Local history should contribute to thinking about ‘the public future’, argue Guldi and Armitage: “History’s power … lies in explaining where things came from, tacking between big processes and small events to see the whole picture, and reducing a lot of information to a small and shareable version”.1 The authors encourage putting history into clearer arguments and public forms, including visual and digital, and linking detailed studies with policy issues.
St Pancras Borough was among the leading boroughs in post-war rebuilding. Among the first were bomb-damaged villas of Camden Road and Rochester Square: renamed St Pancras Way estate, the six-storey Bauhaus-style blocks gained a Festival of Britain architectural award – they provided shared garden space and playgrounds. Lewis Whitfield, leading the team from Newman and Dawbarn, went on in the 1950s to head the LCC’s large Architect’s Department.
However, with cleaner air, leasehold reform and improved building, older Georgian housing regained popularity in the 1960s. Following protests to save St Pancras Station and against the inner-London motorway ‘box’, London Borough of Camden created its first conservation areas in the 1970s. These were started in ‘established’ neighbourhoods of Hampstead, Primrose Hill, Camden Square and Bloomsbury.
But while further, smaller, areas were introduced, much of Camden Town remains unprotected. Moreover, Camden Town is also vulnerable at the political level. The local wards, each with three elected councillors, have boundaries cutting directly through Camden Town – there is no unitary allegiance
Historic England works through providing advice, undertaking research and presenting the case for protection and enhancement. Historic England is moving from primary concern with the physical aspects of buildings, their design and how they relate to movements in architectural history towards including concern with area, place and setting, the range of dimensions of the local as well as its uniqueness.
The term ‘character’ combines understanding of period with concern about form and function. Historic England states that ‘Research questions that will help our mission include … How can we use historic local character and distinctiveness of urban areas to inspire and guide future land use, development and design?2 This forms an intersection with local history: by retelling the past in the present, historians can contribute to discussion of planning for the future.
Working with Historic England, eighteen of the 32 London boroughs have made formal ‘character studies’. These have taken one of two approaches: a typological analysis – classifying land use, built form, townscape and historic origins; or those with an area or community-focussed approach, setting out the history and character at the local level. The study undertaken for Camden Borough took the first approach, placing a strong emphasis on existing land use but only for land outside existing conservation areas. In a delicate critique of Camden Borough’s study, the consultancy Land Use Consultants suggests “The patchwork created by excluding greenspace and Conservation Areas sometimes creates a fragmented picture that perhaps slightly lacks a common thread.”3
The strategic London Plan responds to policies and forecasts, particularly a rising population for London. The policy choice is for greater density of housing within London’s boundaries and continued transfer of use from office and industrial to residential, while maintaining open space.4
How should new building of housing be managed? Reports commissioned for the London Plan give contrasting approaches.5 The structural engineers Ove Arup recommend increased density (ie higher buildings, less open space) where they are close to (existing) public transport – effectively, concentric circles of London’s growth. The Arup approach is the current standard for London, based on business priorities – maximising commuting to work. The second, by architects Allies and Morrison, identifies areas of London related to their character – the period of buildings, variety, locality and quality of life. Allies and Morrison have taken their consultancy work further with the Boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham, for the first time including assessment of the implications of character analysis for local planning.6
Through until 1919, Camden Town was a leasehold estate shared between Lord Camden and the Church of England and centred around Pratt Street, College Street, King’s Road and Camden Square. Transport was from Camden Town railway station was in Camden Road rather than the later Underground at the High Street. There are records of people from many parts of society – academicians to railwaymen; organisations from literary societies to ragged schools, churches to missions, artists to local photographers, and businesses from printers to bakers.
Two organisations, involving developers, architects and large London land-owners, have held exhibitions and talks on the theme London’s “Great Estates”. They propose “long-term thinking and investment, high quality placemaking, on-going maintenance and careful stewardship.”7 Kings Cross regeneration has been led by understanding the need for area stewardship and maintenance. The unity of the Camden Town estate, the Georgian suburb, through its architecture and planning, society and commerce, can contribute a coherent understanding for future conservation and renewal.
- Jo Guldi & David Armitage, The history manifesto, Cambridge 2017:13.
- Historic England, ‘Urban and public realm heritage’ <historicengland.org.uk/research/current/discover-and-understand/urban-public-realm>
- LUC for Historic England, Characterisation of London’s historic environment, London, 2016:11,74.
- Mayor of London, ‘New London Plan’. <london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/new-london-plan>
- Ove Arup for Historic England London plan review no.2 report, London 2016. Allies and Morrison for Historic England, London’s local character and density, London 2016.
- Allies and Morrison, ‘Character and density research’ <alliesandmorrison.com/up-projects/local-character-density-research/
- London Society <londonsociety.org.uk/tag/great-estates-series> New London Architecture <newlondonarchitecture.org> (the organisations are both led by Peter Murray <petermurraylondon.com>)
See also recent essays in Peter Guillery, David Kroll, eds, Mobilising housing histories: learning from London’s past, London 2017.