The past was concrete, the future is modular

By - Thursday 13th October, 2016

Just as it overcame rigid architecture before, Croydon can now reimagine itself and promote new ways of living

Photo author’s own.

If asked, an observer would be likely to sum up Croydon’s post-war regeneration in one word: ‘concrete’.

But despite being often described in negative terms, it wasn’t the grey blocks which stifled growth elsewhere in the latter part of the twentieth century. Successful urban masses such as Tokyo did not let the aesthetic disharmony of their buildings hinder their progress. Indeed, that city’s grey urbanity is a defining framework which it has used to colour in its multiplicity of Wellesley Roads with vibrant restaurants, bars and shops, turning the streets into a night-time spectacle, an example which Croydon desperately needs to learn from.

The definition of ‘concrete’ which damaged Croydon was its rigidity after the bulk of construction had finished; its placid place as a suburban town in which to live and work industriously but peacefully. Like cash in a bank account, the town lost its value over time as others took on risk, invested and benefited.

But now Croydon has positioned itself as a centre where the opposite is possible, no longer ‘concrete’ but instead liquid and adaptable. Most importantly, it is building its infrastructure to allow for constant, efficient and affordable change for decades to come.

An evening spent catching up over Vietnamese pho is the millennials’ ‘night down the pub’

The regeneration of Croydon has, either fortuitously or by design, coincided with the technology-led revolution in the way that we shop, work and live. As with the period of post-war optimism, Croydon is being used as a testing bed of sorts for what people envision the future being: the very first large-scale example of a ‘modular town’.

‘Modular’ refers to a number of self-contained units combining to produce a whole. It is of course already a common technique in design and construction, and allows for removal and replacement of separate parts without damaging the whole. As Croydon, so often stereotyped as unfashionable and dated, rebuilds its infrastructure for the future, we see modularity on a grand scale. This is not necessarily physical flexibility, but rather, flexibility in terms of what the town can represent.

Naturally, cities have always existed in a state of flux; widespread change often occurs as the result of catastrophic events. The Great Fire of London, the Blitz and the Bishopsgate bombing all led to what is now termed regeneration. Rarely is a city swiftly torn up and rebuilt on the whim of any architect, planner or developer without there being a prior cause. Arguably the 2011 riots in Croydon mark the beginning of the town’s regeneration, a nadir from which the town has slowly arisen.

Surrey Street: a 13th century ‘pop-up’ market?
Photo author’s own.

We have seen this change beginning, for example, in retail, where the rising popularity of pop-up shops, the greater interest in independent retailers and a shift to online shopping has led to revolution in the high street and a number of casualties amongst established brands.

The new Boxpark Croydon is also suited to changing tastes both in food and in how customers interact with restaurants; an evening spent catching up over Vietnamese pho is the millennials’ ‘night down the pub’. Arguably, though, the modern fashion for ‘pop-up shops’ is anything but new in Croydon; Surrey Street market, chartered in 1276, is a clear example of flexible, interchangeable retail space, highlighting the conflicting nature of a city’s permanent impermanence.

The construction of Westfield/Hammerson will surely provide further flexibility in Croydon’s retail and leisure sectors; whilst some may have concerns over the traditional shopping centre model in an era of technology, both companies’ depth of research and expertise will undoubtedly position them to take advantage of changing trends.

The lengthy housing crisis has also forced a new way of living upon younger Brits, with the concept of home ownership at least delayed for the vast majority and perhaps abandoned completely for some. In its place is the rental sector, and in particular buildings managed by operators usually backed by major financial institutions, or developers, which specifically focus on providing rental accommodation with modern amenities. Some of these provide not only pre-installed wifi and smart technologies such as Hive, but also incorporated gyms, cinemas and restaurants wrapped up into one monthly bill.

With Croydon hoping to attract a young, technologically astute workforce, such offers may appeal considerably more than traditional owner-occupied housing. This may not lead to increased numbers of permanently-settled Croydonians, but a constantly changing young workforce may aid the dynamism of the town.

The start-up technology industry in the town is continually generating positive news

Despite Croydon’s readiness for change, the major office letting in the town recently is by HM Revenue and Customs. Few other organisations conjure up such images of old-school business methods, and this is a continuation of Croydon’s role as a centre for government and corporate back offices. Yet it’s also a sign of confidence in the town, and will help retail and possibly residential schemes flourish.

Startup technology industry is generating positive news and will keep the gears of Croydon’s ambitions oiled for some time. There’s a danger, however, that the lack of available office space for SMEs will force successful startups to move elsewhere; keeping them here should be a priority.

The needs of the future urban dweller will change and by building flexibility into our infrastructure, we can allow for this. As Croydon is increasingly seen as an environment which can adapt to the needs of future generations, our ‘concrete’ will soon be limited to a few prized architectural gifts.

Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. He is a strategic communications consultant specialising in the real estate sector, and counts a number of the world's largest investment and fund management companies amongst his clients.

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  • Cidre

    When does work begin (if ever) on this Westfield project?