A century ago, around the time the block of flats I live in was built, the Regents Canal a few streets away would have been seen as a massive nuisance. The canal boats, carrying bulk goods such as coal and grain, were powered by coal-burning furnaces which spewed out dust and pollution. All day long, people would have heard the barge men shouting out, not just to each other but also to the horses who trotted along the towpath, helping pull the boats. And the waterway itself would have been clogged with sewage: industrial flotsam and jetsam, as well as debris from the cleaning out of cages at the nearby London Zoo.
Today, after years of neglect, the industrial area around Kings Cross is finally opening up. The canal, while not completely free of rubbish and the occasional oil spill, is a muddy but natural brown; there are even fish. We’re about to have a dazzling new piazza just behind Kings Cross station, with an expanse of white paving stones and fountains, and gentle steps sloping down to the canal-side; previously, the canal bank was choked with weeds and sealed off behind fences of corrugated iron.
The industrial age gave us smoke- and chemically-damaged buildings, polluted water-ways, contaminated land and smog-filled air. Canals, railways and factories were, as much as possible, sectioned off from residential areas. The more money you had, the further away you hoped to be from any overt sign of industry. But much of this is changing now. All over the UK, factories and warehouses have been converted into offices and living spaces. The areas alongside waterways are being opened up, with walks, open spaces and parks replacing what was previously wasteland. Sites from the Victorian gasholders at Kings Cross to Battersea Power Station have become much loved symbols of our national heritage.
The Granary Square development behind Kings Cross seems a good metaphor for 21st century business. As industry (albeit slowly) becomes cleaner and greener, post-modern urban design is all about opening up and re-connecting. Instead of silos, the future is one of hybrid work/life spaces. We are beginning to realise the inter-relatedness of things. The way forward is one of collaboration and co-existence.
In this week’s Media Guardian, Jeff Jarvis talks about a new approach to community journalism at the New York Times. The Times has dispatched two of its correspondents to communities in New Jersey and Brooklyn. The job of the reporters will be not so much to break stories as to build relationships, working with community leaders at grassroots level, as well as local blogging sites:
“All these parties must collaborate, not compete,” writes Jeff. “They must create complementary content that fills out their local news worlds so that each of them adds value and stands out for it […] The days of one news organisation owning a town and its news are over; no one can afford to do that any more. Instead, if these experiments succeed, they will do so by collaborating to create a new network – a new ecosystem – of local news.”
This approach is part of the new “long tail” trend of “hyperlocal” (which Jeff describes as “the ability to serve readers and small advertisers in highly targeted geographic niches”). The assumption is that stakeholders within these niches are dependent on each other for survival and therefore co-operation is essential.
This is a hypothesis which is being put to the test not just at a local level and within communities of interest, but also within markets.