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These computer generated renderings depict the Strand East development in a neighbourhood designed by furniture giant Ikea. The images are urban design concepts only. (LandProp Services/LandProp Services)
These computer generated renderings depict the Strand East development in a neighbourhood designed by furniture giant Ikea. The images are urban design concepts only. (LandProp Services/LandProp Services)

Housing

Welcome to Ikea-land: Furniture giant begins urban planning project Add to ...

There are feelings you get when you enter an Ikea store. The vertiginous experience of getting lost in their craftily designed labyrinth. The surprise of wandering into something you hadn’t intended to buy. The discomfiting almost-warmth of a fake apartment. The faintly reassuring sense that your children and your car are in someone else’s hands. Then the odd realization that you’re really inside a high-security structure on the distant edge of town.

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Would you like to feel that way all the time? The people who run the Swedish home-furnishings behemoth are launching a bold push into the business of designing, building and operating entire urban neighbourhoods. Where once they placed a couch in a living room, the Swedes now want to place you and 6,000 neighbours into a neglected corner of your city, design an entire urban world around you, and Ikea-ize your lives. Their bold, high-concept notion of an urban ’hood could be an important solution to the housing-supply shortages that plague many large cities – but it could take some getting used to.

“We are in keeping with the Ikea philosophy: We don’t want to produce for the rich or the super-rich; we want to produce for the families, for the people,” says Harald Müller, the head of LandProp, the property-development branch of Inter IKEA, the company that invests the profits from the furnishing giant.

“Our approach must be to get the right housing and office prices while delivering very good quality at the same time, he added. “We want to be smart enough in our design that we can offer the product for a reasonable price.”

I recently made the long drive into the vanguard of Ikea’s city-building ambition, in a triangle of post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps in the far reaches of East London, not far from the 2012 Olympics grounds. Here is the site of Ikea’s effort to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and managed living into the English-speaking world.

Amid this 11-hectare expanse of ancient rusting machinery, waste piles and grinding construction equipment is a converted brick sugar warehouse where a team of Swedes and Brits are poring over blueprints and renderings. LandProp Services bought the land in 2009. Their vision is to turn this grey netherworld, once planning approval is done, into a tightly packed neighbourhood they’ll call Strand East.

It will look, once complete, like a reproduction of the sort of historic, chic downtown neighbourhoods you find in the far more central parts of London or Paris, not in this distant expanse of former dockyards and bloodless public-housing project. At its core are straight, car-free streets lined with simple townhouses and ground-floor-access flats in five-storey rows. In the alleyways behind – an imitation of the classic London backstreet, the mews – will be little two- and three-storey homes, all with direct access to the street.

The 1,200 homes and apartments, 40 per cent of them large enough for families (making it a much more child-filled place than most post-industrial developments), will be priced to appeal to a range of incomes, the Swedes promise. A few seven- to 11-storey condominium towers will pepper the area, and offices for high-tech firms and a hotel will fill the busier edges. Secreted beneath the whole structure is an underground parking garage, to keep cars off the interior streets. Bus lanes and pedestrian walkways will cut across it, squares and public areas abound. The whole thing is designed to create the sense of felicity and discovery you get when wandering a historic European neighbourhood – or, for that matter, an Ikea store.

It is a far more appealing design than most of the centrally-planned urban neighbourhoods that have blighted British cities for the last 60 years, and it promises the sort of pleasant population density – on a piece of wasteland that had once been considered uninhabitable – that could help Britain’s dire housing shortages.

As the Ikea people repeatedly tell anyone who will listen, this place will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants. And there will not, the company insists, be an Ikea store anywhere in or near the neighbourhood.

But what might make it seem alien to Brits and North Americans is Ikea’s very active role in the neighbourhood’s life – in large part because the houses will be fully owned by Ikea. In a model that is the norm in Sweden and other parts of continental Europe, but alien to English-speaking countries, this will be an all-rental private neighbourhood, run and overseen by a private company.

“We’re about human scale, we’re about building things to a high design and a good quality, because we are long-term investors,” explains Andrew Cobden, the project’s manager. “We don’t like to sell income-generating assets.”

What does it mean to live in a mixed-income urban neighbourhood in which none of your neighbours are owners? Ikea prefers to emphasize the upside: It will be less likely that people will buy, wait for the value to increase, then move to the suburbs and become absentee landlords (a problem in East London). But there are risks: without an equity stake in their neighbourhood, residents aren’t likely to rebuild it, transform it and shift housing, retail and light-industry spaces into one another to suit the community’s needs. It will be static, governed not by its own internal organic development but by a mega-landlord with a penchant for neat design and social order.

And here is where living in an Ikea neighbourhood might come to resemble a long day in an Ikea store: The company wants you to be in a neat, clean, pleasant environment. And it very much wants you to have fun. Those things that normally just happen in life will be carefully managed from above.

“We’d have a very good understanding of rubbish collection, of cleanliness, of landscape management,” Mr. Cobden says. “We would have a fairly firm line on undesirable activity, whatever that may be. But we also feel we can say, okay, because we’ve kept control of the management of the commercial facilities, we have a fairly strong hand in what is said in terms of the activities that are held on site.”

That, he says, means setting up and promoting things like farmers’ markets, antique shops and outdoor flower stalls. Presumably, it also means keeping out cheque-cashing shops, Internet cafes, bookmakers and the other detritus of the British shopping street, as well as the sort of down-at-the heels characters who make urban life colourful but challenging.

“And that,” Mr. Cobden says, “will give the residents an events calendar that arrives on their doorstep of things that are happening – and that kind of creates a sense of place. … We’ll shape it rather than force it on people – but we’ll be trying to knit the community together.”

Ikea’s builders say they’re not interested in a Disney-style kind of an animatronic spectacle. Rather, they’re seeding Strand East with evocations of spontaneous urban life in hopes that it will become spontaneous urban life; they say they’d be happy to see it shift and evolve to suit market conditions. It’s not clear, though, how this desire will coexist with Ikea’s desire to keep the place under its control.

The answer, Mr. Müller says, is that the Swedes have a long-term interest in success – much like a municipal council does, and, in fact, Ikea will be acting very much like a municipal government.

After all, what IKEA is really doing here is finding a place to sink a small part of its huge pile of cash. They want to earn a profit over 10 to 20 years, not the three or four years of a conventional property developer – and are therefore very interested in the long-term livability of the project.

“We’re just securing our money long-term – and of course creating more profits at the end,” Mr. Müller says. “But we are acting as a long-term investor, we are equity-driven, so we are acting very differently from a developer.” In a very real sense, the furniture company wants to invest its money in your entire life.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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