Waltham Forest joins the culture club

Thursday 1 November 2018

© Agnese Sanvito

Waltham Forest is aiming to get ‘culture on every corner’ as part of its bid to provide the catalyst to unleash investment and make the borough a better place for all.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from Waltham Forest: hotspot for creative-led growth, an On Location conference and series of tours that took place at Leyton Great Hall yesterday in a borough which has already pledged £1.3m to support creative industries.

Stewart Murray, strategic director of economic growth, said Waltham Forest’s award of the London Borough of Culture would enable it to build on some of the ‘post-Olympic bounce’ with £1bn of investment on its doorstep and provide for a quickly growing, young population. Amongst other things, the borough wants 85% of households to get involved in the culture programme, to attract 500,000 visitors, and to build a lasting legacy. ‘We want to make sure all our strategies develop a cultural offer’, said Murray. ‘And we want to build it in for the long term’. The borough aims to provide cultural suburbs and hubs, plus creative clusters including around Blackhorse Lane and Leyton. All whilst ensuring it provides affordable workspace, and 18,000 extra homes over 10 years, 50% of them affordable – a ‘real challenge on viability’. Also included will be ‘gamechanger projects’ and big sites coming forward soon.  ‘2019 is cultural blast-off’, said Murray.  ‘We will be the start of something bigger’.

Blackhorse Lane is a good example of creative-led regeneration; Gort Scott director Fiona Scott took the audience through the work her practice has done in the area, often inspired by the topography of the sweep of the valley and wetlands, as well as the high concentration of artisanal businesses in the area. The practice has helped breathe new life into the Central Parade office building in Walthamstow, and is now working on the Waltham Forest Town Hall Campus. ‘This is an example of the borough really leading by example’, said Scott. While CF Moeller associate partner Rolf Nielsen showed his practice’s work on a 100% affordable housing scheme – the former Webbs Industrial Estate, a panel discussion included the notion from Barr Gazetas managing director Alistair Barr that temporary or ‘meanwhile’ interventions in the borough could be useful, not least as prototypes for something more permanent.

‘We want to turn Waltham Forest into a great place in which to live and work’, said Cllr Simon Miller of LB Waltham Forest as he opened the second part of the conference on its ‘vision for growth’. It needed to invest in its strengths and unique characteristics including its cultural maker and ‘artistic heritage traditions’ to use them as a driver to deliver change. It could also use the regeneration agenda to attend to challenges over health and transport infrastructure in the borough, with goals to deliver ‘clean, safe streets for people’; put sufficient roofs over their heads and improve life opportunities for people. ‘Culture is our golden thread’, said Miller. ‘It runs through everything we do.’

Lucy Shomali, director regeneration and growth at LB Waltham Forest showed how this principle translated to projects on the ground, including ongoing work to improve shopfronts and the creation of a town centre strategy in place for 2016-2020. But a programme of markets and events was seen as just as important as investment in the bricks and mortar, she said. 

Allies and Morrison’s work in Lea Bridge and Leyton aimed to improve connections to the Lea Valley and Olympic Park and overcome barriers including water environments, said director Steve Walker, as well as the need to ‘nurture and foster workspace’ through a series of intensification zones. And Dominique Oliver, partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards showed how her practice’s work on South Grove as a new and car-free residential project of 500 homes in Walthamstow included enabling better connections to the town centre using a local viaduct. Hadley Property Group chief operating officer Mark Lebihan noted in discussions that it was important to get the mix of uses right, and that companies like his were now working much harder on curating appropriate ground floor uses in particular for places like Walthamstow, which he believes will become destinations in themselves. Ultimately, though, all of this arising from the borough of culture award are not bread and circuses, said Walker. ‘It’s not fun stuff to distract from the crap that’s going on’, he said. ‘Actually, it’s fundamentally about thinking how we go about life, how we go about living together, how we go about establishing communities and environments together. And so it can work as a thread running through all these things’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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