Ring of regeneration

There are areas of London that are in desperate need of urban rejuvenation. Gayle Markovitz digs out the plans for Mabley Green in Hackney

A popular cure for the contemporary city suffering from a case of urban decrepitude is a good dose of regeneration – “a moral, spiritual, or physical renewal and invigoration”. London itself has recently swallowed a host of regeneration pills, and the treatment has led to some interesting developments: Tate Modern and a new-look Bankside; “Shoho” and East End cool; soaring property prices; the birth of the club/ bar/ eatery; and a welcome injection of interest and money into the creative industries. In reality, it might appear that regeneration translates to a bit of art and culture, juxtaposed with the gritty realism of an environment that once had an edge.

I am as excited by London’s “hip ‘n’ happening-ness” as the next creative, but I can’t help feeling that the elements of “moral” and “spiritual” renewal are sometimes lacking. I don’t for a minute regret the transformation of Shoreditch, but I suspect it has been at the expense of the rather displaced community living beyond the “haute style” zone of Hoxton Square. You would hope that by osmosis, these communities will eventually benefit, but I am reminded of a comment by a friend who is resident in a 1950s council block, “when you live in a council block, the last thing you want to see when you step outside is a trendy concrete installation. Some flowers would be nice”. Neither do I advocate the preservation of the status quo, nor recreating public space that resembles a pastoral idyll. On the contrary, change should be exciting and is desperately needed in the many unexceptional, unloved, under-used, unimaginative, under-funded open spaces that under-service Britain’s communities.

Surely the inspiration for regeneration must come from the people and environments that the regeneration serves, rather than be imposed by remote urban planners with a serious fiscal agenda? I was sceptical, therefore, when I learned recently of an exhibition at Chat’s Palace in Hackney entitled Inspiration for Regeneration, views on regeneration from Mabley Green to Barcelona’s Parc de Montjuic (Parc Miró). Barcelona’s renaissance, in part resulting from an inflated Olympic Games economy, sometimes led to the displacement of existing underprivileged communities on a grand scale and at great financial cost. Also, Barcelona has sunshine and hills, and I was reluctant to accept that it had any lessons for the rather damp, flat landscape of Hackney.

I was pleasantly surprised. This exhibition charts how an exceptional design team, comprising Gross Max Landscape Architects, light artist Martin Richman, writer Paul Shepheard and Fluid Design, teamed up with Hackney Wick’s own community to plan the regeneration of Mabley Green. Through an extensive process of consultation and a seven-day trip to Barcelona, the community and the design team have undergone some holistic regeneration therapy.

The show is a presentation of lessons learnt in Barcelona by the community itself, as well as a chance to see some of the exciting design proposals for Mabley Green. Barcelona’s regeneration programme has clearly been inspirational, with the creation of neighbourhood parks and squares, including a park within a high-speed junction, and a radical reconsideration of traffic management. These models have imbued a sense of scale and vision that has enabled a truly virtuoso scheme to emerge for Mabley Green, which combines highquality design, integral artworks, a true engagement with the community it serves and something of the “moral” and the “spiritual”.

I have a suspicion this scheme might actually “regenerate”, in the true sense of the word.

Inspiration for Regeneration at Chat’s Palace, 42-44 Brooksby’s Walk, London E9, from 4-11 April, hosted by Hackney Wick Public Art Programme, Worldwrite and Hackney Environment Forum

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