Magazine article Geographical

Transforming the Riverside: London's South Bank

Magazine article Geographical

Transforming the Riverside: London's South Bank

Article excerpt

In the first of a new series showcasing the Royal Geographcial Society (with IBG)'s Discovering Britain project, Olivia Edward visits London's South Bank to see how a process of urban regeneration has turned a former industrial landscape into a thriving leisure and living destination

Just beyond Tower Bridge on London's South Bank is a small alleyway called Maggie Blake's Cause. Easily missable, the narrow thoroughfare slices through the area's luxury flats and allows continued public access to the riverside.

Because the surrounding 19th-century warehouses look like the backdrop for a TV costume drama, it's easy to imagine that Maggie was probably a Victorian flower seller, a ship captain's daughter or perhaps an unlucky murder victim. But she wasn't any or these.

Maggie Blake was one of a group of activists who fought to maintain public access to the riverbank during the 1980s, when this then-derelict area was gentrified. Their fight, and the small access alleyway that they won, is symbolic of the struggles that have taken place along this stretch of London's shoreline between the City and the West End as it has morphed from a working dock to a sought-after leisure and living destination.

'When areas are regenerated, there are always winners and losers,' says Erica Pani, a postgraduate economic geographer who designed this 4.8-kilometre walk for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)'s new Discovering Britain project. 'And that's what I want people to think about when they walk from the Royal Festival Hall to Jamaica Road. What is regeneration and who is it for?'

PERSONAL INSIGHT

Pani has a personal insight into how it feels to have your local area reworked She spent the first seven years of her life in a nearby council estate; her father worked as a waiter in the Royal Festival Hall, which overlooks the Thames. And that's where Pani, and Dr Nancy Holman, director of planning at the London School of Economics and Political Science, begin our journey along the South Bank's Thames path and its tale of regeneration.

Peter Roberts and Hugh Sykes, who, in 2000, published one of the first academic books on urban regeneration, describe the process as 'a comprehensive and integrated vision and action that leads to the resolution of urban problems and which seeks to bring about a lasting improvement in the economic, physical, social and environmental condition of an area that has been, or is, subject to change'. 'We need it,' says Pani. 'Because without it, whole areas would crumble into the ground, and we would have stopped building when the Romans stopped building. But there are always tensions around what's built and what the spaces are used for.'

The South Bank's most recent swathe of regeneration began just after the Second World War. During the 19th century, the South Bank had been a booming docklands area, but in the post-war years, it was a bomb-damaged mixture of slum housing and empty buildings. Architect and town planner Patrick Abercrombie said at the time: 'It is one of the great anomalies of the Capital that while the river, from Westminster eastwards, is lined on the north side with magnificent buildings and possesses a spacious and attractive embankment road, the corresponding south bank ... should present a depressing semi-derelict appearance, lacking any sense of that dignity and order appropriate to its location at the centre of London and fronting onto the great waterway.'

The Labour government of the time decided that the South Bank should be the main site for the 1951 Festival of Britain, 'a tonic to the nation' that would showcase Britain's future in a national exhibition. Various modernist buildings and sculptures were constructed, and more than eight million people visited the South Bank's attractions during the show's five-month run.

Then, in 1953, the subsequent Conservative government ordered the destruction of all of the exhibits (except for the Royal Festival Hall, which had been designed to be more permanent), which it considered to be too 'socialist' in style. …

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