The future of the city's heritage should be in the hands of experts, but new technology forces us to change our ideas about what 'here' and 'now' might mean.
We're at one of those exciting points in the history of London when the pace of change hots-up, when economic growth and technological change coincide and create opportunities to transform the character of large parts of our city. It happened in the early 18th century, the late 19th century and the mid 20th century, and it's happening now.
The physical impact of those previous periods – in the squares of Bloomsbury and Westminster, the great railway stations, Hawksmoor's churches, the royal parks, the great Victorian public buildings and the modernist icons of the South Bank - make London a more beautiful and pleasurable city to inhabit. They are part of how we define our city, and of how the rest of the world identifies London as distinct from other world cities.
Can London remain beautiful after this next period of expansion, or will its character and difference from other world cities be eroded? English Heritage believes that right now we have the opportunity to show future generations our ability to use technology and investment to build the best that this age can achieve.
London's ability to retain its unique character doesn't simply rest safe in the hands of current legislation, information and guidance - because in the end decisions on its future all come down to judgment. Good judgement requires perspective. When decisions are to be made, they should be made by those who have raised their eyes to the horizon and understand the evolution of the city, from its very beginning to its distant future.
It might help if we shared a better understanding of the present relative to the past and the future. We could cultivate, or rediscover, our appreciation of what Brian Eno called "the big here and the long now"; a sense of 'our home' as something much broader than the four walls that enclose us, and a sense of 'the present' as a period of time that extends from this moment some distance into the past and the future. This might stimulate the broader perspective among decision makers and investors that London needs.
Too often development is proposed by individual interests in ignorance or denial of wider interests, and to meet narrow and short term aspirations. Similarly, challengers have a narrow brief, seeking to protect personal or particular interests that may not acknowledge wider public interest.
Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is unfolding around St Pancras. The restoration and reuse of important historic buildings is the starting point for regeneration. The quality of life for people who will live, work and play in this historic but neglected part of London will be enhanced by understanding and connecting with the history of their neighbourhood.
Starved of public and private sector investment for decades as arguments raged between competing interests, the future of the area may finally be secured through major investment in transport infrastructure, developers prepared to make a long-term commitment, masterplanners keen to work with and exploit the historic grain of the area, and architects willing to defer to the quality of the buildings created by those who came before. It’s true that some of the local aspirations won't be met, but this area has wider importance – it's part of a bigger 'here'. English Heritage will shortly be arguing a similar case to secure the future of the historic Smithfield Market.
London today is capturing growth in world trade in the face of some feisty competition. But London was a successful world city before most of them existed. If we can keep our eyes on what is best for the city in the long-term it will still be both big and beautiful when present competitors fade. Steven Bee is director of planning and development for English Heritage