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The resilience of a London great estate

Davis, Juliet ORCID: The resilience of a London great estate. Presented at: International Planning History Society Conference: History, Urbanism, Resilience, Holland, 17 - 21 July 2016.

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The concept of resilience — “evolutionary” resilience in particular — has been said to offer a fresh perspective on the role of planning in contexts of change. It denotes the ability of socio-ecological systems to respond to vulnerabilities resulting from ‘slow’, endogenous change or sudden disturbances that may or may not be anticipated. It thus helps to foreground issues of flexibility, adaptability and the path-dependency in planning over such classic priorities as the creation of certainty, permanence or stability (Folke and Gunderson, 2006; Eraydin and Tasan-Kok, 2012; Davoudi and Porter, 2012; Raco and Street, 2012). This paper turns to planning and development history to explore this concept in the context of a piece of London that has been in the making for several centuries, focussing on spatial adaptation processes in response of change and aspects of governance that these have depended on. This is Grosvenor’s Mayfair landholding, owned by the aristocratic Grosvenor family since 1677 and first planned in 1720, a ‘complete unit of development’ according to Summerson (1945) within the pattern of London’s westward expansion following the traumatic 1666 Great Fire of London. This trajectory was dominated by speculative building processes involving aristocratic landlords, surveyor-planners, and developer-builders, shaping London’s growth into the late 19th century. But, Grosvenor has continued to adapt its landholding into the 21st century in response to shifting social, political and economic circumstances in order to retain desirability, value and quality. The paper begins by providing an overview of the estate’s original development and giving examples of sources of vulnerability and adaptation since, drawing on archival research and urban analysis. Sources of vulnerability have included multiple recessions, public health and housing crises, bombing during the Second World War, social upheavals in the 20th century and surging prime property values today. Spatial strategies for addressing them have included retrofit and facade retention, changes of use, piecemeal redevelopments, long-term visioning processes, public realm improvements and conservation. The result is generally continuity in terms of the flexible, gridded urban structure of streets and building plots, and yet evolution in the incrementally developed, fine grained urban form which encompasses a wide range of architectural styles and typologies. Grosvenor has itself drawn attention to the ‘adaptive capacity’ that this reflects, recently engaging directly with the resilience concept (Grosvenor, 2013). The paper turns to explore this capacity further, drawing on interviews with contemporary estate surveyors. This is rooted, centrally, in the long-term nature of urban management (with knowledge building up within the institution over time), the integration of ownership, planning and development, the scale of the landholding, and continuity of purpose. The primary long-term purpose has clearly been to build the Grosvenor family’s legacy but, it is also said to have been to care for the land, environment and life of the estate, adopting and maintaining a ‘sense of stewardship'. The paper concludes with reflections on some of the issues of governance and path-dependency that this raises, and possibilities it suggests for resilience planning more broadly.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Architecture
Last Modified: 01 Nov 2022 09:46

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