Overcoming Barriers: Connecting Croydon

Wellesley Road by Axe~commonswiki, licensed under GFDL.

Croydon’s landscape is changing fast: the council’s £5.25bn regeneration programme is set to deliver 23,594 new jobs and 10,000 homes by 2031. Designated an Opportunity Area in 2013, Croydon’s growth is being delivered through five distinct but integrated masterplans: East Croydon, West Croydon, Mid Croydon, Fairfield, and Old Town.

As we know it, Croydon town centre is home to a complex system of subways, divided by an unfinished ring road and punctuated with large, impermeable commercial blocks. Masterplans work towards a shared vision for connectivity across the whole. The scale of growth brings a unique opportunity to overcome barriers by rethinking transport networks and transforming the public realm, better connecting the town centre both internally and to nearby amenities.

Future of London’s July field trip took us to Zone 5 to see how projects today are working to connect Croydon and address the challenging legacy of past development.

Bridging East and West

Delegates enter Ruskin Square via the footbridge.

LB Croydon has been improving connectivity for several years. In 2011, LB Croydon brought in architects, designers and engineers to  collaborate on the East Croydon Masterplan, of which the new footbridge is a key element. Tess Martin, Associate at Hawkins\Brown, stressed the importance of considering the bridge as part of the wider public realm: a key component of the area’s movement network and an integral part of the East-West pedestrian link. The bridge is two-track, providing a station entrance and egress, but also a public walkway, connecting Cherry Orchard Road with Ruskin Square.

To avoid closing the station for installation, the £20 million bridge was pre-manufactured and push-launched over live tracks, moving “as slowly as possible so that train drivers approaching the station did not think that the bridge was collapsing”.

In 2013, the Connect 2 scheme saw a cycle path and new pedestrian crossings spanning two of Croydon’s busiest strategic roads, Park Lane and Roman Way, connecting Fair Field with Mid-Croydon, and the Old Town with Wandle Park respectively.

Activating spaces

Alongside strategic works, smaller activations are vital to deliver the vision. Our guide for the afternoon, Aurelie Pot, Deputy Team Leader at LB Croydon, explained the interventions set out in Croydon’s masterplans can be broken down into smaller pieces and delivered independently by different organisations as funding comes available.

Clockwise from top left: students gather around the College Way installation; Street Live screen Wimbledon; Ruskin Park’s transformation to tranquil green space; road art featuring designs by local artists.

In both East and Central Croydon, road art featuring designs from local artists bring colour to the public realm. Ahead of major works in Mid-Croydon, the authority and Croydon BID have set up Street Live, a programme of events on a temporarily pedestrianised section of the High Street. Featuring a pop-up screen, street food and live events, these small-scale experiments will inform long-term decisions.

Croydon College falls within the Fairfield Masterplan. One of the “Five Early Wins” identified by the Masterplan, the College entrance now features an installation designed by students at Central St. Martins, encouraging public use of the space. Improved North-South permeability promotes footfall, achieved by creating a public walkway through the College, making College Green easily from George Street and East Croydon Station.

Permeability in the Town Centre

The town centre too is changing (see FoL’s 2015 write-up, here) with Croydon Partnership set to transform the retail offer, replacing Whitgift Centre with a new Westfield Croydon. The proposal includes 136,500 square metres of retail space alongside significant office space, leisure and community facilities. The development will also bring forward 400 to 600 new homes, a first for Westfield.

Wellesley Road: an urban motorway dividing East and West. A sign reads “People have been killed here crossing here, USE THE SUBWAY”.

At the Croydon Art Store, a meanwhile use in one the Whitgift’s disused units, Abhimanyu Acharya, Associate at Space Syntax, spoke about pedestrian movement in Croydon. Space Syntax’s analysis of street networks has underpinned plans to enhance town centre connectivity as far back as 2007. Although well connected to the wider South East, Croydon’s local network is fragmented, creating a paradox whereby it is easier to leave the town centre than move around it. The large urban blocks of the East Croydon station and the Whitgift Centre reduce the east-west permeability and force the pedestrian movement onto a few streets. Public access to the high street through the shopping mall ends after the Whitgift Centre closes.

The proposed Westfield development provides an opportunity to correct past mistakes by providing 24-hour public routes through the commercial centre to create an environment which encourages pedestrian movement. A pedestrian crossing will replace the current subway linking Lansdowne Road and the shopping centre, extending the east-west pedestrian link from East Croydon station to the High Street.

Coordinating stakeholders across Wandle Valley Regional Park

Wandle Park takes its name from the river, which runs through LBs Croydon, Sutton, Merton, and Wandsworth before joining the Thames. The park has benefited recently from Lottery funding which daylighted the river, creating a valuable regenerated amenity and ecological resource for Croydon residents.

Historically the Wandle was London’s hardest working and most polluted rivers. Today, the Wandle Valley corridor is still home to 20% of London’s manufacturing base but has reclaimed its rare chalk stream river habitat, one of only 200 globally.

Covering four borough boundaries and numerous landowners, managing any section of the Wandle Valley requires interaction with multiple stakeholders. In 2012, Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust was formed to consider the Valley holistically at a landscape scale.

Sue Morgan, the Trust’s Chief Executive, explained that it acts as a coordinator for interest groups, landowners, authorities and other stakeholders. With numerous partners and a small budget, the Trust is promoting the Valley as vital Green Infrastructure in a flood zone, while enhancing its contribution to local economies and well-being. Their work identifies three key sets of barriers:

Sue Morgan outlining Trust’s approach to overcoming barriers.

Physical – the Trust works to increase access to the river and wider Regional Park, particularly in areas that suffer health and income inequalities. Barriers to access include fragmented landownership and needed permissions, a lack of access across industrial areas and physical barriers of road and railway infrastructure.

Administrative – in addition to lying across four boroughs, ownership, access and management of the river and Regional Park interfaces with a huge number of departments from highways to economic development to waste. The Trust are tasked with balancing the priorities of multiple borough bodies, a board, community groups and private interests.

Policy – commissioning practice for infrastructure funds, CIL, S106, frequently omit third sector organisations from bidding or being tasked to deliver services through local commissioning, restricting the Trust’s ability to secure funding. In addition, the economic regenerative benefits of Green Infrastructure to place and people are still not universally recognised as a benefit for current policy objectives. Recognising the value of GI in regional funding streams and locally based commissioning/funding pathways could help organisations like the Trust to get more done.

Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust’s approach to coordinating diverse stakeholders represents a new method of governance, and could transform approaches to managing landscape-scale places.

Works to improve legibility (left) and install crossings (right) are helping to reduce severance from roads and large commercial blocks.

Historic severance such as Croydon’s flyover and the never-finished ring-road are significant challenges, the impacts of which are likely to be felt for the foreseeable future, but additional crossings and well-planned pedestrian links build connectivity around these barriers. LB Croydon’s approach makes a strong case for valuing smaller scale projects to adapt and enhance the existing urban fabric, and for integrating these in and around major strategic projects.