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Carl Turner: 'Brixton is being reclaimed from the developers'

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Architect and Manser Medal winner Carl Turner talks about working with communities who are fearful about the impact of development and gentrification

‘Words are powerful things. Recently we have had some thrown at us, like ‘gentrification’ and ‘cleansing’. Welcome to the world of public space design. We have been working in Brixton and Peckham, both areas that have had their problems with riots, crime and discrimination to name but a few. Both areas have vast swathes of ‘social’ housing (there’s another one of those words ‘social’) have very diverse, multicultural populations allied with I would argue strong and unique identities of which local people are very proud.

Architecture on Trial

‘In Brixton we have been building a competition-winning temporary project to deliver jobs and training for local start-up businesses in the form of a re-cycled shipping container campus called Pop Brixton. Here we have been entangled in a mess precipitated by Network Rail’s plan to refurbish 30 arches which it is feared will lead to the loss of many businesses considered local institutions. Save Brixton Arches has been borne, along with Reclaim Brixton, small groups able to garner large local support through social media platforms. We may well ask ourselves from whom Brixton is being reclaimed for whom. Well developers are on the list and increasingly so it would seem are architects by association.

‘We have been working through a co-design process with local people and organisations in Peckham for the last six months to establish a co-designed brief for a series of small-scale interventions around the fringes of Peckham Library Square. Here we have found conflicting views abounding between many different local ‘communities’. The strong arts and creative community who have colonised cheap and redundant space in Peckham over the last two decades (and whom it can be argued are the vanguard of gentrification) are happy to see creative space provided but wary of new housing in proximity to ‘their’ existing spaces around Rye Lane with fears that Nimbyism will ensue. On the other hand, some residents of Goldsmith’s Estate to the north of Peckham Library Square have expressed concerns about the creep of the ‘middle classes’ from areas south of the square.

‘Peckham Square, like central Brixton is what could be called contested space. Some have the view that they would rather nothing happened so that the square remains as a kind of fire break between largely different but overlapping parts of the ‘community’.

Getting a local consensus about development is becoming increasingly difficult

‘It is clear to us that a local consensus about the development of public space and public housing is becoming increasingly difficult to establish. The idea of regeneration has been tarnished by gentrification and is now almost interchangeable as a terminology. We need to question what these words mean, along with affordable (does this mean cheap), sustainable and so on.

‘Architects are ideally trained to lead this debate on the evolution of cities. It is up to us to question whether development is appropriate in scale and character, and yes sometimes that maybe doing nothing is the right thing to do.’

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