Extreme differences between rich and poor can be found in so many parts of our cities. There is a physical side to the story which urban designers should understand

Selina Mason BW 2018

Autumn has arrived in London. Frieze Art Fair has come to town bringing with it a whole day of torrential rain. Two huge tents now dominate Regent’s Park – the Frieze tent to the south for contemporary art with its neighbour, the more hushed and rarefied tent of Frieze Masters, to the north up by Camden for showcasing art from antiquity to the late 20th century. 

These temporary structures are enormous, almost small city precincts. Typically, they are designed by architects with traction in the art world, the list includes Caruso St John, Carmody Groarke, and Universal Design Studio.  

Feeling both in an art fair and in a park, particularly Regent’s Park, helps to define the fair’s specifically London character – that deliberate clash between the look of tradition and the look of subversion whether it is in fashion, art or design

The marriage of art and architecture on the international art circuit is well known and an important part of the show – whether the architecture is there to create a cool and reflective interior for the art to be centre stage or for a breathtaking building to signal the institution as much as the art. It goes without saying that among the art crowd there is an expectation of a whole cultural experience. 

It is undoubtedly a spectacle drawing in the international dealers and buyers of art as well as the general public during the weekend.  

Frieze has always set its stall out through architecture – using highly regarded young practices to dress the tents and create an atmosphere focused on the experience of being there. 

London is Frieze’s home turf, it has always been in Regent’s Park and its architects have always centre-grounded the park – instinctively understanding that the experience of feeling both in an art fair and in a park, particularly one like Regent’s Park, helps to define the fair’s unique London character – that deliberate clash between the look of tradition and the look of subversion whether it is in fashion, art or design. In this context it is not surprising to find Frieze and its provocative art contents set within the exclusive confines of Regent’s Park.

It is a curious park in which its historically private nature sits alongside its public one.  There are still tracts of highly exclusive ground within the broad common ground of the park – alongside various international royal residences, the US ambassador lives there within the largest private garden in central London after Buckingham Palace – big enough for POTUS to land his helicopter Marine One. It is both a private and a public park, it belongs to the Crown and, given the glorious Nash and Burton terraces around its edges, its air of exclusivity is unrivalled.   

However, on the journey home from the fair, heading into Camden Town I encountered a queue for a free hot food and clothing. It’s obvious and facile to point out the socioeconomic disparity within such a short distance, it is starkly drawn and a familiar part of life in London. 

Cliff-edge differences between the rich and the poor can be found in so many parts of London, and other UK cities. Policy is most of the story, but for those of you who like to look at Zoopla’s property price heat map, there is also a physical side to the story which urban designers should take care to understand.  

You will see in the heat map that Regent’s Park has stratospheric values that fall away to both the east and west from hot red to dark blue within a couple of streets. The Regent’s Park Estate sits to the east between the park areas and Euston and Church Street is to the west between the park and Edgware Road.

While both are characterised by post-war social housing, there are other factors far less discussed but just as significant in the underperformance of these places. For example, both have been disconnected and isolated by rail and road infrastructure creating the consequent problems of limiting opportunity and economic resilience due to the few through-routes. 

But these two areas also share another thing – both are on the boundary of the highly valued Regent’s Park – surely that would be a benefit? 

Take a closer look and you will see the consequence of Nash’s highly exclusionary urban design. The park was designed as a private enclave with the residents enjoying the benefits of its defensive setting – protected by the canal to the north and to the east and west where boundaries could have been more permeable. Nash designed several long terraces with few direct streets connecting park to hinterland.  

The backs are serviced from the surrounding streets and to this day it is very difficult to find easy passage into the park from its edges other than the south.  

Nash had form on this – walk down Regent Street and you will notice that there are far more streets connecting west into Mayfair than east into Soho, which at the time was a very poor neighbourhood.   

Capturing and retaining value is all part of the urban designer’s task; clearly, in more equitable times we can use these skills to create more open places that encourage connections and opportunity and in doing so spread value beyond the boundary. 

Urban design leaves a legacy and we must remember that streets and land ownership boundaries will endure – get it wrong and the mistake may never be reparable.

In the meantime, the Frieze Art Fair has expanded way beyond its home in London, and you won’t be surprised to find that in New York it is located on an island.

Selina Mason is director of masterplanning at Lendlease