Adaptive re-use of empty and derelict arches

Work has begun on a project that will bring new life to vacant railway arches that run through the historic streets of the Bankside neighbourhood in London.

The imposing Victorian viaduct that cuts a path through Bankside, London Bridge and Bermondsey contains 390 arches; around a third of these are currently derelict or underused. Now, Better Bankside, the area’s Business Improvement District, has taken the lease on three arches, to test, explore and present creative possibilities for the long-term future of the underused arches.

Since its inception, Better Bankside has played a leading role in cultivating Bankside’s ecosystem and delivering imaginative improvements in urban spaces, as part of its Bankside Urban Forest strategy. This framework for the Low Line aims to produce a series of affordable, flexible spaces in the heart of London.

The three arches are at Ewer Street and Southwark Street/Redcross Way. The Southwark Street arch will provide a new space for cultural and community activities. The arches at Ewer Street will be dedicated to sustainable neighbourhood operations and management. It will be home to an Active Travel Hub for local employees to benefit from secure cycle parking, lockers and showers. The arches will also house a Green Logistics Centre, in which local businesses will consolidate their deliveries, reducing the number of polluting vehicle journeys in the neighbourhood. Businesses will place larger orders for goods, avoiding peak hours, which will be stored in the arch and delivered by dedicated electric vehicles as required. A micro-logistics facility of this kind, accepting deliveries from any company and operating at neighbourhood scale, is a first for London.

New, prefabricated galvanised steel curved Nissen sheds (following the design of those introduced to provide efficient accommodation towards the end of the First World War) will form discrete new spaces within the arches. The completed arches will be new atmospheric spaces, benefitting from a light-touch design approach, as well as imaginative curatorial work and programming.

Cost-efficient, recyclable and relocatable, the Nissen sheds are part of a design scheme being delivered by Bankside-based architects TDO, who were commissioned in March 2020, before the pandemic took hold, to develop adaptable accommodation areas in the arches. The ambition is for these practical design solutions to retain and celebrate the historic character of the arches, enhancing existing uses while providing a benchmark for the regeneration of other arches in the future.

The work is due to be completed by contractor ITC this May and work on a fourth arch, at St James’s Road in Bermondsey, will follow later in the year. The scheme is part of a broader programme of work on the Low Line supported with £1 million funding from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund to diversify the occupier mix in the arches, connect local communities and contribute to a greener, resilient city.

Stretching through some of London’s oldest neighbourhoods, the Low Line will offer a distinct perspective on well-known but ever-evolving parts of the city. It is a long-term project to unlock the potential of the arches, opening up a corridor of innovation along the base of the viaduct to breathe new life into disused and inaccessible spaces, connect people, commerce, and communities, and inspire sustainable growth.

Donald Hyslop, Chair of Better Bankside and the Low Line Steering Group, said, “The need for flexible, functional and low-cost spaces has become ever more pressing, as the capital looks to recover. The framework we are developing in the Low Line encourages innovative design solutions and creative programming. By recognising and embracing the spaces we need now and in the future, we hope to see a blend of enterprise, innovation hubs and social spaces.”

Tom Lewith, Founding Director of TDO, said, “The unique qualities of railway viaducts and the generous volumes of the arches underneath have fascinated us since the early days of TDO. In 2012, we purposefully sought out a vacant arch in Southwark for our studio. It is a privilege to be working with the Low Line partners on this exciting brief to bring arches along the Low Line to life, some of which are very close to our studio.”Of the nearly 390 arches in the viaduct between Bankside and Bermondsey, nearly 30% of them are vacant or derelict.

Shaun Mobsby, Asset Management Director, The Arch Company, said: “We’re delighted that TDO, which is one of our current railway arch tenants, is undertaking the next phase of the Low Line project. The businesses that use our arches play important roles within their local communities and TDO’s firsthand experience and understanding of what businesses and other organisations need from their arch spaces has been invaluable.”