Privatised open space – tragedy of the commons or common sense?

It’s more than 15 years since Jarvis Cocker began Pulp’s Common People, a 4 minute polemic on the challenges of delivering social mobility, with the lines:

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,

She studied sculpture at St Martin’s College,

That’s where I    (de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de) 

Caught her eye…

Now St Martin’s College, joined together with the Central School of Art and Design as Central St Martins, has a stunning new campus at the heart of London’s Kings Cross development area.  Oh – and one or two things have happened in Greece since then too.  How times change.  Or do they?

Central St Martins was the first, and is still pretty much the only, occupier of the massive Kings Cross railway lands site.  Today it is surrounded by a sea of hoardings and construction sites, as this fly through (yes really) shows.  But in a few years’ time this will be London’s latest mega-destination.  And it’s going to be big.   Residential and office buildings will dwarf Lewis Cubitt’s 1851 Granary building which forms the heart of Central St Martins.  Around 5,000 people will live here and as many as 20,000 thousand more will work here.

Just like Canary Wharf, North Greenwich and Stratford, the Kings Cross railway land was a large and inaccessible area previously occupied by a single user which, to use words loved by anyone trying to justify shoe-horning as much floorspace as possible onto a site, was “big enough to set its own design context”.  So we will have 20 storey residential blocks and similarly sized offices.  And, to be fair, shops, squares and an oasis of human scale Victorian railway buildings housing the Art College.

Now of course we all need somewhere to live, and in Camden housing problems are probably as acute as anywhere – not helped by the rather ironic fact that a mile down the road from Kings Cross railway lands 300 Council flats will have to be demolished to make way for the new HS2 terminus at Euston.  While tower blocks didn’t work in the 1960’s, today people on the waiting list in Inner London will increasingly see a new flat in a high rise block as their best chance of decent housing.  Given this we need to make very high density living a success for people.  Which was why I found myself in a group from the Academy of Urbanism looking at the Kings Cross development last week.

It was the week of the degree show at Central St Martins.  A veritable cornucopia of artistic delight assailed us from all sides in the “streets” inside the building.  One of these will become a right of way to another part of Kings Cross in the future, with public access for 16 hours a day.  The day I went it was a backdrop to the imagination of final year Art students, with upside down rooms, dead trees and what looked suspiciously like the world’s largest ever Christmas decoration.

However, once outside things were rather different.  Kings Cross is (in)famous for being the latest purveyor of the privatised open space.  The main developer, Argent, is retaining control of all the paths, piazzas and green spaces, and will be deciding what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable in them.  And outside the Art College the anarchic mix of degree show installations is exchanged for the first of these, Granary Square – a still rather bland brick pavior and fountains “setting” for the listed buildings – with narrow boats on the nearby Regent’s Canal the sole sign of unregulated life.

At least the developer won’t be using the traditional B&BO model.  They are in it for the long term.  But by managing the “public” areas in perpetuity they risk creating what might feel a bit like a huge corporate gated campus.

And in fact some of the first people to experience living here will be students.  Now as Jarvis Cocker rather effectively pointed out, if you come from a comfortable background and you are destined for one of the professions, even in my case one as modestly remunerated as Town Planning, your window of opportunity to “live like common people” is somewhat limited.  Plucked from London suburbia I spent a few years as a student in Newcastle living in cold damp Tyneside flats alongside the death throes of heavy engineering, seeing the last Ark Royal being launched from Swan Hunter’s in Wallsend, and at one time living in what the media claimed was the most burgled street in Britain.  Now I’m in a comfortable three bedroom house with two cars on the drive and nice neighbours…

Today’s students at Kings Cross will have a rather different set of opportunities.  One of the first residential blocks to be completed on the site is to be the third Urbanest development in London.  With prices from a smidgeon under £220 per week this isn’t cheap of course.  But once outside their front door students will have a choice.  They will be able to walk through the semi-private managed environment of the Kings Cross development area to Central St Martins, and continue on down Kings Boulevard to Euston Road, and beyond it UCL, University of Westminster and a host of other alma maters.  Alternatively they will be able to cross York Way and explore the badlands off the Caledonian Road, which lie comfortably in the bottom 20% on the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

I’m sure the Urbanest student accommodation will be high quality.  Equally for parents worried about how dear little Thomas or Charlotte will get on in the big smoke the managed surroundings will be a big plus.  But dear me won’t it all be rather sterile?

And this lies at the heart of the debate about the corporatisation of public space.  Only by leaving the site do you enter real life – where the fractal geometry of places is alive and well.  Although how you define “keeping it real” is up to you of course.  The Kings Cross publicity suggests taking the canal towpath up to Camden market or hanging out in the cafés, shops and bars on Upper Street.  Pulp’s Greek heroine might have opted for the manor of the Bemerton Man Dem on the Cally Road.  The neighbourhood policeman is as good a litmus test as any, and outside the Argent “gates” we tested how safe the area was.  Would he let his children walk around here on their own?  “I’m a responsible parent – I wouldn’t let my children walk anywhere on their own,” came the reply.

Semi-public space may be sterile and even slightly dehumanising.  But with such a big development as Kings Cross, with so many people and so much that can go wrong, I suspect that most law-abiding (not to mention law-enforcing) people will say it is a price worth paying for a safe community.

But perhaps having Central St Martins at the heart of the new Kings Cross can make a difference.  For today’s aspiring Greek sculptors (or for that matter songwriters from Sheffield) the area beyond the Argent corral is going to provide far more creative inspiration.  Surrounding Council estates like Maiden Lane – “the more awards they won the worse they are today” I was told, and Maiden Lane was feted in its day – would be a great opportunity for artistic outreach and creative tensions.

For Central St Martins it’s an interesting conundrum.  Great art was probably never created in conditions of safety and sterility.  That is what great science needs.  But their surroundings at Kings Cross risk being exactly that – however well designed and managed they are.  I just hope enough of today’s students still want to break out and live like common people for a bit.

  • Heronflight

    Its great to get a perspective like this: informative, good links and beautifully written. Love those comic references too. Good to read some reflection on urban/social change and its implications and student life as lifestyle choice. Gated developments give people the opportunity to stay in their bubble: everything provided and all those less palatable aspects of English life screened from view. Hurrah for modern life!