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Creative control

Mark Walton

Too often ‘creative-led’ regeneration seems to colonise urban areas, eventually displacing longer term local residents. We’re working with our partners at Kingston University’s Landscape Interface Studio to develop a methodology that supports local residents and creative organisations to collaborate, in order to revitalise local spaces whilst retaining community control.

Shared Assets has been working with Kingston University Landscape Interface Studio to develop a methodology for engaging local people and creative industries in re-imagining difficult urban sites. We have focused so far on a stretch of London’s canal system in east London, the Limehouse Cut.

You can see the full visual report of our work here.

The story so far…

The Limehouse Cut is the oldest stretch of man-made waterway in London, built to connect the Thames with the lower reaches of the River Lea. It demarcates a dead straight mile through Poplar in Tower Hamlets. Whilst first impressions may be of waterway that is neglected in comparison to the rest of London’s canal system, it forms part of a diverse neighbourhood that is rich in social and industrial history. The area is characterised by a mixture of light industrial, residential, leisure and commercial uses and is home to a range of local creative industries. To the north the Olympic Park and Lower Lea Valley have undergone substantial changes, while to the south Limehouse has seen redevelopment and gentrification.

With these first impressions as our starting point we began to delve deeper into the layers of creativity, industry, history and social connections to find out what makes this the place that it is, and how it could be re-imagined.

Our research took on two intertwined strands: people and place.

Kingston University spent time uncovering the make-up of the area through desktop research and mapping including:
• Old maps charting the development of the area
• Current demographic information
• Listed buildings in the area
• Current planning applications
• Pedestrian access to the canal
• Bridges and open spaces.
• Noise mapping
• Features in literature or film

We also started to look at underused plots of land and open spaces that had the potential to be utilised for new activities.

While this place-based research was taking place we started talking to local people. We interviewed some local businesses, community groups and organisations, listening to their concerns, hopes and ideas. These open conversations with local groups opened up some unexpected and interesting avenues. Meeting with local agencies, who have influence over local agendas opened up discussions about existing projects already underway in the area and allowed us to gauge enthusiasm for our ideas.

An important part of the process has been bringing people and place together and so we invited people for an afternoon of storytelling on the narrowboat Lapwing, along the Limehouse Cut. The focus was to inspire them to share their stories and memories of the area, the effects of changes in canalside development, and their impressions of how it is today. With a range of different participants, it was interesting to see discussions between local residents, cyclists, housing developers, architects, boaters and canoeists and to hear their opinions.

As a result of our initial work we believe that there is great potential to bring together the different resources that already exist in the area to create new activities on underused and under-managed sites, including the canal itself. Such an approach would ensure a longer term legacy of bringing new uses to spaces that are currently under-managed, improving the local environment, enriching the local community, and fostering new relationships between local creative organisations, residents and agencies.

Next Steps…

How do you develop a methodology for affecting positive local change and reimagine underused and undermanaged spaces in ways that involve and benefit local residents? We are endeavouring to mobilise existing resources and build the relationships that will enable sustainable, creative and collaborative community control and revitalisation of local spaces. We see this as an alternative to the colonisation of urban areas by a ‘creative-led’ regeneration that too often seems to exist in isolation from local residents before eventually displacing them. We want to ask the difficult questions, harness local knowledge and history and help to generate a shared vision.

We have reached a point where we need to move onto the next steps of developing the project. We have seen that despite its neglected appearance local people have a deep connection to the Limehouse Cut, but there is a need for support and inspiration if they are to going to get involved in reimagining its future or managing local open spaces. We would like to bring together a local steering group to develop a ‘festival of ideas’ that would enable collaborations between creative and community groups to develop projects in the area. Through the negotiated creative use of chosen sites, we hope that these projects could lead to longer term partnerships, and build the capacity and the skills of local people to develop their own initiatives and management of local spaces.

Beyond Limehouse we are keen to test these methodologies elsewhere, to explore the potential for bring local people and creative organisations together in new ways to reimagine difficult urban spaces and collaborate in their management.

This research was made possible by funding from Creative Works London.

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