Delighted to receive a perspective from Sophie Talbot with a particular angle on the madness of the planning and development system which has caused so much conflict, schism and angst in Kings Cross. All planners and developers should read this.
This is the second in what might be a series of 'Kings Cross Perspectives' – people's views of their patch in their own words. If you have a perspective on Kings Cross drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. Over to Sophie.
'I read Leah’s article (Kings cross Perspectives – Brittania Street) with great sadness. It pinpoints heartbreakingly some of the drawbacks in the way urban regeneration takes place. Yet with some small but important tweaks the exclusion that Leah and so many others are experiencing could be so easily avoided. Here’s my tuppence worth – it’s just one opinion nothing more but it is my personal view on what’s happened on my patch.
There is an underlying philosophy among mainstream practitioners including property developers, planners and central Government agencies that regeneration is by its very nature a positive thing. That because one bit is being physically developed, the resulting advantages will trickle into surrounding areas. There are practitioners out there that operate as if they hold exclusive rights to understanding the impact of their work. Architects, developers and planners that appear to respond to critique as if those raising potential problems don’t understand the bigger picture, can’t comprehend how their work will function, what impact it will have, and therefore their critique is best ignored.
I live on Wharfdale Road to the north east of King’s Cross station. I say that with some trepidation because I know that will switch some readers off straight away. I’ve heard our community called ‘negativist’ by politicians just over the border in Camden Town Hall. We are not alone, along with some local groups, we have been labelled with a reputation that results in our views being immediately dismissed. We are seen as naysayers. Worse: we are seen as troublemakers. It is, apparently, the fault of at least one local group that the works at King’s Cross Central were delayed because issues they raised had to be considered. That many of those issues would inevitably become irrelevant because the bulldozer of property development is a powerful tool is neither here nor there. Great inconvenience was caused, time and money lost. That hurts; it is difficult to forgive and has resulted in the polarizing of ‘the community’ on one side and developers on the other.
This is a great shame on so many levels. Practitioners are missing a major trick, one that would help them address potential problems, correct what maybe errors and tweak their work for the better whilst taking the community along with them.
In the field of organisation development, consultants are taught to seek out people that are ‘resistors to change’, to discuss in detail with them what it is that they oppose and why, then to use the valuable information gained to increase the efficacy of, and broaden support for, change management programmes. It’s a useful model, yet one that can become very challenging the longer a consultant is engaged. Over time the consultant becomes part of the very organisational system they ideally need to observe as an outsider. They start to develop alliances, loyalties and enemies or dissenters. They become advocates for their proposals. In doing so it is very easy to get stuck in the process of advocacy, of defending what is being proposed rather than seeing it as model that can be developed and changed for the better as a direct result of listening to dissenters and resistors.
Having lived in Wharfdale Road on and off for over 20 years, I have an overwhelming feeling of the same thing having happened. The early days of master-planning by Camden, Islington and Argent St George were characterised by a free flow of ideas. You only have to look at some of the documents and diagrams produced at the time to feel the excitement being generated. The free flow of pedestrians and cyclists, the swimming pool designed by local kids, the large green open spaces, the sheer imagination being unleashed from our community by professional developers was inspiring. Then it all seemed to go wrong. Rather than the master plans having a sense of shared ownership by developers and community alike, a split emerged. The community began to feel excluded from the process. Developers and planners began to feel defensive of plans that were becoming concrete. Communication became strained to say the least.
Over and above the physical changes happening here, my feeling is of great sadness, opportunities lost, partnerships never developed, mutual respect becoming mutual distrust.
There are many of us around King’s Cross who’ve felt frustrated at living in a fragmented community, a neighbourhood that isn’t a neighbourhood. We are North East KX, South KX, Somers Town, Bloomsbury… we are Camden, Islington. The administrative and physical boundaries between us mean the concerns we share are overshadowed by the walls that separate us. On top of this the schism that now exists between developers and planners and various elements of ‘the community’ only serves to exacerbate our sense of being distanced, excluded from the massive changes happening here.
The early optimism that this major regeneration programme could be a catalyst for community cohesion; that the huge housing estates of Barnsbury, Priory Green, Bemerton that sit in my area could benefit; that streets like Leah’s would be carried forward on a wave of improvements; and that new partnerships could be forged has all but gone. Yet walking down the new boulevard from St Martin’s College to the new St Pancras/King’s Cross entrance it’s easy to regain some excitement. It leaves me wondering: can we get that back? Is it possible for developers and planners on one side and ‘the community’ on the other to find some way of communicating where ideas flow, are shared rather than defended, grow rather than shrink into established practices, where changes to plans occur not grudgingly or through an unseen backdoor, but are applauded and welcomed even when they are not wholly feasible – are valued for the potential that they are, are openly dissected to seek out what could work rather than being dismissed as ‘negativism’.
I hope so