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’.
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.