What should a city look like? The Legatum Institute and Create Streets have published a research paper in response to the planned redevelopment of the Mount Pleasant site in Clerkenwell, one of the very few large open spaces left in central London.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOUNT PLEASANT
Mount Pleasant sits on rising ground, straddling the Boroughs of Islington and Camden, about half a mile
northwest of the City of London. Initially open fields running down to the banks of the River
Fleet, it became a dumping ground for rubbish generated
by the expanding city in the late seventeenth century with
a mound of refuse building up over the next 100 years.
Despite the rubbish, the discovery just to the north of
the Cold Bath Spring in 1697 turned the whole area into
a bathing place renowned for the medicinal properties of
the notoriously cold water. It was from this that the site
assumed an alternative name ‘Coldbath Fields’.
In 1794 the rubbish mound was partly flattened to make
space for the infamous Clerkenwell Gaol. Coldbath Fields
Prison, as it became known, housed up to 1,500 prisoners
who were subjected to silence, beatings, and hard labour
that ultimately led to a Government inquiry. As the prison
closed in 1877, the area was being markedly shaped by
new development, such as the digging of the Metropolitan
Line. Since the late nineteenth century the impenetrable
site has served as a major Royal Mail sorting office with
a large open air car park for Royal Mail staff and vehicles
The prison walls are now gone and the cool waters of the
Spring and passing River Fleet confined beneath ground.
However, as this report shows, the future of the site is in
danger of replicating its chequered past and compounding
centuries of neglect. We could build another fortress to
cut out its neighbours, or we could have the courage to
be bolder and invite the community back into a green and
pleasant place. Only this would be a fitting homage to
the ancient River Fleet alongside.
What should a city look like? Anyone who cares about the quality of civic life needs to strike a balance between private domain and public space, and allow for the needs dictated by population
density and economic circumstances. Archaeological sites and historic records all demonstrate
however the ubiquity of the street as an essential feature of city life. The streets that wind across
the urban landscape have evolved from earlier and unplanned lanes while the ones that are straight
follow the grid of an urban plan. But in both its forms it is the street which brings the city’s
Create Streets’ research paper is a response to the planned redevelopment of the Mount Pleasant
site in Clerkenwell, one of the very few large open spaces left in central London. As it notes, London
is facing a momentous challenge. The Victorian city became a metropolis that was positively
Babylonian in its international allure but the mid-twentieth century saw a decline in the rate of
London’s population growth. A dizzying resumption of economic growth from the 1990s onwards,
together with a remorseless internationalisation of London’s appeal, has led to a population boom.
By the end of this decade there may well be some nine million Londoners and the response of
construction companies and planning authorities can now be seen across the urban skyline. London
is fast becoming a city of towers since high rise apartment blocks offer the developers a reasonably
fast return on their investment.
This particular solution need not be the only one. In exploring the alternative, Create Streets is
both eloquent and pragmatic. In the context of the Mount Pleasant site it advocates a street-based
development which combines economic profitability with a commitment to the social values that
typify the integrated and varied urban scene. The insights presented in these pages emerged from
Create Streets’ founding director Nicholas Boys Smith’s contributions to the Legatum Institute’s
Architecture of Prosperity programme, a series of lectures and seminars that seeks to bring a
greater focus to our understanding of the sense of place. All who care about London and the
civilised urban space can now acclaim his practical vision for the truly prosperous city of the early twenty-first century.
Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser, Legatum Institute
- The context: London is booming. Its population is soon set to exceed nine million, but where will everyone live? Rise in rental and purchase prices show how great is the demand
compared with supply. This shortfall together with both the consistent unpopularity of most
recent developments and the bitter, protracted, and expensive arguments which accompany
their construction all point to the need to improve the way in which local democracy, land
markets, planning, and the investment and development industries interact.
- Streets are both popular and practical. A consistent and large majority in the UK prefer to live for most of their lives in conventional streets rather than large multi-storey
buildings. Controlling for socio-economic status most people are happier, less stressed, are less
likely to be victims of crime, and find it easier to bring up children and to behave more sociably
to their neighbours in conventional streets rather than large multi-storey buildings. Other
things being equal, the market value per sq foot and per hectare of conventionally designed
streets goes up faster than large multi-storey buildings which also have far higher running
costs, particularly as they age. The life time costs of large buildings are far higher per square
foot and they tend to be pulled down more quickly.
- But we are not building streets. The highly complex corpus of planning, building,
and housing regulations make building high density conventional streets in an urban context
commercially challenging by constraining supply, pushing up land values astronomically, and
rendering conventional streets less spatially and economically efficient.
- Mount Pleasant: a short term approach that responds rationally to the
current situation at the expense of the right long term answer. The current
Royal Mail proposals for the Mount Pleasant site exemplify the problem facing London. We
do not believe that the current plans maximise connectivity, sustainability, or long term value
for the Royal Mail Group or the taxpayer. The proposals are also very unpopular with the local
community. Only nine percent of comments received in the public consultation supported
the scheme. Delivering only 12 percent affordable housing has also been politically very
controversial leading to rejection by both local councils. The proposals are, however, a rational
response to the current situation of high land values and a planning system that incentivises
large buildings and public open space over private open space. They are also a rational
approach over a very short investment horizon as opposed to a forty year approach to valuemaximisation.
- Mount Pleasant Circus and Fleet Valley Gardens. Working with and for the local
community, we have developed an indicative alternative scheme which we are confident would
be worth much more to Royal Mail in the long term as well as representing a better deal for the
About the Architecture of Prosperity Series
The Architecture of Prosperity
, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity
' programme, evaluates the impact of the built environment on human wellbeing and the capacity for creativity. The series of lectures, seminars and conferences address the central question of why some forms of architecture promote prosperity while others are linked to vicious effects.