Can a Group of Designers Solve London’s Urban Challenges?

London mayor Sadiq Khan has appointed a diverse roster of architects as Design Advocates who will help advise on the sustainability and inclusivity concerns of major developments across the city.

Tulip Tower proposal by Foster + Partners

Shortly after London mayor Sadiq Khan took office, in 2016, he named 50 architects and designers—including David Adjaye, Alison Brooks, and Sadie Morgan—as Design Advocates. The appointees would work with local councils to review major design projects to help improve the quality of the built environment, particularly along the lines sustainability and inclusivity as the city’s population approached 10 million. City Hall enlisted their opinion on 150 projects across architecture, public space, planning, development, and conservation, including the controversial Tulip Tower by Foster + Partners, the Bishopsgate Goodsyard master plan, and the pedestrianization of Oxford Street. It was a diverse group, hand-picked to tackle the low representation of minority groups in architecture: half were women, and a quarter identified as BIPOC. 

Of course, much has changed since 2017. The pandemic ground life to a halt and devastated local businesses, exacerbating the economic and housing inequality that was already gripping the city. It was also the site of mass protests against police brutality during the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw demonstrators topple statues of slave traders across England. Now that Khan has been re-elected, he’s refreshing his roster of Design Advocates with the aftermath of these historical moments in mind—and appointing those aligned with his Good Growth by Design prospectus, a strategy he published this past year to facilitate sustainable economic growth. 

“We know that good architecture and planning can make a real difference between the places that work—socially and environmentally as well as economically—and those that age gracelessly,” Jules Pipe, London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration, and skills, said in a statement. “That’s why we’re delighted to be recruiting a new cohort of experts who will use their extensive expertise and skills to help us build back fairer and greener.”

Rendering of Bishopsgate Goodsyard in London

Khan intends for most major projects in London—particularly those benefiting from Greater London Authority investment—to undergo design review. (At present, 70 percent don’t.) He’s also hoping that by inviting more rising stars (Manijeh Verghese of Unscene Architecture, Teri Okoro of TOCA, and Jayden Ali of JA Projects among them) into the fold and doubling down on diversity, as opposed to just blockbuster names, the program will foster greater diversity and thoughtful approaches when overseeing developments that can impact public space and housing. 

So far, the program seems promising: “He showed that he and his team not only believe in the value of good design, they also recognize that designers are the people who understand it best,” says Julia Park, Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein. “Policy-making should be a more inclusive and collaborative process, directly involving the people who tackle the practical challenges of making good cities.” 

Surface Says: London’s government leveraging private-sector talent for public good makes us ponder the possibilities if the U.S. followed suit, like tasking Apple to build Obamacare’s digital infrastructure or enlisting an advisory board of architects without skin in the game to bring Hudson Yards slightly back down to earth.

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