What is Alternative Camden?

A brand new locally-based project might just be mapping out the UK’s urban future. Tom Kihl finds out more


t launched at the start of the year, somewhat cryptically, with a compelling website. There were a few vague notions like an ‘ideas lab’, ‘urban growth hacks’ and an invite to come and have a coffee – but little more.

Regardless of finer points, Alternative Camden, or ALT.CMD to give it its zeitgeisty acronym, looks and sounds exciting, with bold claims of offering people the opportunity to create a more democratic and inclusive city. But what exactly is this thing all about?

“We started out calling it the London Innovation District, but then decided we don’t want to pre-judge what it becomes,” says Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Euston Town, one of the project’s founding partners.

Alongside visionary changemaker organisations Future Cities Catapult and Dark Matter Labs, the group aim to turn central Camden, Euston and King’s Cross – an area that enjoys so many decent rail infrastructure links to the rest of the UK – into a real world testbed for big urban ideas. What those ideas even look like is still percolating, but the aim is not only to imagine the future, but to shape it right here.

“There are a lot of academics thinking and talking about the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution,” says Simon, “but there’s been little in the way of doing. I actually think of London as a post-managerial city – but if you look at the jobs most at risk now to automation, it’s doctors, accountants and lawyers, which will have a wide-ranging potential impact here, and elsewhere too.”

He’s recognised that funded, democratically-elected Business Improvement Districts (BID) like Euston Town find themselves in a rare position: local government has little money, regional government has comparatively little power and at a national level they are somewhat distracted by Brexit.

Into this space steps the suitably public/private ALT.CMD experiment.

A series of workshops over the winter have identified the first building blocks. A whole variety of ideas to challenge creaking orthodoxy has been laid out, from how we might implement rapid decarbonisation strategies by looking at things at a street-by-street level, to tools for sharing our data that offer community benefit.

Alternative Camden brainstorming session. All photos: Camden Town Unlimited

There’s even one to shake up the planning and licencing process via throwing a Restaurant Day (as pioneered in Helsinki), where everyone can serve food for a day from home, the park or sticking a few tables out in the road.

While some UK BIDS focus on hanging baskets in their high streets, Simon and partners are looking to reinvent the BID as closer to uber-ambitious projects such as Toronto’s partnership with Google to build a smart city at Quayside, or Barcelona’s i.lab innovation drive.

“We want Alternative Camden to be London’s response,” he states, suitably boldly. “There’s a sense that we’re slightly behind, as cities like New York, Helsinki, Dubai have been doing this at scale for a while, but we’ve got a Chief Digital Officer now [former Camden Councillor Theo Blackwell], and some of the projects starting to get funding here are looking really promising.”

As the future hurtles towards us at a seemingly ever-increasing speed, this is urgent work. If we don’t imagine today how Euston, Camden and beyond will be transformed by global and technological pressures in the 2020’s, we’ll have little say.

Hopefully though, the possibilities being floated under the ALT.CMD banner will make this an exhilarating rather than unsettling urban revolution.

We’ll keep you posted on all developments about ALT.CMD. Or get stuck in and participate here.

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