The capital is congested, polluted and expensive but, thanks to the insight and ingenuity that its people possess, the way it functions can be mended, writes Sadie Morgan 

Sadie Morgan

Sadie Morgan

In the mayor of London’s 2021 Good Growth agenda for the capital, one section specifically refers to the need to make “the best use of the land”. Among other points, it talks about “proactively explor[ing] the potential to intensify the use of land to support additional homes and workspaces”, as well as “applying a design-led approach to determin[ing] the optimum development capacity of sites”.

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These two mandates are indicative of a capital whose success has always  relied on the innovative rationalisation of its built environment. Indeed it still does. 

That means we – designers, architects, planners, engineers, landscapers – need to rise to the challenge we have been trained to meet. We need to think differently about how space can be used more cleverly, conscientiously and creatively to contribute to success on a city-scale.

For London to thrive, it needs to begin addressing longstanding problems with new, lateral solutions

This will be my last column for 2023, a year in which I spent much of my time thinking about how the city functions within the context of its global perception, attractiveness, significance and potential. My appointment as the chair of the NLA sounding board particularly has made me consider the delicate job of making London work, making sure it remains relevant, making sure it becomes better, and making sure its role on an international stage is understood and cultivated.

What I have learnt so far is that, for London to thrive, it needs to begin addressing longstanding problems with new, lateral solutions.

I picked those earlier two points from the Good Growth guide because they telescope so much of what is at risk of weakening London’s collective health and strength – they speak to escalation of land prices; shortcomings in diversifying workspace typologies; and more generally, the inefficiency and resulting economic impasse of uncreative use of space.

But addressing the “best use of land” is also a task that represents the biggest opportunity for placemakers to put their creative aptitude to what might be best described as “civic” use.

By way of example, our studio dRMM recently completed a project that directly addresses a growing shortage of industrial floorspace in the city, while also prioritising sustainable construction and materials. The project, which we call WorkStack, was designed as a novel way to approach the trend for London boroughs to de-restrict industrial land, inevitably acquired for residential development, forcing production away from city centres.

We designed a building that would be affordable to rent, operate and maintain, bringing workshops and manufacturing back into central London. The design team did this through the idea of stacking volumes upwards, occupying as little footprint at ground level as possible and cantilevering as it moves upwards, therefore creating optimal density on a compact site.

WorkStack is a model for a new, uncomplicated, bold and flexible mixed-use typology. It addresses the specific problem it inherits through a clear design solution and, more broadly, demonstrates the power of how a simple idea can solve complex problems.

Its potential has always been in its people and the ideas they bring to the thriving machine that is the city

We need more of this. We need more examples of design and city-making that tackle London’s problems at their source and find the leanest, most sustainable way to solve them.

Because, seemingly paradoxically, solving London’s reputational and performance problems at an international scale often means implementing problem-solving strategies at a local scale. London’s internal functionality, if addressed with the insight and ingenuity that its people possess, can mend the way it functions on a macro level.

There is a lot to mend. London is the most congested city in the world, one of the most expensive, most polluted, and has recently taken a dive on the global liveability index. But its potential has always been in its people and the ideas they bring to the thriving machine that is the city.

So long as we embrace the diversity that London has always incubated, then we can continue to nurse a context of idea generation, design brilliance and lateral thinking that has historically given our capital its edge. London’s old problems might persist, but let us remember that our talent for fixing them is eternally renewable.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA