Peter Bishop served as director of planning at the London Borough Camden from 2001 until 2006 when the Kings Cross development was being planned. He reflects on the project’s ambitions and the factors that contributed to its success.

‘Place making’ has become a mantra among planners and politicians, often repeated with little understanding as to how ‘good’ places are created. Architecture and design are important of course, but successful places are rather more than a bricolage of physical elements borrowed from others and assembled into new patterns. Successful places emerge from a deep understanding of their unique context, robust (and relevant) strategic principles, process and dialogue based on curiosity. Good design embraces subtlety and is fundamentally bespoke. There is no algorithm and plagiarism does not produce good results. The world only needs one Highline.

The planning of Kings Cross literally started from an agreement of a process through which a place would emerge that was relevant to its social and economic context, to its time, and to its location on the (then) edge of central London. We started with asking what kind of place should it be – and the answer was that it should just be ‘another piece of London’. It meant that it should be socially mixed as well as mixed use, that it should have streets, parks and squares that were accessible to all, that it should integrate socially as well as physically into its surrounding neighbourhoods, that it should have streets and street frontages, that the architecture would be a coherent collection of high-quality buildings that were framed by the urban spaces in which they sat – and not a failed Expo. Finally, the completed scheme should be capable of adapting and renewing itself over time.

The planning negotiations took around five years to complete, involved extensive rounds of consultation (all documents were made public and were debated at each stage and approximately 30,000 people responded during the period). When Camden signed off the approvals there was little significant opposition to the scheme and no call in or public inquiry. This does not imply that there was a consensus; planning is a political process that cannot achieve consensus. It can however, when it works, produce a well thought out solution to opposing views and opinions.

Kings Cross is a product of its time and is, of course, not without its faults. But based on the fact that it is a much studied globally cited exemplar of regeneration, has become a London destination that attracts a wide range of daily visitors, has made money for the developer and is even liked by the architectural press I think that it is fair to say that it has been successful. There is, in any case, nothing of this scale from the past 30 years that is better. Are the lessons transferrable? Any scheme is a product of its time and circumstances.


That said there are some key lessons:

–       A good development takes time to design. The design needs to spring from a deep understanding of context. This includes its history, its heritage and the social and economic background of its surrounding populations.

–       Process is overwhelmingly important. Negotiations should explore and agree a common vision, understand the parameters and only then move on to detail and the physical form of the development.

–       Stakeholder engagement is key – not just to reduce the risk of conflict but also to develop a sophisticated understanding of the context.

–       Time is not of the essence. A piece of city is likely to exist for anything from 50 to 250 years. Designing it well, and with the flexibility to adapt, is the essence of urban sustainability. This takes time during the design process to get it right.

–       Flexibility of phasing is key for the resilience of any scheme. Most major projects will be implemented through at least one business cycle and will need to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Schemes designed as single-phase mega projects will be impossible to adapt to face changing circumstances and will become obsolete.

–       Delivering social and economic benefits and developing a scheme that is socially inclusive should be the starting points of any regeneration project.

–       Preserving and reusing heritage buildings is important in establishing ‘place’. This pays dividends in future values.

–       Early activation and the active management of public spaces are important contributory factors for any successful development.

Peter Bishop is Professor of Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.