Shiny and new: the new Kings Cross Station is a far cry from its former grim incarnation. Photo: Getty
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King’s Cross – from derelict wasteland to caffeinated utopia

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection.

King’s Cross has been transformed from a grim commuter necessity, somewhere that had to be endured but was never enjoyed, into a place where you’d be happy to waste time. Sixty-seven acres of what was industrial scrub – disused railway hoardings and empty Victorian warehouses – are now home to, among others, Google and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The transformation shows the power of confident planning, long-term thinking and proper public transport. It should be copied elsewhere.

In the mid-1990s, when I often caught the train out to Cambridge, King’s Cross was known for two things: a dirty, decaying station and prostitutes. Every minute spent waiting in the station, enveloped by grime, felt like a minute stolen from you. I cut each journey as fine as possible: better to have to run for a train than to kick your heels in the concourse.

Now I secretly enjoy missing a connection. It’s an opportunity to drink superior coffee while sitting in a free deckchair next to the Regent’s Canal and watching Wimbledon on a huge outdoor TV screen. If someone had told me 20 years ago that a flâneur would gravitate here, I’d have assumed that I was talking to a fantasist.

Coffee is a serious matter in the progress of cities. In South Australia, the stated aim of Adelaide’s redevelopment think tank is to create “a walkable, bikeable . . . [and] hyper-caffeinated city”. Nudging citizens towards coffee has a good history, as well as making good sense. In seeking to explain the rise of the west, Niall Ferguson argued in Civilisation that the English got lucky with their drugs. The arrival of Arabic coffee in the 17th century roused the English from sleepy alcoholism; the east got stuck with the lethargy of the opium den.

Indeed, this column began as a chance conversation with the two brilliant baristas who operate under a canopy between St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. An aimless chat over flat whites led to a full tour of the site by Robert Evans of Argent, one of the developers of the master plan.

The land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras – now being converted into 50 new buildings, 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets and ten public squares – used to be entirely disconnected from central London. No one, emerging on to the Euston Road, used to turn back on themselves, wondering what lay due north. Not only was there nowhere to go, there was also no easy way of getting there.

The sense of a void in one direction is subtly influential in creating a negative atmosphere. I learned that lesson by living in two different flats in London. Both were nice homes. But on leaving one flat, I always turned right: that was the only way to get to civilisation. Leaving the other, I turned equally often in either direction. Feeling connected all around influenced my sense of belonging. I was in the middle of something, not stuck out on a limb.

The same principle underpins the transformation of the land behind King’s Cross. The developers wanted to bring new residential areas into central London. That could only be done by creating public spaces: squares, parks, boulevards, schools and a university. If the site had been turned into luxury flats alone, like so many others in London, it would have remained wholly cut off from real city life. “It’s a public space,” Evans explained to me, freely admitting a long-term business rationale behind the plan. “Create the conditions for urban life and you create value. Because we focused on making connections with London and mixed-use diversity, it’s not just a series of buildings with asset values. It’s a place.”

Place influences people. As a cricketer, I noticed that there was less “sledging” (unprovoked verbal abuse) at Lord’s – the world’s most civilised cricket ground – than at other venues. People tend to find the level that is expected of them. Most of us don’t recognise that our behaviour is changing even as it is elevated. By the same process, there is little graffiti in the new Granary Square in King’s Cross and the deckchairs and tables have not been stolen or defaced.

There is nothing new here. The Ideal City, a 15th-century painted panel executed for the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, depicts urban life as a humanist utopia. “The city is like a great house,” argued the Renaissance architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, “and the house is in turn a small city.” The wonder is how that tradition was lost.

In the absence of aristocratic largesse on a grand scale, developing neighbourhoods today is more likely to rely on an urgent sense of purpose. And the engine behind the new King’s Cross could not be more historically appropriate: high-speed rail. It was the railway that first made the area important in the 19th century. Two rival businesses, the Great Northern Railway and the Midland line, competed for custom and kudos. Just as aristocratic families tried to build ever taller towers in San Gimignano in Italy, St Pancras was built in the Gothic style as a riposte to the simplicity of King’s Cross.

The railway has now helped to remake the area. I have no professional or personal stake in the environs at all: no business or property. Yet I travel by HS1 from Kent, so King’s Cross is necessarily part of my life. That necessity has become something more. In seeking distraction or just wasting time, I’ve met people outside my professional bubble, noticed different things and developed new interests. That’s how cities function when they work properly.

When HS2 happens – I write “when” in the spirit of optimistic faith – it could have the same effect on, say, the Leeds South Bank as HS1 has had on King’s Cross. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA