Leaders Plus LDN – Return to King’s Cross

It may have been cold and it may have rained (sometimes sideways) but Future of London’s first field trip as we emerged from lockdown this spring still felt like a joyous occasion. Most of the Leaders Plus 8 cohort were able to join this tour of King’s Cross, hosted by Argent senior development managers and fellow candidates Mark Swinburne and Jake Whiterod.

This was the first time the group, on their course since October 2020, had met in person – we all felt the absence of those who couldn’t make it, but I have never seen such grins on a walkabout. Everyone seemed so tall outside their screens!

We opted for ‘easy’ King’s Cross for all the reasons the place draws visitors: it’s central, accessible in every way, attractive and has a varied food & drink offer. We also chose it for all the reasons the regeneration scheme wins awards and is cited by practitioners: it has transformed a core area of a world city, blends uses seamlessly, showcases heritage, hosts almost every transport mode, and has a great backstory.

[NB: Argent does sponsor Leaders Plus, but we’d have come here no matter what for a first outing – that we were able to pry two knowledgeable guides out of a heavy bid process to help us speaks to the kind of engaged partner they are!]

For distancing reasons, Mark and Jake each took a group around, starting from the northern King’s Cross station entrance at Battle Bridge Place, stopping at leafy Pancras Square, then splitting up to circumnavigate Granary Square, Central St Martin’s and Coal Drops Yard to end with hot drinks and chat at a café before the brisk trip home.

For any who aren’t familiar with the place, here are a few key facts adapted from Mark’s notes:

  • King’s Cross was a long time coming, from the 1998 Expression of Interest and Argent’s proposal for “how to work rather than what it could be” to 2007 planning approval, through the financial crash and the partners’ decision to bull ahead after funding dried up, to the many phases of remediation, restoration and construction. The enormous Google HQ is yet to complete, but the entire site is busy (or as busy as any mixed-use complex these days).
  • Argent used a ‘model of constructive conservation’, retaining and restoring six key buildings to celebrate the area’s industrial heritage and house new university, retail and hospitality uses. The look and feel are major draws for tourists and relocation agents, and parallel how Manchester and other industrial centres are revitalising their history.
  • One critical move was making the site permeable, especially north-south. The tubular McAslan roof marked how King’s Cross station was looking north(ish) to the rest of the site; Pancras Square beckons for those wanting some green; and broad pedestrian King’s Boulevard is lined with retail and hoardings advertising Coal Drops Yard, itself running north-south but with links out to Regent’s Canal and across to the rest of site. The newest addition is the lovely pedestrian Esperance Bridge, reflecting area heritage and named by local schoolchildren.
  • Another key move was drawing in University of the Arts London and Central St. Martin’s, which added vibrant life early on, and make the area a natural host for events like the Silk Road photo exhibition. A great anchor institution can make all the difference (see this early FoL field trip series for more examples).
  • As Mark put it, “the masterplans and people’s experience of King’s Cross are more about the spaces than the buildings”. Argent calls Granary Square the urban beach; open to the canal and with plenty of seating by the fountains, it encourages people to appropriate the space. There is the usual criticism of privately-owned public space, but on recent visits, crowds felt mixed in every way, and any security presence was far less visible than at, say, More London.
  • Coal Drops Yard is the newest space, capped by the Heatherwick Studio roof. These two photos are of rainy, Covid-transition spring, but it is gradually coming to life, with the soon-to-open Camley Street Natural Park across the canal as another green transition point.
  • Finally, some numbers: The masterplan comprises 8m sqft across 67 acres, includes 5m sqft of office space, 2,000 new homes, 50 new buildings, 10 new public spaces (40% of the site), and involved £2.5bn investment in infrastructure. The scheme, its planning and land-assembly context and its commercial considerations are unique, but there are lessons to take away for projects and processes anywhere.

Mark and Jake also covered urban design strategy, site constraints, partner arrangements and more; Leaders Plus colleagues got the inside story (comes with the course) but much of this info is available at the King’s Cross site. Thanks to both for the visit – and congrats to Mark for winning one of the ‘favourite idea’ awards for his Proposal for London!

If you love a field trip like we do, check out the Manchester Grand Tour or this sister post on different field trip species… See you out there!