Croydon gets real about improving public space

Planning ‘visions’ are easy to come by but achieving them is a lot more difficult, as Croydon council officers know all too well. One way forward is to involve opposition councillors as well as the ruling party

West Croydon Interchange designed by East.
West Croydon Interchange designed by East. Credit: Jakob Spriestersbach

The public realm as idea and as physical space is prominent in discussions about life in our cities. There are two dimensions to this. The first relates to growing anxieties about the privatisation and securitisation of public space including what you cannot do and where you cannot go – legitimate concerns about rights to the city and democratic participation.

The second dimension is that of design. Design guides try to ensure coherence and quality, but are they the answer to what we know are the real barriers to good design and successful public realm? Designers might be better armed with local guides to tricky councillors, idiosyncratic contractual preferences, and a map of known nimbys.

There is, however, a no man’s land between these two dimensions of public space – between conceptual design and use. Public Space and the Role of the Architect, a research collaboration between the University of Westminster and the University of São Paulo led by Professor Susannah Hagan, has been investigating public space design in London and Sao Paolo, in the mid-20th century and the present day. 

One of our contemporary case studies is the public space programme of the London Borough of Croydon. We spoke to placemaking team leader Vincent Lacovara to understand the challenges and opportunities of public space delivery there.

In Croydon, as so often with public space, it was more the demands of commerce and the need for inward investment that moved public realm improvement higher up the agenda. In the early 2000s, as big corporations threatened to leave Croydon for more salubrious settings, it also became clear to council officers that major retailers would not move in until the public realm had been improved, not only around potential sites for shops, but also at transport interchanges and in conservation areas.

Croydon signed up to New Labour’s promise of a new urban future, with ‘visions’ developed by EDAW and Will Alsop respectively in the early 2000s, but the ability to deliver on these proved elusive. It was partly through the appointment of Jon Rouse, former head of CABE, as chief executive of the council in 2007, with a joined up planning framework and infrastructure plan that public realm improvements in the city centre could become a reality. Young firms such as East and Studio Egret West found opportunities there under the aegis of the kind of hybrid professional who had so boldly reimagined the borough in the post-war period – the architect-planner, under figures like Finn Williams, now of the Common Office and GLA, and Vincent Lacovara, a co-founder of AOC. Lacovara leads placemaking, an interdisciplinary team within the planning and strategic transport directorate, itself headed by a landscape architect formerly with EDAW, Heather Cheesbrough. The team contributes expertise for the local plan, leads design negotiations with developers on major planning applications, produces urban design frameworks, manages the new Croydon Place Review Panel and provides design services to internal and external clients.

  • West Croydon Interchange designed by East.
    West Croydon Interchange designed by East. Credit: Jakob Spriertersbach
  • West Croydon Interchange.
    West Croydon Interchange. Credit: Jakob Spriestersbach
  • Croydon South End.
    Croydon South End. Credit: Jakob Spriestersbach
  • Lansdowne Road Croydon, part of a new east west pedestrian route connecting up central Croydon.
    Lansdowne Road Croydon, part of a new east west pedestrian route connecting up central Croydon.
  • Public engagement as part of the East Croydon masterplan process.
    Public engagement as part of the East Croydon masterplan process.
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Political wrangling can impede project delivery, particularly as administrations change. Lacovara says: ‘Planning obviously works on a much longer time frame… to get decent long term plans that are implementable with that kind of chopping and changing is very difficult.’ To tackle this, Mike Kiely, former director of planning and building control who has since left the borough, set up ‘a planning framework that was developed in dialogue… [with] the opposition party as well as the leadership. [They] were involved in the production of the plan’ and did not fundamentally object to it, says Lacovara. It worked. Councillors of all political persuasions ‘understood it was a 20-year plan, [and] that there were certain challenges that whichever party was in government they would have to be addressing’.

Pressure on politicians to think long term crucially also comes from the public. ‘People enjoy their spaces, and it’s raised expectations about what public space can be in Croydon. So they’ll put pressure on whoever the administration is, whether it’s Conservative or Labour, to do more of that… It’s generally raised local expectations around quality and character of public space, so even if all of my team… left, I think that would remain.’ In spite of best practice guidance and regulation, clients and architects too often rely on ad hoc professional relationships vulnerable to political vagaries. Though not the only local council to do so, Croydon has developed remarkably resilient and replicable procedures to overcome such vulnerabilities.

Central to the success of this system is the imagination and clarity that permeates the team’s masterplan briefs. Lacovara is unequivocal: ‘There’s nothing boring in planning. There’s nothing boring in procurement. There’s nothing boring in brief writing.’ Once the lead consultant was appointed, ‘the projects were project managed and design directed by Croydon Council… Each appointed lead consultant sub-contracted other sub-consultants to work with them.’ The masterplans were then used to secure funding from TfL, the GLA and other bodies. When funding was secured, procurement for individual packages, including public spaces, was arranged, all under a design and build contract – standard for delivery of public realm and highways projects at Croydon Council. Lacovara is keen to emphasise, however, that this did not mean skimping on quality: ‘We did… work hard to ensure quality/cost ratios used during procurement were balanced more in favour of quality than normal, given the fact that these were intended to be “transformational” projects – not business as usual. We took papers to Croydon’s Procurement Board to justify increasing the weight given to quality, given the unique status of each individual project.’

Caithness Walk Ruskin Square design by Muf and East Croydon Bridge designed by Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West.
Caithness Walk Ruskin Square design by Muf and East Croydon Bridge designed by Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West. Credit: Jim Stephenson

Croydon is one of several pioneering local authorities to rip up the old model of urban regeneration vehicles and go it alone. The council’s new development company, Brick by Brick, is 100% council-owned (though unaccountable to the local electorate). The main political driver is to deliver housing, but it has other potential benefits. Through the new company and devolved powers for Croydon’s Growth Zone, Lacovara notes, ‘we’ve managed to find a way to get even more external funding… and it’s very much public space oriented. A big chunk of it is intended to deliver the next phase of public realm.’

With the success of this initial raft of projects, the in-house design teams will be taking on more and more work themselves: ‘This will be more cost effective, quicker and potentially result in higher quality on some projects,’ says Lacovara, though external design teams will still be given plenty of opportunity. There is here perhaps the beginning of a swing back to the public space delivery of the post-war period, when the municipality was planning authority, client and designer all in one. It was under this model that the idea of hard-landscaped, architect-designed public space as inherently democratic, certainly innately civic, took hold in its modern incarnation. 

Dr Neal Shasore is a research associate at the University of Westminster


Public Space and the Role of the Designer: A Symposium for Practitioners will take place at the RIBA on 20th June 2017, and is co-hosted by the RIBA Research Team. It focuses on the design and delivery of public spaces today.

See more at Brave Old World: Modernist Public Space Design in London and São Paulo, in June in the Practice Space, 2nd floor, 66 Portland Place, as part of the London Festival of Architecture.

For more information about this three-year AHRC-funded research project, visit our website, psarchitect.org.