makers’ minds is a stronger hi-tech industrial sector; think faceless sheds in business parks around the Thames Gateway, or semi-rural factories along the M4.

But I’d like to see a more urban form of small-scale manufacturing industry in London – a type of material production that works in dense, mixed-use inner-city environments and thrives on close connections to consumer trends. Fashion industries still do this – I’m sure other forms of production for niche markets can be integrated into dense urban spaces.

Back in the 1960s when steel mills were still part of the urban landscape Jane Jacobs envisioned a future city of ‘intricate’, ‘diversified’ and ‘complicated jumbles’ where small-scale industry was part of the urban mix, while a declining mass-production system shifted outside the city:

Mass-production manufacturing will no longer be regarded as city work. Cities will manufacture even more goods than they do today, but these will be almost wholly differentiated production goods, made in relatively small, or very small, organizations (Jacobs, 1969; 245).

At the boutique end of the market this type of ‘differentiated’ manufacturing does exist in clusters like London’s Saville Row. Many more ordinary ‘makers’ are hidden behind neighbourhood high streets. But we’re still very dependent on mass production, now off-shored to China, and very far away from Jacobs’ vision.

'Ordinary' urban industry: manufacturing windows and joinery for local markets for 30 years, Shaklewell, London

Can we get less faceless sheds with quick motorway access to Heathrow, and more small-scale workshops with open doors to walkable neighbourhoods in Hackney Wick or Deptford? What built spaces would this new small-scale industry require? How can property developers provide these spaces – and councils encourage the integration of industry with residential and commercial city activities?

There’s much promise in a revived manufacturing sector – but supporting ‘making’ need not just be about hi-tech manufacturing on the city outskirts – it should also involve enabling small-scale industry in London’s dense inner-city boroughs.

Making things on the High Street

November 1, 2011

Coming home yesterday evening on the 243 bus up Kingsland Road I kept an eye out for empty shops. They’re not difficult to spot – on certain stretches it seemed every second shop had faded signs and a closed up roller door.

The decline of the British high street is causing concern at the highest levels, with the government commissioning the Mary Portas review in May. Responding to falling sales at high street stores the review’s findings are due to be released soon.

Abandoned shop, Bow Road, London

The UK government’s recommendations should hopefully take heed of some useful earlier analysis by the New Economics Foundation and Gort Scott /University College London’s excellent report ‘High Street London’. The New Economics Foundation imagine future high streets as:

“places where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities including working, sharing, exchanging, playing and learning new skills”.

Organisations like The Empty Shops Network make similar recommendations, looking to town centres as primarily social, rather than retail hubs [pdf]. The thinking here is inventive and progressive – and looks to ensure the continuing animation of our high streets through a more diverse range of activities.

Activities of ‘making’ – of craft and manufacturing – can be part of these more diverse town centres. Imagine workshops open to the street where people repair and build everyday material goods. These making functions might use abandoned shops and support the continued public life of the high street.

The manufacturing of furniture, clothing, bicycles or pottery will not only make our streets more interesting places, but also provide new job options, keep skills alive, and potentially open up new participatory forms of material work. The presence of making on the street can contribute to a type of social life that’s not just about leisure or shopping, but about shared experiences of tangible work and craft.

While much mass-manufacturing may have forever moved offshore, there’s still opportunities for small-scale industries in London. What spaces do they need? What new industries might be viable? How can they be supported? Making material ‘stuff’ in our cities deserves more attention.


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