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Wayne Hemingway profiled

by Fiona McWilliam
Wayne Hemingway’s long-standing and sometimes controversial interest in the places where we live, meet and play makes him an ideal choice to present this year’s LI awards.

Wayne Hemingway with his wife and business partner Gerardine. - Photo ©: Trevor Leighton

Wayne Hemingway believes that, ‘Place comes before architecture, and landscape plays a big role in place’.  This belief, he says, is why he agreed to present this year’s Landscape Institute Awards.

As a graduate in geography and town planning, Hemingway is arguably well qualified to comment on matters relating to ‘placemaking’, urban renewal and masterplanning, but one gets the impression on meeting him that he would have spoken out anyway; he is earnest, straight-talking and only too eager to share his views on urban design.

He and his wife Gerardine first came to public awareness in the 1980s, as co-founders of the iconoclastic fashion label Red or Dead which encouraged a generation to wear Dr Martens work-wear shoes as fashion. Since selling the company and establishing Hemingway Design (HD) in the
late 1990s, they have emerged as people’s champions of good urban design, with Wayne very much the outspoken mouthpiece of the operation. He was, for eight years, chair of the place-making campaigning body Building For Life, and is today a CABE trustee.

In 2001 Hemingway wrote a piece for The Independent in which he infamously decried the ‘Wimpeyfication and Barratification of Britain’. His eloquent tirade about ill-conceived housing developments was picked up by Jeremy Paxman and Newsnight and prompted Peter Johnson, the then chairman of Wimpey Homes (now Taylor Wimpey), to challenge Hemingway to put his design skills where his mouth was.

Hemingway Design consulted on the housing at The Bridge, Dartford.

‘We ended up leading the vision on a 750-plus housing development on a long-term unused brownfield site in Dunston, a largely unloved, but brilliantly located part of Gateshead,’ he said. This became Staiths South Bank.

The Hemingways had no experience of designing affordable housing, but had spent much of their childhoods living in low-cost housing in Lancashire. Some of their best memories are of ‘playing out’; Gerardine on the communal recreational space behind her terraced worker’s cottage in Padiham, and Wayne on the landscaped area around the then-new Queen’s Park Flats in Blackburn.

Over the past decade Hemingway Design has delivered a number of high-profile and award-winning affordable housing schemes. More recently, it has been selected to work on the restoration of the run-down Margate seaside attraction Dreamland, where it plans to create the world’s first theme park of historic rides, together with an event space, dance halls, restaurants and shops.

Placemaking, Hemingway believes, is essential for successful housing schemes. People don’t look for a house, he says, they look for place where they’d like to live. ‘We spent lots of time with Wimpey thinking about making a place (at Staiths South Bank) in which people would want to live.’

It wasn’t always easy. Hemingway Design wanted to deliver ‘home zones’ with streets designed for pedestrians, children playing and cyclists. Rather than building driveways, it planned to put the parking around the side of homes, in a bid to make the development safer and friendlier. The police didn’t agree, Hemingway recalls, saying that the cars would get broken into. 

Staiths South Bank was the first and highest-profile housing project.

Simply by checking Home Offices Crime Statistics, Hemingway was able to prove a dramatic decrease in car crime since the introduction of car radios that became useless once they were removed from a vehicle. And so the design was accepted. ‘We had turned accepted thinking on its head, and that opened up an avenue for real change,’ he said.

Additionally, and significantly, in the two-year design period before work started on Staiths South Bank, the Hemingways, often with their four young children in tow, travelled the world ‘looking at great and not so great examples’ of urban design.

They found inspiration particularly in northern Europe and the Nordic countries, with ‘human-centred’ developments such as the Vauban sustainable neighbourhood in Freiberg, Germany, and Almere, in the Netherlands. These encouraged the team, Hemingway says, ‘to put landscape, play and “home-zone” streets ahead of architecture’.

He shows me photographs of a welcoming if shabby looking Soweto street and another in Copenhagen, where shops are interspersed with houses (so grandparents can buy sweets for their grandchildren) and where children can play football without being shouted at.

These photographs contrast sharply with others he then shows me of ‘no ball games’ signs taken in the UK. Another, from a play area in Somerset, is particularly draconian, warning people against talking to strangers: ‘Why would you do that,’ Hemingway asks, ‘when talking to other people is what makes a community?’ Good urban landscapes, where children are allowed to play, he says, ‘give young folk something to release energy in, they give us all opportunities to be social’.

When he first started to criticise housing, Hemingway recalls, ‘one of the main things we noticed was that properties were being designed only for being inside, for “vegging” out in front of the television; they were not fit for purpose for someone interested in being outside.

This ‘boat house’ in the Hemingways’ garden shows their love of collaging objects.

He shows me a photograph of housing development in Swindon on which he mischievously superimposed a mocked-up prison fence and look-out tower, and which forms part of a presentation he’s delivered many times in the past few years. What’s striking is that the addition of the fence and tower make so little difference to the already austere and unwelcoming exterior of the development.

At the time, he says, the UK came bottom in a Unicef assessment of the well-being of children in 21 ‘economically advanced nations’. (We still do, according to the most recent assessment, published in 2007). It is high time, Hemingway asserts, ‘that we stop blaming lads for living it large when all they’ve been given is five springy chickens to play on’.

Landscape has always loomed large in Hemingway’s life: ‘I’m an outdoor person, who’s happy fishing, cycling and running,’ he says. And Gerardine, who loves gardening, has transformed their large garden in West Sussex “into something very special”.

While he admits to loving both beaches and proms, he says that urban parks are his idea of the perfect landscape: ‘The concept of a park in a town is an amazing thing. I love the fact that they say generosity; it’s allowing land that could make short-term financial gain available to everyone at no cost.’

Public parks, he adds (while bemoaning one in Chichester that has banned dogs) “demonstrate that mankind hasn’t lost its sense of ‘communal’.

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