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Southwark: eight small projects, one big vision

The anticipated arrival of the new Tate Gallery has sparked a novel plan for improving public spaces
The London borough of Southwark is carrying out an experiment in improving its streets and public space. It is turning away from the big undertaking and embracing step-by-step improvement. There is declining enthusiasm for wholesale demolition to build big leisure centres, huge shopping malls and new roads in between. Having used them, we can see that they were too often based upon wrong assumptions about economic growth and about our wants and needs. Southwark's new approach, if it succeeds, could be enormously influential.

Southwark's most revolutionary decision may be to have dispensed with a master plan. Instead it has invited eight design teams to make proposals for different parts of the borough. There is no lead designer. Each team starts with what exists in the area it has been allocated.

And these starting points are a fascinating mixture of ancient streets, Victorian brutalism and 20th century blandness. Southwark was once the entertainment district of London. Across the Thames via London Bridge, beyond the control of the City authorities, there were dozens of rowdy inns, women of the "stews" or brothels, bowling, bear baiting, gambling and theatres like the Globe. After the priories were dissolved and the theatres and bears gardens demolished, Southwark settled down into an area of wharves and warehouses, brewing, engineering, small-scale industry and craft workers.

Dickens' parents were in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison and the great novelist's first job was in a Southwark blacking factory at the age of 12 years. The old inns described in Pickwick Papers were in the High Street. Then came the railways, pushed through Southwark with so little regard for what lay in their paths that the Waterloo to London Bridge line almost touches Southwark Cathedral. They were followed in later decades by commercial property developers who erected cheap office accommodation. Today the authentic scene in old Southwark is a vast railway viaduct with multifarious activities conducted under the arches, surrounded by 20th century commercial and light industrial property still more or less aligned with the medieval street plan.

The trigger for Southwark's initiative is the arrival in the borough shortly of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. From every point of view but one, this is a big project, expected to attract three million visitors each year. The exception is the building itself. It is not a new structure. It is the old Bankside power station. While it is being modified to accommodate pictures rather than turbines, its past will not be disguised. This same approach is to be taken by the eight design teams. They cannot propose clearing an area and starting again. They are asked to analyse what already exists and suggest modifications. They are required to give priority to public transport and pedestrian access over cars, to find ways of making public spaces safer and to improve the look of them. And they must consult local residents and workers thoroughly and regularly.

The plans are now being exhibited in Southwark Street for the next five weeks in a converted car-wash building. A common feature is opening up views - across the river to the Tower or even via a giant angled mirror towards Southwark Cathedral. Another is re-working the railway viaducts. One proposal is to suspend them from pylons so that the space underneath can be properly used. The design teams have also thought a lot about creating new pedestrian routes. For instance, it is suggested that a new walkway, described as a canopy of lights, should be driven right through the middle of a large, exceedingly boring 1950s-style office block due to be demolished in a few years.

Most of all, I like the schemes for individual streets. The robustness and diversity of the average busy street, with its mixture of offices, shops, pubs, cinemas as well as remnants of the past in the shape of bits of wall, pavement, elaborate door frame, cobbled entrance and so on are preserved. The design improvements start with street furniture, lighting and signposting. This is applying tender loving care to the street. During this process it finally becomes clear what is truly tatty and ugly and beyond treatment - and for which replacement may be the best answer.

This shifting of the debate about the right way to improve our cities is a sign of the times. The difficulty of finding a striking way to mark the Millennium is a further example of this. We would rather spend time and money on improving the intricate mechanisms of daily life than on doing something monumental. Some time ago, I took part in a well-organised series of discussions whose purpose was to identify and carry forward a suitably bold initiative. We examined numerous suggestions, but nothing convincing emerged. Now most of us, surely, would be relieved if the proposed Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich in London didn't take place. Local people would care because the development would create a lot of jobs and bring much business to the borough. But the rest of us?

The truth is that we are much less interested than we were in grand projets such as those President Mitterrand carried out in Paris during the 1980s which caused so much envy on this side of the Channel. In any case we have not always been successful in doing them. Both the new British Library building and the enlargement of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden are cases in point. These ambitious concepts have often appeared to be collapsing under their own weight. The characteristic British preference for pragmatic solutions is reasserting itself. That is why Southwark's experiment in petits projets deserves notice.