From its towering grey concrete blocks to the dodgy underpasses, the Elephant & Castle district in south London is a memorial to the failed dreams of 1960s urban planners with their visions of a city in the sky. Traffic dominates the area with the northern and southern roundabouts taking centre stage. Flanking the roads are monolithic tower blocks and access is only possible through rat runs of subways and isolated elevated walkways.
But now regeneration is breathing new life into the area. Tower cranes dot the skyline and every spare scrap of space is being built on. Once completed, these new developments will provide homes for residents from old housing in the area, including the Heygate estate.
Once the residents have been re-housed the estate will be demolished to make way for the new high street and civic square development that is one of the main drivers of regeneration in the area.
The sheer scale of the 1960s housing blocks and shopping centre – the first covered shopping centre in Europe – hindered the ability of the area to change over time and the community was split by the functional transport planning and the architecture.
"In Victorian times, there was a finer grain of routes," says Elephant & Castle project director for Southwark Council, Jon Abbot.
"In the 1960s that finer grain was lost, the natural routes removed. We’re now trying to revive them. Further north of Elephant by the river the finer grain routes have changed organically. You can’t do that with these huge 1960s structures."
The £1.5bn regeneration project has been a long time in the making. Ideas have been knocking around since the 1980s but now a plan has been put into action and is scheduled to be complete by 2014.
"Back in 1988 the council recognised that the area needed to change," explains Abbott.
"There was recognition even before that that the subways didn’t work," he adds.
In 1999, the council invited developer Southwark Land Regeneration Partnership to put forward proposals for regenerating the area. After protracted negotiations this private sector-led initiative collapsed in 2002. Abbott explains that at that point Southwark had not defined the planning strategy for the area.
"Post 2002, a new phase was launched on the basis of the planning framework," says Abbott.
"It contained planning principles to guide the development area, which included the development of Heygate [Estate] and the shopping centre. With a clear set of principles and vision you can go out and can find a partner that shares your vision and marry public and private interest."
The framework has been largely been set by four parties. Make Architects has taken on the central masterplanning role. The primary transport planner is JMP with Space Syntax responsible for studying pedestrian movement, assisting Make with the siting of connections and helping JMP to ensure that the new streets won’t act as barriers. Planning and urban design specialist Tibbalds is ensuring that the development is in line with planning policy and is leading the public consultation.
One of the key aspirations of the project is to improve the quality of the public realm. The 1960s masterplan separated traffic and pedestrians, channelling foot traffic onto elevated walkways or taking it below the roads in underpasses. The planners hoped to create safer and more pleasant routes for pedestrians but succeeded only in creating a hostile, desolate and threatening environment.
"In 2002 when we were preparing the development framework, the number one thing that people didn’t like was the subways," says Abbott.
"People should be back on the surface. If we can remove the subways, it goes a huge way towards demonstrating that the area is changing. The vision is about changing the balance from car driver to public transport user. The amount of space given over to cars is currently out of balance."
"We don’t want to separate cars and pedestrians," agrees Space Syntax managing director Tim Stonor.
"We want to create streets that bring all modes together: buses, trains, trams, pedestrians, cyclists and cars."
Space Syntax, which is providing pedestrian focused urban design advice, monitored pedestrian movement in the area and found a high density on Walworth Road and East Street Market to the south of the two roundabouts.
"We knew that whatever we did on the north roundabout, we should tap into Walworth," says managing director Tim Stonor.
"Connections are important – the question was: how do we tap in? We put a line on the page extending Walworth Road through Elephant & Castle shopping centre, up to the northern roundabout. This produced a clear design for a new high street, turning the roundabout into a civic square on the scale of Trafalgar Square."
By monitoring pedestrian movements and using computer modelling Space Syntax helped to ensure that the proposals
were grounded in reality.
"By understanding movement we have a sound evidence base," says Stonor.
"We can show that the ideas by Make are not just fancy ideas but have grounding in how people move and that they’re workable."
The plans also include eliminating the southern roundabout completely, introducing wide pedestrian-friendly crossings and limiting traffic in some streets to public transport vehicles.
Stonor attributes the success of this masterplan to the proactive stance of the council and the breadth and depth of the public consultation.
"Social initiatives in the past have failed because property developers have failed to agree what to do. Southwark Council, rather than expecting a property developer to develop plans, has taken it on itself. Also, consultation is an area that has been tackled very hard by Southwark and Tibbalds. There are so many stakeholders; local businesses and residents. Without that, these big ideas wouldn’t happen."
The development partner was announced in July last year and a consortium of Lend Lease, First Base and Oakmayne was chosen. Southwark brings landholdings to the table, freeing just over 10ha. The consortium will bring its own resources and will raise the bank loan for the development and infrastructure.