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Public Practice associate: ‘Delivering food parcels reinforced my belief in communities’

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The AJ talks to Megan Charnley, a Public Practice associate embedded in Newham Council, about how the coronavirus has affected her work

Charnley, an architectural designer and creative strategist, is part of the third wave of the not-for-profit social enterprise’s innovative placement programme, which puts architects and other built environment specialists within local government planning departments.

She began her placement at Newham as a masterplanner for Beckton and North Woolwich, expanding her role to look at how a community wealth-building approach could ’strengthen the resilience’ of the borough’s town centres in the wake of Covid-19.

What do you ‘normally’ do in your professional life?
I’m a director of Projects Office, an architecture practice with a focus on community, commercial and healthcare work. Alongside that, I’m currently a Public Practice associate, working as a senior regeneration manager at Newham Council. I’m leading a strategic masterplan scoping project for two of the council’s more deprived areas, which sit next to the Enterprise Zone in the Royal Docks.

How much of an impact has the coronavirus had on your work?
Many of the ideas I was developing in Newham, for example optimising existing assets and drawing on circular economy principles to drive enterprise and local opportunities, are still relevant and some more so now than ever.

I’m shifting the immediate focus to the development of meanwhile spaces to help local businesses and communities recover. At Projects Office we’ve joined with other local practices to form the Dalston Architecture Collective, within which we’re collaborating, sharing resources and bidding for bigger projects.

What are going to be impacts of the Covid-19 epidemic on the masterplans you are working on?
In the short term, I hope the momentum the council has built in responding to the immediate needs of residents will help us quickly realise smaller projects in a more agile way, to help relieve some of the hardest-hit communities in the UK.

This crisis has highlighted the critical importance of high-quality local infrastructure, amenities and housing, active travel, play spaces and public realm, so I anticipate there will be support for making these our priorities in the longer-term masterplan.

How do you get public and local authority buy-in for these ideas?
The council’s community wealth-building strategy was launched at the beginning of the year and there is a strong advocacy for investing in local communities at the very highest level. Recovery from the crisis, and the inevitable stretching of resources, will test and develop this strategy.

Also, we’ve quickly brought forward existing plans for using online tools in consultations and the council is investing in an online engagement platform to help gather feedback, identify priorities and continue important conversations.

How are an architect’s skills useful in this work?
The communication skills you learn through architecture training and practice is invaluable, as is the ability to consider projects at a micro and macro level.

The Public Practice network has also been a fantastic resource, bringing an enormous amount of expertise, experience and energy, and offering useful learnings from work being done by other local authorities.

You’ve been involved in delivering food parcels to Newham residents. Has that affected your thoughts about a post-Covid world?
I volunteered to be redeployed to a food distribution hub in the area my work has been focusing on. Working alongside local volunteers and council colleagues to get food to isolated people, I saw how a whole range of local people live in and feel about the place in a more intimate way than I could hope to achieve through any engagement exercise.

I’ve gained a broader more intimate insight into how people feel than through any engagement exercise

For example, the redeployed gardeners were incredibly knowledgeable and candid about local challenges while chatting over boxes of bananas, and I got a small glimpse into the homes and lives of the borough’s most vulnerable. The experience has only reinforced my belief in the responsibility that architects and local authorities have to create resilient and sustainable communities, through access to affordable, secure and good-quality housing, walkable neighbourhoods, good local centres with shops and services, and safe public spaces.

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