Gillian Darley assesses the decades-long redevelopment against its hard-won environmental goals
When I first lived close to King’s Cross, the Regent’s Canal and London Wildlife Trust’s Camley Street Natural Park were almost the only reminders in this part of town of that famously green London, so admired from home and abroad.
Regent’s Park to the west seemed another universe. Flourishing Camden Town was an intermediate zone of pulsing commercial life leading – if you walked the canal banks as I often did – towards the railway marshalling yards at the back of the termini, a vast no-man’s zone of extremely brown land and dereliction.
Only by walking could you begin to piece it together, especially that magical zone of the empty gasholders, the lock (and lock-keeper’s cottage) and the rest of the canal, with its own purposeful air of a community slightly apart – reassuring evidence that London was really multifarious.
I don’t know exactly when King’s Cross began to be a gleam in – I guess – every ambitious developer’s eye, but my memories of that prelapsarian fringe of NW1 are now fading in the continual thrust of the almost 20 years of planning and construction of N1C.
It is a good time to take stock, particularly to measure the project’s claims of a green strategy against reality, as the project nears completion.
The fight to ensure that substantial areas of open space would be incorporated into Argent’s immense site was a bloody one within Camden council, particularly waged by one or two honourable councillors to the south of the Euston Road, one of whom, the late Brian Woodrow, chairman of the planning committee, was erroneously accused of improper actions – having contacted an official at English Heritage. Exonerated in the end, he died soon after.
Those battles, conveniently long forgotten, were fought to good effect. A visit to the northern part of the area, to the new Lewis Cubitt Park (which has, sadly, swallowed up the delightful wild, but always temporary, swimming pond) and the relocated Skip Garden, now housed at the furthest northern extremity, help to bear out the claim that 40% of the 67-acre development is open space.
Green may, on occasion, mean inaccessible roof gardens on new offices and the residential gasholders, while the Jellicoe Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith is still a work in progress (behind the Aga Khan Centre) and the Islamic Gardens at Victoria Hall, although to be seen on Open Squares weekend, are for the use of the student residents. But, to an unusual extent, the developers were held to the letter of their promises and the commissioning of high-quality landscape has paid dividends, on this occasion for the public – albeit almost everywhere under the eye of wandering security officials. Currently Coal Drops Yard is enlivened by great swathes of highly coloured geraniums set at key points – the work of the Dan Pearson Studio.
With work on several key sites still ongoing, the intended strong north-south axis of public open space is hard pressed to provide the quality intended and it falls to the east-west axis, with its confined edges provided by the canal-side, particularly around the gasholders and beyond Coal Drops Yard, to deliver. Townshend Landscape Architects designed the Canal Corridor and it is here, along with some of the hard landscaping to the south of the site, that relief and movement is offered within the area that is becoming overwhelmingly densely built up.
The canal, as it always has been, is the connective tissue here, from the comfortably familiar grass-effect tiered seats (or Ghat Steps) at the entrance to the site, along to the final piece in the puzzle, Gasholder Park terminating in a turfed circus opened some 18 months ago. Over the water, the Camley Street park (opened by mayor Livingstone in 1985) is sufficiently mature to offer a dense off-site background to the whole and when the current works are complete and the park reopens next year, it will provide a counter balance to the elegance and necessarily restrained planting on the other side of the water.