Soho at the heart of the West End typifies in a very concentrated form the successes and problems facing historic central city areas. Street patterns laid out for the horse and cart, a characterful conservation area with scores of heritage buildings, activity 24/7 and business innovation across many sectors, it creates huge value for the UK economy and is a magnet for visitors. It is a melting pot and a much loved and valued area for all those who live, work or visit the areas that is scheduled to become even busier in 2018 when Crossrail opens.
All this diverse activity imposed on an historic core creates multiple problems. A heat map of London will demonstrate that Soho is one of the most wasteful districts in terms of energy use, with very high carbon emissions. There is nowhere to manage its waste effectively. It has been estimated by WCC that up to 57 different waste contractors in a variety of refuse collection vehicles collect the various coloured bags of rubbish put out on the narrow pavements.
There is noise nuisance for residents living side by side with restaurants and bars and in licensing terms the Soho has been designated a ‘stress area’. In some spots crime and anti-social behaviour late at night scars the area. The public realm is congested, with little space for loading and unloading, and it is reported that the greatest number of parking tickets by far, anywhere in the country, were issued in Soho’s Wardour Street. Air quality is amongst the worst anywhere in Europe. Flash floods drench pedestrians in uneven streets where water ponds or there are potholes, much of the infrastructure below ground is old and fails intermittently. There is almost no open space with just two public squares crammed in summer months with workers trying to eat and take a break.
How can we make Soho more liveable and sustainable?
A local charity Soho Community Environment Fund (SCEF) has been putting forward a wide range of practical solutions to retrofit and adapt the area.
SCEF raises funds from within the business community to improve the overall environment of Soho for all who live and work here. It is a small charity which can only make a very small number of grants and normally only does so where its support unlocks other funds and resources. The area of benefit is Soho bounded by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Leicester Square/Coventry Street.
SCEF does not have the capacity to carry out projects itself but the trustees of the Fund consider supporting proposals under one or more of the following headings:
- Methods of improving knowledge, understanding and enhancement of the Soho Conservation Area
- Projects which promote or increase public participation in local community environmental initiatives
- Proposals for projects or studies which enhance the environmental sustainability of Soho
One of its first projects was to assess local public perceptions of the sustainability issues facing the Soho area through a survey which was carried out jointly with Country Living magazine of staff working in and around the Carnaby Street area.
The University of Westminster has been a key research partner for SCEF in forwarding its community-based sustainable social and environmental development agenda:
- A pump priming grant resulted in funds being provided by Westminster City Council, the Crown Estate, English Heritage and Shaftesbury plc to fund the Max Lock Centre at the University to carry out a study entitled ‘Retrofitting Soho – Improving the sustainability of historic core areas’ launched in early 2009
This looked for the first time in a holistic way at the challenges faced by the central historic and mixed uses areas of cities in becoming more sustainable in the face of climatic changes. Soho is a widely known and much visited area and this visibility means that best practice achieved here will have a higher profile and be disseminated widely. There were a number of key recommendations which SCEF has since sought to follow up.
A further study following up recommendations in that report relates specifically to guidance on retrofitting listed buildings entitled ‘Improving Soho’s Environmental Performance’. This has been carried out by Sturgis Carbon Profiling LLP, Gifford and Donald Insall Associates for SCEF, English Heritage and the City of Westminster.
Westminster City Council has adopted a number of new policies in relation to the recommendations in that study in its new Core Strategy and City Management Plan and it indirectly has lead to the production of the Council’s new supplementary planning guidance on retrofitting mixed use buildings.
SCEF’s other projects are:
- Partners in a study for a Soho aerobic/anaerobic Combined Heat and Power plant with Community Infrastructure and Technology Strategy Board funding focusing on using local restaurant food waste
- Potential participation in a Cross River Partnership funded study into the expansion of freight consolidation schemes across the West End
- A proposal to create pocket sky parks as a planning gain on top of new and substantially refurbished buildings as one way of tackling the gross under provision of green and open space in the area
- A detailed green infrastructure audit of Soho to identify the possibilities and opportunities to ‘green’ the area which can be referred to as future developments occur and be funded through the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) contributions
Charity registration No: 1084974