One of the world’s most visited cities, full of places to visit, sites to see and things to do, London is an urbanist’s dream. While in Europe this May for the Venice Biennale, the Left Bank Co. team took the opportunity to spend some time in London, and for the first time in a long time, became awestruck tourists in a town we thought we knew quite well. We spent our time meeting old friends and new clients, exploring great sites of urban renewal, and discovering the places that make London such a progressive and exciting city. Our adventures across town took us to the Kings Cross redevelopment, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Young Vic Theatre, Selfridges, the National Theatre, Southbank Centre, the redevelopment at Elephant and Castle, Marylebone High Street and the Serpentine Gallery and Pavilions, just to name a few.

These experiences have allowed our team to reflect on our company purpose – making cities meaningful – and think about what it is that makes London so successful in providing places that are full of life, energy and meaning. Here are some of our observations.

Public places for the people

London knows how to deliver great public places. And people use them, a lot. Squares, sidewalks and esplanades are filled with opportunities for people to visit, linger and stay. Buildings which you would expect to be inaccessible or empty during the day, like the theatres and exhibition centres, are packed full of people looking for a place to sit and socialise, work or relax.

These places seem to work so well because of a confluence of factors: there is always somewhere serving food and beverage; there is freely available Wi-Fi almost everywhere in the city; environments have been designed to encourage people to stay and be comfortable, providing plenty of seating and spaces to work. Some of these places are temporary, others are permanent.

And the most successful places have a character of their own, whether it’s the Brazilian Copacabana themed beach pop-up outside the Southbank Centre, bringing a lively and safer atmosphere to the infamous undercroft skate park; the industrial chic café/bar/restaurant The Cut at the Young Vic Theatre that not only serves the clientele of the experimental theatre, but has become a temporary office for theatre types from breakfast through to late night drinks; or Granary Square in the newly redeveloped Kings Cross, an open but intimate public square that is filled with people day and night, a place perfect for people watching. The personality and character of these places adds to the quality of life experienced and turns them into places people want to be.

Granary Square, Kings Cross; The Cut at Young Vic Theatre; Southbank, London. Photos: Hahna Busch

Granary Square, Kings Cross; The Cut at Young Vic Theatre; Southbank, London. Photos: Hahna Busch

Culturally competitive

Londoners and the city’s countless visitors have a great appetite for culture. From the museums to the theatres to the galleries, audiences are coming in droves to be immersed in world-class arts, culture and creativity. Choosing where to go and what to see is a challenge – there are the many major cultural institutions to pick between, endless galleries, and enough theatre and stage shows to keep you occupied every night of every week.

While the strong visitor numbers certainly are a driving force behind keeping this sector well established, there is also a noticeable effort on behalf of the larger institutions to set themselves up for resilience and success by becoming destinational places. Establishing a clear identity and vision gives a unique positioning in the market. Supplementary revenue raisers, like food and beverage, gift shops and libraries, along with generous services like Wi-Fi, amenities and plenty of publically accessible space, is used to create environments where visitors can gain free entry and easily while away the day without having to leave the premises.

The fascinating Wellcome Collection has nailed how to become a cultural destination. Pitched as “the free destination for the incurably curious”, it has a totally unique and intriguing positioning that explores the connections between medicine, life and art. Visitors come for the unusual exhibitions and program of events. They’ll visit the café to make the most of the free Wi-Fi over a coffee and end up staying for lunch. Money will be spent in the shop where a carefully curated selection of books and gifts have been chosen to match the themes in the exhibitions. A visit to the library or the stunning reading room will absorb you for hours. It is a place that understands that a culture is built on individual characteristics which set it apart from other cultures, and has set out to create its own distinct culture to set it apart from other institutions. It is a lesson in how a clear vision and strong positioning are needed to set the foundations for success.

The Wellcome Collection: Reading Room, main stairway and cafe and gift shop. Photos: Hahna Busch

The Wellcome Collection: Reading Room, main stairway and cafe and gift shop. Photos: Hahna Busch

Shop till you drop

From the retail strips like Oxford and Regent Streets, Portobello Road and Carnaby Street, to the department stores like Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty, London is a shopping mecca. The options are endless, whether you are looking for exclusive boutiques or affordable high street brands. And with its large population, much of which is significantly wealthy, and the endless tourist market, these shops are consistently busy.

And boy, does London love a chain store. Every retail hub or shopping strip is guaranteed to have the same mix of shops: there is always a Boots pharmacy, a Costa Coffee, a WH Smith newsagency, whether you are on Marylebone High Street or a rough suburb on the fringes of the city. In the inner city, you’ll find the same chain three times over within walking distance of each other, so you never have to go far to find what you need.

So in this sea of sameness, it is the unique shopping experiences that really stand out. Harrods and Liberty have world-renowned brands and iconic homes with one of a kind brand experiences. Marylebone High Street has accumulated some of the most reputable high end designer stores from The Conran Shop to the Monocle Shop. And one of the world’s best department stores, Selfridges & Co is renowned creating a social and cultural environment for extraordinary customer experiences. This vision was established by founder Harry Gordon Selfridge in the 1900s, and it is what shapes the department store to this day. On top of the beautifully designed fitouts and immaculate stock displays, events, services and experiences turn the department store and shopping experience into a joyful leisure activity.

Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street; Selfridges Food Court; Liberty London. Photos: Hahna Busch.

Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street; Selfridges Food Court; Liberty London. Photos: Hahna Busch.

What can we learn from London?

While the city of London is a highly aspirational urban environment, with exceptional places that seem ripe for reproduction here in Australia, we need to be realistic about our own cities, the size of our audiences and the appetite for these kinds of places and spaces. We do not have the population or the tourist numbers of London; we don’t have such wealth (or such poverty); and our cities do not come anywhere near the scale of London’s sprawl. If we’re going to aspire to create equally meaningful and successful places at home, we need to know our users, understand the industry ecosystems, recognise the scale and demand, and identify the real needs and requirements for these places. As we build, redevelop and reimagine our urban environments, we should be seeking to create places with a point of difference, that are more meaningful, and that deliver quality of life, custom fit for the people in our cities.