The Olympic 2012 site and Stratford Village, London’s largest regeneration project, has a budget of £9bn for The Games, with a suggested additional £12bn of private and public money for the legacy master plan. Heathrow airport is comparable in size but also has a large hinterland that has grown to serve the airport. Heathrow is not a virgin site waiting to be redeveloped. It faces many similar challenges to those of east London and the Docklands regeneration. Added to that, Heathrow has a single use and like any monoculture, transformation will not be easy. Public money will be required to achieve successful regeneration.
Heathrow airport has been separated from its neighbourhood by necessity - a similar situation to the London Docks, which had a wall built around it. Containerisation and large ships signaled the end for London’s docks while global shipping continued to grow. Heathrow employs technology and facilities that are becoming outdated as planes get larger and space in London’s sky becomes more congested.
It is provocative for an architect to focus on a headline-grabbing new vision, justifying the grand project with references to the economy, jobs and global competitiveness. But what becomes of Heathrow and its community? This will also need attention, involving public money to make it into a positive place, just as the Olympics site, Canary Wharf, Battersea Power Station will and London Docklands have had and continue to need.
Its less glamorous, but to truly convince politicians and the public of the need for a new airport, we need a new urban narrative for Heathrow. Once we have a plan for London New Town then we can examine what the replacement airport might look like.