Why mixing residential and light industrial is good for our cities

Our cities need to think of more creative ways to integrate homes and workspaces to support local and national growth. Economic development consultants Gregory Openshaw and Jon Howells look at why co-locating light industrial spaces with housing could be a good way to provide more homes, create and protect jobs and also retain industrial activity and innovation in our cities.

More homes are needed in our cities and towns than ever before: figures reveal London alone is growing by an average of 120,000 people per year, leading to the need for around 66,000 new homes every 12 months. A growing number of predominantly young professionals are also moving to our cities to find work, with Manchester experiencing the fastest city-centre growth in terms of jobs and population in England and Wales between 2002 and 2015, and Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool following closely behind, according to a recent Centre for Cities report.

A new, integrated typology

But with increasing demand to build more homes and workspaces, coupled with less vacant and brownfield land to build them on, we need to develop in new ways that will ensure our cities grow sustainably. Ultimately, this means bringing homes and jobs together to create exciting spaces where people can live and work alongside each other. This can be achieved with new, integrated typologies — integrated in terms of a mix of uses within a building, individual sites and neighbourhoods.

With local councils also trying to protect industrial land and the vital, often lower-skilled local employment opportunities they provide, a new typology that mixes residential and light industrial could help provide a solution not only in London, but also in other fast-developing cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, which are likely to face similar growth challenges in the future.

A change in regulation

A new permitted development order, which came into force in October 2017, means developers can now convert small light industrial buildings (under 500 square metres) into homes without planning permission. This could spur a drive in the interest in creating residential and light industrial neighbourhoods. Given that removing barriers to making better use of underused land remains a key government policy instrument in the delivery of homes, orders such as this could also highlight a potential national policy-making direction, where mixing larger-scale residential and industrial uses might be viewed favourably. Here’s why, we believe, this re-imagined type of urban development mix makes ‘good growth’ sense for our cities: 

Space for cleaner, greener, quieter industry

While developments in our cities have sought to include non-residential components for some time, industrial spaces have typically been missing from the mix because there remains a stigma that industry is low value, dirty and noisy. However, new innovations around materials such as noise-cancelling and clean emissions technologies are changing this and there is a growing awareness of the economic value industry can leverage. Industry for the modern city such as distribution warehousing, can be clean, green and essential in supporting the workings of cities with homes and workspaces. There’s also a growing acceptance and willingness, especially from the younger population, who are choosing to stay in our cities, to live alongside uses that make the city what it is — a functioning, living, interactive space. Failure to site industry close to markets (labour, supply chains and customers) can lead to negative knock-on effects such as congestion and productivity impacts.

Essential for city living

Industry supports jobs for a range of occupations and people of different backgrounds. The limited availability of sites can mean that some developers may not see the opportunity to bring about multi-use development, threatening diversity. But this is changing. We need to go back to our recent past and remember that industry is integral to a city’s functioning and life. It provides a range of employment opportunities for people with a range of skills. City living is increasingly associated with ‘on-demand’ purchasing and services, and by being alongside each other, transactions between industry and residents, their customers and their employees become seamless with the increased benefits for all that this brings.

Harnesses creativity and innovation

Our cities need to harness the creativity and innovation of the people who live in them; we need industrial activity in all its modern forms to achieve this. Making products in the location where they are used remains a draw to modern manufacturing businesses, such as cycle manufacturers, keen to see their products in use first-hand. This, in turn, stimulates innovation, a process essential to business and economic success. Industrial activities are diverse and there are many opportunities to create new ideas by working across sectors.

Offers UK-wide potential

Ultimately, mixing residential and light industrial workspaces presents significant opportunities. Although Manchester and Birmingham aren’t under as much pressure as London to develop the new mix just yet, it is something authorities there could begin to look at with interest. The recently released draft Greater Manchester Spatial Plan states the need to focus on urban, brownfield sites for development, halving previous plans to reach into Green Belt. Looking more widely, there is potential for this new mix in areas such as Warrington where AECOM produced the city plan in collaboration with the local authority.

From vacant to vibrant – 415 Wick Lane, Hackney Wick, east London

Transforming an under-utilised site into a vibrant and well-connected community, Wick Lane is an employment-led development of six buildings with 175 homes built over new light industrial units, retail and workspaces. The project references the Strategic Industrial Land and heritage assets to the south and Fish Island conservation area to the north; a historic neighbourhood characterised by Victorian warehouse buildings hosting a mix of industrial, creative and residential spaces. The scheme also reconciles the transition between these two areas and integrates them through a landscaped public realm, creating a new mixed-use community that provides character and connectivity to Hackney Wick.

The project was worked up in co-ordination with the Quality Review Panel for London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) and successfully resolved the issue of residential uses neighbouring Strategic Industrial Land and the conservation area within Fish Island. AECOM’s planning team worked with client Taylor Wimpey and architects dRMM to achieve unanimous approval for the new community by the LLDC planning committee in April 2017.

Image credit: Cityscape and dRMM Architects

Helping councils choose the best ‘new-mix’ locations

In preparing a key piece of evidence for its Local Plan, we recently advised Wandsworth Council in Greater London, on where specific locations for light-industrial uses could potentially co-exist sustainably with new homes; evidence which withstood public scrutiny, and is now helping deliver homes and jobs in this South London borough. We also recently completed work on a suite of Local Plan evidence studies relating to industrial land for the London Borough of Enfield, an area faced with the almost unique challenge in London of providing substantial amounts of both new homes and industrial floorspace. This included a study that explored how emerging typologies of co-located residential and light industry could potentially work at specific designated industrial sites, and the constraints the council could face when delivering these typologies, based on our experience.