London’s spaces have to be made to work harder
Alicia Pivaro has held a number of positions at the Arts Council, the RIBA and the
Architecture Foundation, creating and collaborating on a range of projects exploring culture, cities and architecture. Pivaro now divides her time operating as an independent curator, consultant, writer and photographer, as well as looking after her children.
I set myself the challenge of refilling my little ‘creative suitcase’ after several years of neglect, and applying my experience of cultural and social programming at an urban scale to inform the London mayor’s Great Spaces initiative and the Albert Dock Basin masterplan.
London deputy mayor Simon Milton has stated that the Great Spaces programme will ‘involve all Londoners’. To do this, it must link to Greater London Authority-run events that get people into new spaces to do something fun or memorable. It must celebrate projects that make our spaces work harder and encourage use by different people, not just physical change.
At Albert Dock, the challenge was to take this messy, half-finished, unloved bit of London and imagine a new neighbourhood. As my starting point, I mapped the good things that exist already and began to reveal the hidden social and cultural potential and networks that could be built upon. In the area you can currently find: the University of East London’s (UEL) 5,000 students and 15 departments; two companies with local
ties and workforces; a marina; Beckton Community Centre; public space; the River Thames; big skies; and over 40 large retail outlets within one mile.
If I could design Albert Dock, I would start stitching this stuff into future spaces and places, creating uses, activity and scenarios that could link to surrounding communities and city-wide and national programmes, making it a lovely place in which to live and work. I would then add something special to the area, a narrative about feeling like the end of the line – a seaside town on the Thames. This plan is both mundane and ambitious, working with small-scale networks and economies, and will change over time.
I would build housing, but also a park and a parade of shops to function as the heart of this new neighbourhood. There would be a hairdresser’s, a chippy, a Chinese take-away, a newsagent, and a cafe overlooking the park. The park would have something for everyone: wi-fi for working students; a grove of trees for shade and play; a playground for mums and small children; tables for drinking your coffee or playing chess; a pitch for teenagers; and an area for community classes and other events.
The Beckton area was full of allotments 75 years ago, so I would reintroduce them. This would link into schemes like the Greater London Authority’s Capital Growth project for new food-growing spaces, Communities and Local Government’s Green Apprenticeships, and community and schools funding provided by supermarkets Asda and Tesco for gardening equipment.
The neighbourhood could have a series of small workspaces funded by or linked to UEL’s Petchey Centre for Entrepreneurship. These could be filled with start-ups from the centre and other UEL departments – small businesses, workshops, studios, galleries, cafés and other social enterprises that receive low rental rates in exchange for providing open days and training events for local people.
Like any project, every ‘new’ place needs a champion to cling to a vision
I would create a marina with bobbing boats and splash pools where you could buy fish and chips and ice cream. You could take rigging lessons and classes on the river’s history. Along with a flotilla of boats beached on land for local kids to decorate, these ideas would flow from a seaside narrative applied to the docks.
A riverside boardwalk would let you stroll along the water (forming part of the Capital Ring and Thames Path walks), with a pier where you can catch a clipper or just dangle your feet over the water. A riverside/dockside public space could host events and sandcastle competitions during the London Festival of Architecture, attracting visitors to this new piece of London.
What I realise is that, like any project, exhibition or initiative, every ‘new’ place needs a champion who can cling to a vision, make connections to maximise outcomes, see potential, generate passion and care enough to make places where people love to be.