Holding onto sense of place in east London, by Ibrahim Michael Maiga

The many luxury flats being developed in prominent locations in Hackney, east London, give a strong sense that demographic change is accelerating.

Ibrahim Michael Maiga
Ibrahim Michael Maiga

When - or if - the new apartment owners move in, their buying power will be considerably higher than that of the many long term residents. It is easy to imagine shops serving less affluent residents getting slowly priced out of the high street. These changes feel inevitable and could put Hackney’s sense of place at risk.

In the face of this challenge, local players are working at maintaining the continuity of Hackney’s heritage and communities, but they have very different approaches. The Hackney Society was founded in 1967 to preserve Hackney’s heritage in the built environment and is now entirely volunteer-led. Its planning group examines planning applications submitted across Hackney and works alongside Hackney’s six conservation area advisory committees (CAAC).

"There’s very little incentive to be part of a CAAC, other than having a voice," says Nick Perry, the society’s director. "That voice is no stronger or weaker than anybody’s really. In practice, you find that if the views of the CAAC are supported by planning officers, then the officers will use the arguments of the CAAC to reinforce their argument. If they’re not, then they won’t."

The term regeneration doesn’t serve communities well, says Perry. "The ‘re’ in regeneration implies that you are starting over, so you are destroying something. What about just ‘generation’ - making something better that’s already there? When you knock something down you remove what it had, which in most cases relied on an extant community or is just a feeling of some kind of sense of place."

Hackney Wick that straddles the boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham but is under the planning aegis of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Once locals would only go there to learn to drive, but now Hackney Wick has grown a distinctive, post-industrial and artistic feel, which came from its artist-attracting low rents and relative seclusion. The Olympic Village and the addition of an Overground station did not change this. Demolition of existing buildings, many of them studios, and their resurrection as luxury flats probably will.

Lucy Rogers is a Bethnal Green-based artist who has made cities her subject. She chairs campaign group Save Hackney Wick, which is fighting LLDC plans to demolish Vittoria Wharf, a set of artist studios, to create a footbridge with a related plan for a road bridge. "Unfortunately we’ve just got to say ‘no, no, no’ to these bridges in their current form," she says. Rogers has secured the support of MP Rushanara Ali, Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs and four London assembly members.

Thomas Ermacora, author, urbanist and founder of the artistic and innovation community of Lime Wharf Makerhub in Vyner Street, sums up the local dilemma. "It has been more likely that you will divorce than that you will get married since the year 2000. It is the same with communities. It is more likely that communities are going to be disrupted within a decade or two than to stay anchored in a place."

An architect by training and author of the book Recoded City, Ermacora’s work focuses on how to upskill a neighbourhood to be sustainable and future-proof. "We don’t actually know how to combine regeneration with community development," he says. "Only gentrifying processes are well understood, but how do you improve an area and keep a hold of its community?"

The answer, he believes, lies in bringing manufacturing, entrepreneurship and employability back into cities using "maker technology". He bought property on Vyner Street to test and prove his ideas, creating the Lime Wharf complex and in doing so successfully incubating three leading maker businesses: Technology Will Save Us, SAM Labs and Open Desk. He also launched Machines Room, an open maker studio, and Maker Mile, a loose collective of maker organisations spanning Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

This is a long-term project. "One of our biggest struggles is to provide the data that says this is economically viable and it will only be proven in five or ten years," he says. "I’ve put my neck on the line and the greatest benefit I get is not money. It’s knowing that people believe that we’re finding a process to upskill and accelerate communities."

Dalston-based Bootstrap Company also works to build skills through its building, which provides workspace as well as support programmes for young entrepreneurs and events, which benefit the local community. It houses such diverse organisations as Dusty Knuckle Bakery, 43 Foot Brewery, a travel agent that serves many older people who are not digitally literate, a housing association and the Refugee Women’s Association.

After a rent review saw its rates increase by 400 to 500 per cent, Bootstrap has had to adapt its business model, shifting from offering workspace at low rent to market rent, with the latter providing a fund that residents can apply to for rent assistance. Interim chief executive Sufiya Patel has roots in the area and has seen what it means to be "local" change radically over the years. "I’m someone who can relate to a person who has lived here for 30 years. But I can also relate to a person who has moved in a bit more recently and try and bridge a gap. You need to understand how a community works in order to be able to serve it," she says.

Regeneration in Hackney has some way to go and questions remain about whether the area can retain its dynamism, people and feel. There is much that we don’t know about how to achieve desired outcomes from regeneration, but there are many ways for local people to gain more representation by working with others and building on what has already been achieved. Change may be inevitable, but specific outcomes are not.

Ibrahim Michael Maiga is a visiting fellow and director of the Birkbeck Enterprise Hub at the Centre for Innovation Management Research in London.

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