Say what you like about Croydon, and most people do, but it's a borough trying hard to shake off its image as a culturally barren concretopia where London's dynamism and verve comes to die. Once a thriving medieval market town, fire and the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the old architecture in the centre, and post-war planners encased the little left in moribund grey slabs.
But the council is giving new meaning to the Croydon facelift. It's embarking on an ambitious £5.25bn ($6.8bn) regeneration project to improve not just the local economy and infrastructure, but perceptions of the borough too by turning it into one of London's cultural centres.
This is the holistic and sustainable approach to regeneration — a modern local economy, affordable and desirable housing, and a culturally rich environment. "We are all about just creating a really great place where people choose to be," says Jo Negrini, Croydon council's chief executive.
"Croydon has been the butt of jokes for a very long time now. What we've tried to do, my team have tried to do, is develop a whole series of projects that will change people's perception of Croydon and try and promote it as somewhere that's not just a cheap alternative to central London, but a place where actually people want to hang out and to live and to work."
Officials argue Croydon is a good prospect for business, particularly start-ups and digital firms, with a tech hub fostered since 2012 by the Croydon Tech City organisation. It's one of the few areas of London that retains some semblance of affordability of rents, both commercial and residential. It's very well connected; not only to the rest of London, but also to Gatwick Airport and the popular seaside resort Brighton.
These factors are probably the driving forces behind Croydon's economic surge, with more businesses drawn to the area. Australian retail firm Westfield is planning a £1.4bn transformation of the high street, in partnership with the British developer Hammerson. They will redevelop the Whitgift shopping centre, building hundreds of new homes and creating thousands of jobs.
According to research by the accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young, Croydon is the fasting growing regional economy in the UK, topping a list of 173 areas. "Croydon's regeneration is going from strength to strength and it is no longer a joke that it is beginning to rival Shoreditch in attracting technology companies," said Colin Jones, a partner at UHY Hacker Young. "Croydon has reinvented itself over the last ten years and is attracting a wide range of businesses to the area and is quickly becoming a commuter hotspot."
Then there's housing. Croydon suffers as much as any other London borough when it comes to the housing crisis. Colm Lacey, director of development at Croydon council, admits that in the past local policymakers have failed to do enough on affordable housing, delivering a portion of around 20% over the past five years.
Now Croydon is trying something different. It has set up Brick by Brick, a private development company of which the council is the sole shareholder. It's committing to deliver 50% affordable housing on all of its sites. The profits it makes on housing for private market sale will go back to the council and be reinvested in the borough. This is about control: over finances, delivery and quality. The council believes it can have 9,500 homes underway by 2018.
"We've always suspected that we weren't getting the amount of affordable housing here that development was able to support," Lacey says. "For every unit we deliver as a private housing unit, we deliver one affordable. And that's a mix of shared ownership units as well as affordable rent. We think that's a real clear marker to the industry."
Delivering new housing will not necessarily be easy, despite the clear need for homes. It means densification, which often meets with vocal opposition from local campaigners, particularly if towers are involved. But solving the housing crisis means accepting greater density, fitting more people into existing spaces and filling gaps that were previously unfilled.
There is a feeling that City Hall could be doing more to support councils in driving much-needed densification forward, helping them find the balance between keeping locals happy and delivering new affordable housing. Part of that would be a clear policy from City Hall on the densification and intensification of land in outer boroughs; in effect, some political cover.
This is an urgent conversation between policymakers and local communities as London's population grows and pressures on infrastructure increase, in particular housing and transport. "Nobody's having the conversation about densities and intensification and that has to happen with people," Negrini says.
But what will bind Croydon as a successful borough in the future is not just having decent jobs and enough housing, it is the area's cultural offering. A rich cultural environment is what will keep people in Croydon and draw more to it. As Paula Murray, creative director at Croydon council, puts it, it is building a unique "cultural calendar" of events in the borough "that really gives it the heart and soul of the regeneration".
"There is a really big commitment to culture here because there is a recognition that regeneration that is just housing or just retail is just not enough," Murray says. "That's not enough to make a place really liveable, to make it a place where people want to be, want to live, want to work, want to visit."
The centrepiece of the cultural offering is a £30m refurbishment of Fairfield Halls, a venue with a concert hall, theatre, and arts space built in 1962. The project will modernise the building and bring in a new team to manage the events programme with a view of attracting more major shows and performers.
The wider cultural calendar planned for Croydon will lean on local talent and organisations, with a focus on events in public spaces. "We need to have things happening in places where people are just going to come upon them, where they can engage with them," she says. "Access is very important and having events, great environments for people, is very positive."
Murray adds: "Croydon has got many, many stories, many histories, many different communities. And the cultural programme and cultural events are part of the way those things are reflected."
The comprehensive economic, infrastructural and cultural regeneration of a large London borough is a big task. But it has been done before. Hackney's regeneration is still ongoing, but long-time locals of the likes of Shoreditch and Stoke Newington know just how much those areas have changed for the better in recent years.
This change, while broadly acknowledged as positive, is not without its controversies. Gentrification can transform, but also exclude. It is essential that existing communities are not shunted out of Croydon by its regeneration, but brought along with it. The commitment to a 50% affordable housing target on new developments suggests Croydon council understands this.
Croydon is getting its timing right. As more people are driven out from inner London by high house prices and rents, they are forced to review their prejudices about outer areas. Could I live in Ilford? Could I live in Tottenham? Could I live in... Croydon? Financial circumstances are forcing people to be more open-minded about where they live. Moreover, London is a growing city and that growth cannot all be accommodated in the centre. The outer boroughs are essential to the city's future.
Croydon must fulfil its potential. It won't be easy. There will be naysayers. But at least it's trying. "We just want somewhere that is part of London," Negrini says. "It's not the butt of people's jokes, and a place where people really want to spend time. That's what we want."