Testing new uses for underused public spaces on a canal towpath in Westminster
Dec 01, 2020
This case study outlines a meanwhile use project that was part of a wider regeneration strategy for the Harrow Road area in 2019. It was written by Adam Summerfield and Ramiro Levy following their 12-month placements at Westminster City Council.
Adam was matched with a role as Place Shaping Officer at Westminster City Council as part of the Spring 2018 Cohort. Before joining the Associate Programme, Adam worked in private architectural practice contributing to large-scale infrastructure schemes and urban realm improvement projects in London. After the programme, he stayed in his role, where he was joined by more Public Practice Associates in following cohorts.
As part of the Spring 2019 Cohort, Ramiro was matched with a role alongside Adam in Westminster City Council's Place Shaping Team. Before becoming an Associate, he held various roles as a landscape architect and urban planner in São Paulo. He worked on public spaces and parks, urban development policies, and led a not-for-profit organisation aiming to improve walkability and active design in Brazil. After completing the Associate Programme, both Adam and Ramiro were promoted to Place Shaping Principals where they continue to work together.
This case study walks through a key project they worked on during their placements and what they learnt from it.
About Co Mooring
The Co Mooring project was part of the Harrow Road Place Plan, a strategy aimed at delivering immediate and long-term improvement in one of the most deprived districts in the City of Westminster. Since 2018, Westminster City Council (WCC) worked with residents and stakeholders to produce the Place Plan, which highlighted the critical importance of revitalising the area’s high street and better connecting it to untapped assets, such as the Grand Union Canal, to create a neighbourhood that maximised its potential for social value.
The success of the Place Plan was centred upon the successful delivery of four key objectives, identified through stakeholder and community engagement:
To create a 21st century high street
To improve access to public open space
To benefit from future development opportunities
To ensure a socially sustainable future
The Meanwhile Use Project
As part of the wider Place Plan, the Co Mooring project was set up to address the objective of improving access to public open space and was used to test initial thinking around an emerging canalside strategy. This would deliver a network of well-designed, attractive and welcoming public spaces where people would be keen to spend time, having potential to deliver significant benefits to communal health and wellbeing.
The project was developed in 2019 by WCC with the London Festival of Architecture and Canal and River Trust (CRT). A design competition selected a winning proposal which was delivered as part of the 2019 London Festival of Architecture. The design consisted of a temporary public realm intervention that created an experimental section of towpath aimed at ‘increasing public interest and engagement with the canal, highlighting the opportunities that revitalising this vacant stretch of towpath can offer the Harrow Road community’.
The intervention both tested and shaped a wider canalside strategy focused on the Harrow Road district and was used to gather evidence for decision-making and funding pledges as well as to engage and gain trust from the community.
The team identified a series of challenges that the project should consider and aim to address:
1. Poor health and wellbeing in the community: The three wards that make up the Harrow Road are among the most diverse in London and fall within the top 10% most deprived wards in England. High deprivation levels impact on the health and well-being of the population, with only 47% of people living locally considered to be in very good health and child obesity levels above the London average. Given that the population in the area is relatively young, with 19.3% under 15 years of age, these figures make the situation even more concerning.
2. Limited canalside accessibility: These public health issues were exacerbated by a recognised deficiency of public open space, with local assets, such as the canal, either inaccessible, unwelcoming or under-used. The canal network owned by CRT within London has over 100km of hidden potential and while some areas have seen major transformation, others – such as in the Harrow Road area – were still awaiting opportunities to be unlocked, with their environmental assets and ability to improve health and wellbeing not yet truly accessible to the local community.
3. Lack of trust from the community: Reaching, engaging and gaining trust from the Harrow Road community was a key challenge, and essential in delivering projects that meet the community’s needs and ambitions. As a deprived area for many years and with many residents considering the area to be forgotten by the Council, at first the local community reacted with caution to WCC’s interest in improving the area. Ensuring that local community voice was represented in the project was considered the only way to gain trust and achieve a successful outcome.
4. Low expectations: The selected project area sat on a towpath stretch alongside the Grand Union Canal overshadowed by the Westway, a place plagued by fly-tipping and litter disposal and considered unsafe, underused and neglected. It was used mostly by cyclist commuters, runners and walkers but had almost no recorded dwelling activity and had poor access from the surrounding streets. Raising the ambition for transformation of the area was important, as expectations initially concerned only the maintenance aspects, which alone could not address the existing challenges.
To deliver immediate change through a meanwhile use project, WCC ran a design competition with the London Festival of Architecture from February to April 2019, selecting a winning proposal that demonstrated the potential to engage with stakeholders and inform permanent solutions for the canalside area.
1. Bringing multiple stakeholders together: The land ownership along the canal is complex, including Canal and River Trust, Network Rail, TfL and private landowners. The project was initiated as an attempt to bring these groups together, to demonstrate the shared benefits that could be unlocked and to provide meaningful benefits to the local community. The Co Mooring team won the competition with plans to involve local people in the design process and to co-curate a programme of events during the Festival, connecting boating communities to local neighbourhood stakeholders.
2. Showing the place potential:A one-month temporary intervention comprised a colourful winding path along a 30m stretch of the canal towpath beneath the Westway Flyover and adjacent to a Network Rail boundary wall. The wooden, red-decked path combined with integrated planters and seats slowed down cyclist speeds across the site and created new dwelling areas to support engagement activities and events.
3. Proposing community activities: Engagement activities and events were co-curated by WCC, the project team and a local community events organiser. The strategies for involving multiple stakeholders included:
allowing extended mooring periods for community boats;
proposing events and activities from local groups and artists (music, arts, sports):
a series of co-design workshops focused on different age groups and interests.
4. Evaluating the process: Alongside these actions, the team developed an evidence-based analysis of the site and its users, both before and during the period of the intervention. This included collection and analysis of qualitative data and quantitative data Different user profiles provided the team with feedback and opinion on the project’s impact and achievements. People counts provided a snapshot of the activities taking place on the canalside on different days (walking, running, cycling, standing, seating etc).
From the one-month meanwhile intervention, the team could identify a series of expected and unexpected outcomes:
1. A change in perception:
Positive perceptions of the canal increased tenfold over the course of the month.
The number of people feeling unsafe in the space reduced by 91%;
Positive words used to describe the canalside increased by 150%;
2. A change in canalside use: The temporary intervention on the canalside brought a change in the number of people dwelling in the space, especially when there were events and programmed activities. Before the intervention, almost no one would dwell for any length of time in the area.
3. Raised ambitions for the long-term vision: The intervention was key to raising long-term ambitions for canalside improvement, with conversations moving from concerns with litter and the misuse of the space before the project, to aspirations for community amenities, café/bars and seating areas similar to those tested during the temporary intervention.
4. Improved community trust and user’s approval: The intervention has helped gain community trust, with a number of individuals and community groups expressing an interest in getting involved in ongoing Place Plan work and joining a working group to help co-produce a longer-term canalside strategy.
5. Creation of a baseline data set: Data collected before and during this temporary intervention will be used as a baseline in the assessment of the transformations of more permanent interventions. The data is crucial to support future funding applications, to show the impact of the project and to inform the development of similar projects.
6. Shaping the long-term vision: A key project outcome is informing and shaping the emerging canalside strategy within the wider Harrow Road Place Plan. It will consider the outcomes from the meanwhile intervention and how similar places in the area could be transformed in future to help achieve the Plan’s objectives.
This is an example of the type of work that two Associates in Urban Design and Community Engagement roles did during their placement. If you're interested in these role types, read more below.