Open Debate asks 'Is London Building a Sterile City?'

ocWe live and work in the city, but just how liveable is London architecture? It continues to grow, develop and morph, yet how successful have recent developments been in cultivating a liveable community? Open-City launched its first Open Debate on 17 September 2013, giving a voice to the citizens of London, both public user and design professional, on the kind of city we are creating.

Expertly chaired by Razia Iqbal, BBC Correspondant, our panel asserted their stance to the question 'Is London Building a Sterile City' with divisive questions and statements from the audience floor.

Panel Speakers:

  • Leo Hollis, Historian, urbanist and author of recently published ‘Cities Are Good For You: The Genius of the Metropolis’
  • Steve Howlett, Chief Executive of Peabody Estates
  • Sue Illman, Director of Illman Young Landscape Design and President of Landscape Institute
  • Bob Allies, Partner of Allies and Morrison Architects

Watch Debate Summary

Watch Debate Talking Heads

Watch the Full Open Debate

Produced in partnership with Gleeds TV.

Read a full review of the debate from Landscape Institute, partners of the inaugural debate.

Debate Poll Opinion

Which recent building development do you think has been the most successful
in creating a social, sustainable space?

  • King's Cross Redevelopment
  • The Olympic Park
  • Southbank area; allowing people to pass and people to gather and a view to
    gaze upon
  • St Clement's Hospital Redevelopment by East London Community Land
  • There have been a lot of good canal side (around Hackney, East London)
    and riverside projects in London and the olympic park at Stratford, that have
    turned wasteground or intimidating areas back into usable social space.
  • Dalston East Curve Gardens

What do you think is the most important element in creating a Liveable City?

  • Green infrastructure. Get nature and connectivity right and many solutions can be found.
  • Space
  • A balance of areas, a sense of identity in those areas and a mix of people, most of all
    people using the space.
  • Variation, plenty of open green spaces, well thought out services to cater for the
    population living there
  • Integrated amenities
  • Well managed housing & social space
  • Injecting fun and character
  • Diversity is what makes London exciting and therefore liveable

What would you change if you could do one thing?

  • Keep making it affordable for low income families
  • Prevent over-scaled buildings and gated spaces from taking over – Maggie Urquhart, LB Hounslow
  • End the flood of unoccupied flats owned by overseas investors

And questions asked:

  • How do citizens develop the power required to influence planning decision makers?
  • With housing costs soaring in inner London, will London's vibrancy suffer? How can cities like London put a price on a good social mix?
  • How do we make the public realm more integrated across a large area? How areas link between local authority boundaries for example can be a marked change e.g. City and Tower Hamlets.
  • Is it inevitable that in 10 years’ time London will be (visually, economically and socially) more like Manhattan than Paris, Rome or Berlin?
  • ‘Death of the High-Street’ Does it matter?
Bob Allies
ocSteve Howlettl

Debate Floor Opinion #opendebate

The more you manage it, the less authentic it gets" Bob Allies on urban and architectural design
@Matthew Trigg

Forget iconic buildings. The most important element for a new build is its successful relation to the old surrounds. It's about the fringe.

To be vibrant, London needs to be mixed and therefore affordable

Avoiding a sterile city. Let planners delineate spaces, designers shape spaces and communities make places?
@Peter Massini, Greater London Authority

Stephen Howlett 'there's a big issue about housing supply. Need to look at land value tax to open up sites not being developed'
@CPRE London

Lasting comment... Copenhagen is as big as Croydon!
Not to belittle Copenhagen's exemplar treatment of it's city's development but more so to acknowledge the scope of London!

Photography by Simon Gregor

Opinion Poll Feedback:

The gold standard for enjoyment of life in a built environment is still the human scale of a traditional Italian or Southern French village, what theorists call interstitial architecture, with its small shaded squares and fountains. A great pity, as London started with an advantage : it was one of the less vertically concentrated great capitals, full of green squares and little niches thoughtfully left by the Victorians.
Michel Bernard

The South-bank has been a great success and walking from Westminster to London Bridge is far from sterile at any time of the year and this stretches to Butler's Wharf to the East., The O2 in Greenwich is a success and the whole peninsula is about to start a regeneration that will transform it from an industrial wasteland, surely a good thing?
Richard Hughes
M&G Investments

The riverside seems particularly blighted by apartments, endless walls of badly designed residential blocks with self-contained gyms and the usual retail suspects at ground level. Bland, boring and increasingly privatised and gated. To exacerbate the situation many properties are bought as investments and are not even lived in while much needed social housing is not being built. At the moment I'd say sterility is beating vibrancy.
Andrew Clarke

Across the city we are getting larger pedestrian areas which merely serve so people can walk from one place to another.  But where are these “places”?
Neil Smith, Doughty Hanson & Co

Contributions to the sterile suburbs? The fact that most high streets look the same because they are dominated by the same chains is one such factor. Convenience is served, character isn’t.
Chris Simon

Perhaps when there are new developments they should earmark a percentage of retail space as "affordable" and hopefully encourage small businesses to start up.
Olga Sidoryk


Is London Building a Sterile City?
52% YES to 48% No

Is London ignoring its public spaces?
38% Yes to 62% NO

Is London’s architecture becoming identified by the profit it can make rather than the
community it can build or ideology it can inspire?
83% YES to 17% No

Research indicates that people act in more environmentally friendly ways at home than
in the workplace. Do you agree?
70% YES to 30% No