King's Cross, London

A high-quality public realm is helping this scheme to deliver on its commercial objectives, Josephine Smit explains.

Pancras Square: green space provides a car-free route between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. All pictures: © John Sturrock
Pancras Square: green space provides a car-free route between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. All pictures: © John Sturrock

The team behind the King’s Cross redevelopment is working hard to recreate the diversity and quality of London’s traditional squares and parks in a 15-year programme on a breathtaking scale.

The 67-acre site is one of the UK’s biggest regeneration opportunities and is being transformed with offices, homes, amenities and, of course, streets and open spaces to form an accessible and integrated quarter of the capital.

More than 40 per cent of the site has been allocated for public open space — parks, squares, gardens, an urban nature reserve and even a natural swimming pond. Developer partner Argent is known for bringing schemes to life early with its landscaping. Head of public realm at King’s Cross Ken Trew says: "We find future investors in buildings don’t get plans and models. This works well for investors, the public and the local authority."

Among the open spaces already in place are Granary Square, Pancras Square and Lewis Cubitt Park, three very different places each with their own distinctive qualities.

Key open spaces
Granary Square is one of the best-known spaces at King’s Cross, equalling Trafalgar Square in size. It fronts the listed historic Granary Building and was once a canal basin for unloading barges. This industrial heritage gives the square its character but conservation constraints ruled out greening, so the square has been softened by the addition of oversized pots of plants and a fountain centrepiece.

The square is surfaced in porphyry paving and set with a fountain that has more than 1,080 jets. Creator the Fountain Workshop also developed Granary Squirt, an app that allows the general public to play classic games such as Snake with the fountain’s jets and lights.
By contrast, nearby Pancras Square is a tranquil place, providing a green car-free route between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations as well as seating around peripheral cafés.

Pancras Square has a very different water feature in the form of a cascade. Planting features 1,600 herbaceous specimens including Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Ruby Port’ and Tellima grandiflora as well as 1,600 evergreens including Polystichum aculeatum, Molinia caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’, Buxus sempervirens, cherry trees, Viburnum, sweet gum and katsura trees.

Lewis Cubitt Park is the principal green space of the development and comprises mainly lawn, which is gently sculpted to create three sub-spaces. Trew says: "It was basically built using golf course construction with a sand base for irrigation because so often spaces like this get worn down in summer. People love to sit on grass in the city." The park was created with some 4,750sq m of turf along with 1,750 bulbs.

The green space is not fenced, instead relying on trees and the sculpted landscape to provide natural seclusion. The park has 58 trees in all, including an avenue of Platanus (London plane) and six Quercus rubra (red oak), the latter having girths of in excess of 60cm and each weighing approximately five tonnes.

Other trees in the park are Liquidamber styraciflua (sweet gum), Tilia cordata (lime), Acer griseum, Cornus kousa var. chinensis (dogwood) and Prunus serrula (cherry). The park’s beds are planted with Aesculus parviflora and Clerodendrum trichotomum.

The site adjoins the Global Generation Skip Garden, a community garden being developed in partnership with students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, and the temporary natural swimming pond — Of Soil & Water: King’s Cross Pond Club.

King’s Cross: open space includes parks, squares, gardens, a nature reserve and natural swimming pond

Outcomes to date

  • The outdoor spaces are already being well used by workers, strollers and tourists.
  • Seasonal events — ranging from a pumpkin competition to spring bulb displays — have also proved popular. "If you live in a city, it is good to connect to seasonality," Trew suggests.
  • The quality and popularity of the public realm are helping the development to deliver on its commercial objectives. "People understand that we will build the masterplan," Trew points out. "We have seen a financial return on our investment."

Lewis Cubitt Park: principal green space comprises mainly lawn

Lessons to date

  • Putting landscaping into place early poses practical challenges. "We have to be confident that we are putting infrastructure like drains in the right place so that we don’t have to dig the landscaping up again," says Trew. "Technically, it’s like creating serviced plots. That is also why we’ve used the giant pots in some areas — some of the spaces between buildings are full of utilities."
  • The team has found that the masterplan is working well to date. However, it still constantly reviews, questions and reaffirms its approach, including gathering feedback from tenants. "We carry out annual surveys of visitors and tenants, as well as monthly walk-arounds," adds Trew.
  • The developer works in an ongoing partnership with designers to develop a breadth of understanding and continuity, but it is now also bringing garden designers on board including Dan Pearson and Tom Stuart-Smith. Trew explains: "Landscape architects can be a bit predictable. I’m a landscape designer myself and hoped we could do something a little more interesting. It takes a little longer for the planting to establish itself but I think people like it."
  • In a newly created environment, it is important to let the general public know what they are and are not allowed to do. "You have to tell people whether or not they can play in the fountains," says Trew.
  • The same contractors both create and maintain the landscaping, ensuring that the scheme’s quality is maintained over time.
  • The developer carries out life-size sampling of key elements — such as the seating — to test workmanship, materials and functionality. "It costs a little bit but is really worthwhile," Trew concludes.
Project team  
Client King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (KCCLP) — a partnership of Argent, London & Continental Railways and DHL
Lead landscape architect Townshend Landscape Architects
Infrastructure designer Peter Brett Associates

Granary Square
Landscape contractor: Willerby Landscapes
Pools: The Fountain Workshop

Pancras Square
Landscape contractor: Willerby Landscapes
Pools: The Fountain Workshop

Lewis Cubitt Park
Specialist planning consultant: Argent
Landscape contractor: Willerby Landscapes

This case study is from Horticulture Week's Landscape4Places campaign hub. Landscape4Places is a new campaign which seeks to highlight the contribution of quality landscaping to great placemaking. For more on the campaign, go to

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