Mount_Pleasant

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 alongside.

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.

INTRODUCTION

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 inhabitants together.

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

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • 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 taxpayer.

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.