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May 01, 2017  |  permalink

Peter Rees’ London: The Engine Room


(Originally published at Medium on May 1, 2017.)

The Heron is blandly handsome as London skyscrapers go, compared to the nearby, and similarly whimsically nicknamed, “Gherkin,” “Walkie Talkie,” or “Cheesegrater” towers. But the three-year-old luxury building is exceptional in two respects. For one thing, it’s the first housing block since the 1970s to be located in the City, the compact, ancient financial center of London, also known as the Square Mile. For another, its few full-time residents include Peter Wynne Rees, who personally approved its construction — along, as it happens, with the Gherkin, Walkie Talkie, and Cheesegrater. As the longtime chief planner for the City of London Corporation, Rees is, arguably, the person most responsible for the stunning recent transformation of London’s historic core into one of the fastest growing centers of commercial development on the planet.

After a remarkably long tenure — nearly thirty years — Rees retired in 2014, but is still fiercely protective of what he calls “the engine room” — the economic hub of Greater London, the United Kingdom, and perhaps the world. (For now.) He’s been outspokenly critical of luxury apartments marketed to absentee owners who wire the funds from offshore accounts, notoriously describing such projects as “safety deposit boxes in the sky.” But on a recent tour of the district I discover he’s surprisingly skeptical of housing in general, given that most homes are empty during the day and dark at night. The City has neither the time nor the room for that.

“It’s a waste of land, which is in short supply here,” Rees tells me during our walk. “Cities can’t afford that degree of underuse.” He sees the City, above all, as a commercial reactor fueled by chance encounters and traded snippets of information — what he calls “the gossip.” Though accelerated by the financial deregulation in the 1980s, this heritage reaches back several centuries, starting with the founding of the Royal Exchange in 1571, spilling over into the Restoration-era pubs and coffee houses lining nearby Change Alley, and continuing to this day in the pocket parks and arcades he and his staff planned or protected. “People make places; places make gossip; gossip makes people money,” he explains. “And the City is especially well-designed to allow that to happen.”

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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