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Urban mending

By Lesley Perez
At Brentford in west London, KLA has made a number of small interventions that together make a big contribution to the quality of urban life.

Just beneath London’s Great West Road, a meandering canal snakes between a cluster of monolithic buildings. Thousands of employees of companies such as BSkyB, JC Decaux and GlaxoSmithKline surge into these structures every weekday morning before later making their customary evening march back to the parking lots, bus stops and rail stations that will whisk them home. But follow the canal path just a single mile south towards its junction with the Thames and you’ll encounter a historic high street that was once one of West London’s most notable shopping districts. Despite the short walk separating these two centres, any interaction between them had for a long time been minimal at best.

To address this, a brief was put together with funding from the Mayor’s Outer London Fund for a project to improve public-realm connections for pedestrians and cyclists between the high street and the business district, otherwise known as the ‘Golden Mile’. The local council could see that transforming the towpath into a thorough- fare could not only reshape the canal district but also help Brentford’s town centre flourish. But walking around Brentford now, Lynn Kinnear, principal and founder of KLA who spearheaded the project, points out that, ‘the original brief for this project is unrecognisable. We started off with a client brief, and we didn’t deliver that brief.’ What could been a fairly straightforward exercise in enhancing pedestrian appeal instead metamorphosed into an area-wide strategy to develop Brentford into a more liveable, prosperous and culturally dynamic place.

When the Landscape Institute awarded the project its prestigious President’s Award at the end of last year, the judges remarked that it stood out for its thoughtful approach to ‘urban mending’. Uniquely, it is based on a series of tactical interventions rather than a single statement-making gesture. Unravelling the threads that give this project strength reveals an approach to urban design based on long-term socio-economic vision, public participation and rich collaboration.

Specific interventions are largely based around sites identified in earlier strategic documents put together by ISIS Waterside Regeneration in collaboration with the public-arts consultancy MAAP. These include the Great West Road overpass, the sheds (a large corrugated iron structure overhanging the canal), the towpath’s junction with the high street and the magistrates’ court in the centre of town, among others. KLA’s scheme built on those initial insights, imagining how locations might interact to create a more social and sustainable local character that also celebrates Brentford’s waterside heritage.

Exploring the area one sunny afternoon, I was able to glimpse how the public realm improvements have helped to give this historic town a renewed sense of pride. They are noteworthy yet very much born of place, celebrating existing assets and giving the canal corridor a layer of inviting cohesion that is helping Brentford to reassert its local distinctiveness. But of course, these are just my impressions as an afternoon tourist. The ‘Making the Connection’ project is first and foremost concerned with reimagining public life for those who live and work in the area.

At the heart of this focus is the new square in front of the magistrates’ building in the centre of town. It’s a handsome, flexible space populated with bespoke timber seating, a playful set of fountains, some colourful graphic tiles and a statuesque weeping willow (a nod to the nearby riverfront). The central area hosts a weekly food market, valued as an important social programme, a reminder of local history (Brentford has had street markets on and off since 1306), and as a driver of economic diversity. Lynn Kinnear explains: ‘The market is a starting point for new businesses, because they can use the market stalls before they commit to taking on a shop. It’s a good stepping stone to a more varied and vibrant offer [on the high street].’ The square also has places for people-watching, play and performance. This variety is hugely important, inviting a broad demographic to participate in the space and contribute to what the project team calls ‘a shift in emphasis for the local high street’s role from monetary exchange to more social exchange.’

Lynn proudly admits that with regard to what you now see, ‘the ingredients are very simple.’ But as I gradually discover, that depends very much on where you look. Speaking to various members of the team involved, it’s clear that the overall process has been extremely intricate, relying on vast amounts of negotiation with multi-headed stakeholder groups and involving numerous contributors. As a result some of the most interesting aspects turn out to be those that aren’t immediately visible.

Turning west along the high street from the central market square, you notice a vacant shop crowned by bright signage declaring ‘Brentford Works’. This is a lone physical reminder of a social enterprise set up as a crucial part of the overall scheme, implemented to kickstart the regeneration process at a community level. Running for six months out of an empty shop at the critical junction between the high street and the canal route, Brentford Works became a buzzing hub where locals, traders and craftspeople could meet to peer network, socialise and discuss ways to work together to improve local business.

Sue Ball, principal at MAAP, who stewarded the enterprise alongside The Decorators, points out that Brentford Works was an important precursor to the new market space. By operating while physical construction was happening, locals were brought into the process and could creatively plan its use. ‘The idea was that there was a momentum going on in parallel that was developing the broader network that could find more permanent space within the market,’ she said.

But simply improving the market wasn’t enough. The project team also wanted to link it to the canal to enhance its uniqueness and reach. A scheme was devised for a ‘floating high street’, in which a barge could float bicycles along the canal towards the Golden Mile, where riders would disembark and travel along an expanded cycle network to bring food and goods to office workers. A trial fleet of cargo bikes was brought to Brentford Works to test with local businesses, with several latching onto the idea and its potential. But unfortunately in the end the barge idea was never implemented due to lack of funding. It’s one of Lynn Kinnear’s biggest disappointments, although just one of many setbacks and squeezes faced along the way.

Kinnear acknowledges that working with tight council budgets brings about a certain pragmatism in decision-making. But she also stresses the desire to make sure this didn’t equate to a weakening of ambitions. ‘We made lots and lots of proposals at the early stage to try and challenge everyone to think of this as the start of a bigger thing,’ she says. Sue Ball suggests that this unwavering determination was key to making the project what it is: ‘at so many stages the money was going to drop away or the phasing wasn’t right...’ but doggedness, particularly from Kinnear and associate Florence Moon, helped to push things through.

Perhaps the most ambitious proposal achieved involves the treatment of the sheds, about halfway along the canal path between the high street and the Golden Mile. They were an intimidating presence overhanging the route, with dark interiors that made anybody passing through them feel unsafe. Early strategic ideas involved some sort of illuminations to animate the cavernous space. However KLA saw potential for the sheds to become a local landmark that could draw people along the canal route as well as play host to special events such as pop-up cinema screenings. The team worked with artist Simon Periton to completely refit the exteriors with intricate timber cladding informed by the local boat building vernacular. The resulting structures are spectacular from every vantage point along the route, but most of all while standing within them while daylight streams through.

This is a scheme defined as much by what has been achieved as by the ideas it has brought forth about Brentford’s future. There’s a merging of quality and playfulness in many of the design details that lends a subtle sense of wonder to the spaces created, such as the colourful market tiling, highly crafted wayfinding mosaics and exuberant flora patterned into the shed cladding. It allows the interventions to feel both very grounded but also of another time and place. ‘It’s about not trying to get stuck in where we are now but imagining where we might be,’ Lynn offers. In this context, the ‘Making the Connection’ project is best viewed as a catalyst that is helping Brentford to see itself in a new, future light.

Ball calls the new physical public realm a ‘fantastic gift’ to the area, noting the difference it has already had on the market. Visitor numbers are up by more than 50% and stallholders have increased by a third. If aspects of the scheme such as the floating high street had been able to be realised one can only imagine how this success would be spilling out and transforming the canal route in full.

As it is the project is still hugely significant, and shows the potential for landscape to offer a style of bottom-up, collaborative regeneration that stands in contrast to the all-encompassing visions often proffered by developers. With a large swathe of land between the high street and the Grand Union Canal currently in development for approximately 900 new homes, the timing of the scheme couldn’t be more acute.

KLA’s approach engages with the challenges posed by increasingly common large-scale urban development, employing landscape as a social agent to help build local identity and strengthen daily interactions. Both Kinnear and Ball share the view that if our public spaces are to continue to meet the needs of a changing, expanding society we should first question the basic idea of what public life actually means. Their answer, made evident in Brentford, encompasses much more than simply work, consumption, leisure and travel. Here, public life is valued as an opportunity for social networking without the technology, for productive exchange and chance encounters, and for shared activities that draw a community together to rub shoulders and connect on multiple different levels.

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