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Students, Roman ruins, and the birds and bees: how the City is regaining its mojo

The City has a challenge. Its offices emptied out during the pandemic and have yet to fill again. While weekend public transport to the Square Mile is running a fifth ahead of pre-COVID levels (albeit from a low base), weekday travel remains stubbornly 25% below pre-pandemic level even on peak days. The premium that West End offices command over their City counterparts has widened dramatically, with some Mayfair offices charging double what is paid in the financial district. The City, which traces its human history back to Roman times, is fighting back, with its ’Destination City’ plan.

We sat down with Shravan Joshi, who chairs the City’s Planning and Transportation Committee, to understand how the City hopes to use its planning powers to bring the City, as a destination, to life.

At the heart of Destination City is a desire, as one wit put it, to make the Square Mile less square, with a mixture of urban greening, new hotels, top restaurants, and a host of new cultural venues and events.

Joshi’s job is to help deliver this vision without endangering the financial and professional services industry with which the City has become synonymous. Joshi insists that, despite the upset of the pandemic, confidence remains high, with no fewer than eight new towers in the City in the offing. Nonetheless, he is not complacent, and is, with officers, working on a new local plan that brings together the various initiatives under Destination City.

No longer ‘all work and no play’


Joshi recalls “20 years ago, you’d walk around the Square Mile after 8pm, and it would be absolutely deserted”, adding, “nobody wants to go back to that”. One important goal is more hotels – the City was historically notoriously light on hospitality. (When Wyndham and Conran opened the former railway hotel, the Great Eastern, near Liverpool Street, it was the City’s only hotel.) Joshi acknowledges that, “we need more hotel rooms”. In the recent past, canny tourists would stay in the City, at a substantial discount to the nearby West End, home to theatres and ceremonial London. Joshi says that discount has now “disappeared… unfortunately”. And as “we’ve become a much more global city… it’s part of our duty to make sure that we can accommodate that [hotel demand], whether its leisure use or business use or weekend visits from around the country”.

Joshi says, “Hoteliers want to accommodate weekend leisure use more and more. They’re actively [asking], “What's on offer on the weekends? What can [we] promote to our visitors? Is it Tower Bridge and the Tower of London and St Paul’s and all these major attractions? How do [visitors] build in all the other stuff they can do? Where can they go and eat and drink and enjoy the rest of the facilities?”

Resi for students


The City has, Joshi says, “housing quotas, like everybody else”. Nonetheless, the City is resistant to residential (colloquially known as ‘resi’) development that would endanger the City’s position as a global economic powerhouse. Specifically, residents enjoy rights to light that could make business tower construction challenging. Joshi declares: “What we don't want to see is pepper-potting of residents around the Square Mile. You dilute the core reason for the Square Mile as an economic centre. We don't want to go down the route of zoning. We [want to] identify areas of the Square Mile where you could create residential areas that are able to thrive within the context of the wider economic city.”

Joshi argues that, in fact, there is little need for large permanent residential provision in the City. “You've got an underlying transport infrastructure which means it's actually very easy to get in and out of the centre”, he says, asking, “why put very, very expensive resi in that centre when you could put it slightly further out and you’ve got the transport links to service it?”

Perhaps surprisingly, the City looks more favourably on student accommodation than permanent resi. In February, Joshi’s committee gave permission to Dominus, a family-owned business, to build a 21-storey tower, providing 780 student rooms, at 65 Crutched Friars. City student accommodation is far from the grungy student digs of yore. Joshi, a parent himself, describes London student accommodation as “very expensive”. He envisages new City student accommodation as catering to “people flying in. They're coming here because there’s a centre of expertise and skills that they can't get anywhere else.”

Open air


The pandemic brought with it a need, as well as a desire, for open air dining spaces. Joshi says that there was already a trend for free viewing galleries in the City. This is a trend he wants to encourage, to create “Instagram-able moments”, for which the City, with Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic St Paul’s dome, glimpses of the Thames and its shimmering skyscrapers, is ready-made.

The most famous roof terrace is the “Sky Garden” in the so-called ‘Walkie Talkie’ tower, designed by Rafael Viñoly. Boasting of “the best views in London”, in April Sky Garden welcomed its ten millionth visitor since opening in early 2015.

Of course, there is always a tension between the ongoing costs of maintaining and guarding free open space, and the upside of drawing customers into bars and restaurants, especially given how tough the trading environment has been due to the pandemic, hybrid working, staff shortages and inflation. For example, the City granted One New Change permission to open its vast roof terrace, with views of St Paul’s, to the public during the pandemic. But it is currently “closed to public access for the time being”, with no information as to when it might reopen.

Nonetheless, Joshi is clear that free-access public viewing galleries are now part of the quid pro quo with developers: “free access – that’s baked in. That’s a requirement, absolutely”. 22 Bishopsgate, a 62-storey tower close to Liverpool Street station at the eastern edge of the City will be the next to open.

In addition to opening roof-tops to people, the City wants to open them to wildlife too. Joshi says, “We want to create corridors where, without human interaction, you let bees and birds and biodiversity thrive. They rely on an ecosystem. Having solitary rooftops isn’t enough. You’ve got to have the spread of them [for] that ecosystem to flourish.”

Some of these new biodiversity gardens are also private, perhaps underscoring a tension between the space required – and noise generated – by human activity and the space and tranquillity needed by other species.

Goldman Sachs’ rooftop garden, with views of the Shard at London Bridge, and nearby St Paul’s, for example, is private. But the US bank makes a point of telling putative applicants that it “includes invertebrate habitat boxes and wildflower species that support native species and… diversity.” Other private or ‘secret’ roof gardens, which opened for the once-a-year London Open Gardens in June include 25 Cannon Street, Eversheds Sutherland, and Nomura’s riverside roof garden.

In at the ground floor


While balancing terraces, gardens and biodiversity corridors at roof level, Joshi is planning new cultural activities at ground level. And, as with roof terraces, these will be requirements for planning permission.

As part of the permission for the purpose-built student accommodation at Crutched Friars, developer Dominus has agreed to house the Migration Museum, currently camped out in Lewisham Shopping Centre, for five years, rent free.

Joshi waxes lyrical about bringing this museum into the heart of the City, saying, “They told a wonderful story in that temporary space, [which] used to be an H&M [clothes shop], and now they're going to move to a purpose-built space in the City, bringing school children in, bringing tourists and visitors and workers, and understanding what the story of migration is.”

Many see financial services as a monolithic industry, peopled by upper-middle class, well-educated white men. While this stereotype may understate the engine of social, racial and immigrant mobility, that the City has provided, Joshi sees the Migration Museum as “a huge part of that diverse and inclusive conversation that we want the City to be at the centre of”.

The City’s is now actively looking for other such cultural offerings that it can pair with developers, with initiatives like Edinburgh’s Library of Mistakes one of those looking for an additional City base in a new development.

Un/dis-covering the City


As much as creating new spaces in the City, Joshi is passionate about enabling people – visitors, commuters and residents – to discover hidden gems already there. He is passionate about improving wayfinding that might divert commuters – like himself- from their well-trodden routes. One ambition is to create a path from Tate Modern, on the South Bank, across the Millennium Bridge, past St Paul’s, and up Old Bailey to the new Museum of London.

London was a Roman settlement, and Joshi is keen that visitors also enjoy the Roman ruins that he says are never more than a couple of metres away. Bloomberg’s newish offices at 12 Walbrook sit above the Roman Temple of Mithras, free to visit, while investment manager Schroders built its new headquarters around the restored remains of the defensive Roman wall, St Alphage’s Medieval Church tower and new pocket parks.

The City may have taken a hit during the pandemic. But as with so many other occasions during its two-millennia history, it is determined to reinvent itself again.


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Thank you to Saurav Saha, London Office Crane Survey analyst. Saurav participated in this interview with Margaret Doyle and Jeremy Castle and fact-checked the article.