Return to Utopia: The desire to live where you work harks back to the industrial towns of yesteryear

Melissa York
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People enjoying the canal in a rapidly regenerating King's Cross

On frosty, damp mornings like the ones London has seen of late, the morning commute is worse than ever. Biting winds followed by packed, sweltering trains, followed by more wind – it’s as if the commute was specifically designed to make you as ill-prepared as possible for the day ahead. Yet it’s accepted by millions as a necessary evil. Worse still, the older we get, the further out we move and the longer it gets. Surely, there must be a better way to start the day?

Well, perhaps there is. Shoreditch, King’s Cross and Stratford all have plans for large business districts with cultural quarters; thousands of new homes, health centres, public parks and schools. Established business centres are also getting in on the act of “place-making”, as developers call it; Canary Wharf is pushing its culture and entertainment credentials ahead of the first residential offering in its 25-year history, while the City of London has recently seen its first wave of housing development since the Barbican opened 30 years ago.

Vintage Cadbury's poster depicting the idyllic village of Bournville

But isn’t there something to be said for leaving the office behind at the end of the day? Do people really want to live where they work? Matt Cobb of City fringe estate agent Hatton Real Estate certainly thinks so. “Life has changed in the sense that everything we do now has to be instant. It’s the mentality of the internet generation. Why commute when you can be in the office in 10 minutes? People in finance and trading work incredibly long hours – why not move to Shoreditch or Old Street? The luxury of a short walk home can be worth every penny.”
Many of Hatton’s clients are enterprising Gen Y types, who work in the City or one of the emerging tech startups around Silicon Roundabout – they drink artisan coffee, eat street food for lunch and shop in the Box Park boutiques. Give it five years and City Road, a former industrial thoroughfare connecting Islington and the City, will be a series of residential towers, boasting high-tech features like wi-fi enabled public gardens and hireable business centres for freelance workers and start-up businesses. In its own very modern way, the area around Old Street roundabout is an organic manifestation of the self-contained community that city planners have dreamed about for centuries, with developers adopting an increasingly holistic approach to urban regeneration.
“You used to see developers handing out brochures full of lifestyle pictures of shops and cafes that had nothing to do with the immediate surroundings of the actual development. It used to drive me mad. Now they’ve cottoned on and they’re celebrating what’s unique about these areas,” says Cobb.
When estate agent Knight Frank published a report on the burgeoning prospects of King’s Cross last year, it asked what single factor informed buyers’ decision to invest in the area. The results were surprising. “Things like transport and the canal came up,” says Robert Evans, a director at King’s Cross developer Argent, “but number one was this idea of being part of a managed, high-quality estate. This is an idea that goes right back to the time of estates in central London like Grosvenor, areas of land that were planned holistically, with streets and squares laid out with some view to the long term, where residential serviced commercial and vice versa.”

A computer-generated image of Wood Wharf, complete with public gardens

Living where you work is conducive to good business practice, argues business psychologist Professor Binna Kandola. “People working within the same community, and seeing one another all the time, form what evolutionary psychologists see as integral to a strong community,” he has said. “What these live/work communities are doing is reinforcing the way human beings are, rather than opposing it, which remote working and globalized teams perhaps do.”
Of course, taking a patch of under-developed land and turning it into a self-sufficient community is not as easy as it looks, as anyone who has tried to “win” SimCity will attest. One of the first to try was Victorian philanthropist Sir Titus Salt, who made his fortune in Bradford’s textile industry. Concerned about his workers’ health living and working among the industrial smog, he employed local architects to build Salts Mill, a vast, ultra-efficient factory on the outskirts of the town, and design an entire village around it, incorporating over 800 homes, two churches, a school, park, hospital, baths and almshouses for the elderly. It was named Saltaire – a portmanteau of its founder’s surname and the nearby River Aire – and it has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2001 for its international influence on town planning (following the decline of its principal industry, Salts Mill is now a shopping complex and art gallery, home to an impressive collection of David Hockney paintings).
Bournville on the outskirts of Birmingham was built with similar intentions by George Cadbury for the workers in his chocolate factory. The Cadbury family were Quakers, motivated by their faith to provide better housing and educational opportunities for their workers. Advertised as “the factory in a garden”, the company built museums, reading rooms and schools alongside the new homes and hospitals. But, rather like Saltaire, market forces have since burst Bournville’s insular bubble. Cadbury’s was bought by US food conglomerate Kraft in 2010 and its dark chocolate Bournville bars – named after the model town – are now made in France.

A digital depiction of The International Quarter, a financial district in the heart of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford

It’s easy to rue the demise of these utopian-sounding communities, but towns entirely dominated by single companies tend to work better in theory than in practice. Take Pullman, Chicago, a town owned by George Pullman, the owner of a railroad car company, who imposed behavioural standards on his employees. He also charged them rent, which he refused to lower when demand for his cars fell during the depression of 1893. The US government had to intervene in the ensuing employee strike and branded the project “un-American” and incompatible with a large-scale corporate economy.
Developers taking on huge swathes of land, such as the 560-acre Olympic Park or the 67-acre King’s Cross site, are conscious of the Pullman Lesson, as it’s known, and have steered away from the paternalistic tendencies of the 19th century. Canary Wharf Group, which owns the entire site including One Canada Square, says its decision to start building homes is “in part because of changing trends in how people want to live and where”.
The aim is to create a place that captures the imagination of buyers without your development feeling like the set of The Truman Show. “You need to know when to let go,” says Argent’s Robert Evans. “It’s about finding really great partners for events and recognising that places are complicated and messy. You can’t control everything; real life is unpredictable, it surprises you, amazes you – people love that.”