Rising Star Anna Howell tells the story of a narrative approach for 25 years of regeneration
There’s a gaping hole in the urban fabric of a corner of west London. The former Southall Gas Works, redundant since the 1970s, is a disconnected backlands covering 45ha of land in Ealing, but that’s all about to change. JTP won the competition to masterplan the site in 2014, having spotted a regeneration opportunity that would transform the neighbourhood.
It is a significant undertaking for the client, Berkeley Homes, which had bought the site from National Grid. With regeneration sites like this – of such a colossal scale and with a lengthy programme of 25 years – it is easy to lose sight of the ambition of the project, and become engrossed in the endless challenges of construction phasing, political change and economic cycles alongside the other physical, political and social constraints that a project of this nature brings.
For this very reason, JTP’s design approach in projects of this scale is to create a narrative; a story that defines a vision, which everyone involved in its delivery can share.
But what is it about narrative that plays such a significant role in our placemaking approach? We’re not talking about just a one-liner, a statement which can often drift away from the end result. It is a rich story that can evolve alongside the project and, most importantly, is ambitious and engaging yet deliverable, flexible and buildable.
Stories in placemaking and architecture evoke strong emotions; we understand and connect with places through stories, describing not only the physical nature of a place but what it feels like to be there, how it is experienced. At Southall, we have used stories and narrative to describe social activity and spaces, helping to shape the public realm and the framework for the place. What’s more, the story can evolve or be added to, it becomes a series of chapters over time.
The narrative for the regeneration of the site, now known as Southall Waterside, begins with the transformation from its current state as a contaminated car park into three parks, bringing life, nature and water into the site. Through remediating the site and connecting to Minet Country Park, a rich, varied and biodiverse sequence of landscapes will bring the new and existing community and nature together. These landscapes provide space to live and breathe – places for relaxation, connecting with wildlife and water, and creating spaces for running, walking and cycling.
A public promenade, ‘The Flow’, will link the three new parks with Southall, creating a physical connection between the new Crossrail station in the east with the Grand Union Canal in the west. It forms a sequence of hard and soft landscaped spaces which facilitate various activities; from urban to rural, busy to quiet, from civic squares full of urban activity to undulating wetlands connecting people with peaceful nature.
These landscapes, routes and squares define areas of built form, homes with views over water and nature, framing the spaces. New shops, cafes, restaurants and a cinema open onto a civic square with fountains and space to gather. The character of the built form responds directly to the landscape setting and urban context onto which it faces, creating five new neighbourhoods within Southall Waterside, each with something different to offer.
It is this narrative that will inform and inspire the design team throughout the lifetime of the project.
The site brings with it many physical challenges both below and above the surface, resulting in a highly complex delivery process, and starting the project with significant remediation works and infrastructure delivery. The proposed 3,750 homes, landscape and open space, new commercial hub and community facilities are divided into nine phases, each large enough to be considered a masterplan in itself.
The lengthy programme justifies the need for a narrative that delivers a place in stages; we call this staged placemaking. We think it is critical to the success of a place that people moving in to the early phases feel they belong, each phase making sense on its own and delivering a part of the story. So many long-term projects can force early residents to become pioneers, dwelling among construction and rubble as they wait for the last brick to be laid before a place is really liveable.
By developing the narrative for Southall Waterside from the outset, we have been able to design a flexible, landscape-led framework providing a clear character that holds true as we move into the construction and delivery stage of the project. The masterplan is definitive and specific enough to ensure the vision and character for the place sustains, yet flexible enough to encourage creativity and respond to changing market conditions and new constraints, without having to compromise on the ambition of the project. We hope that as the first phases of development are completed, Southall Waterside will be a place that people will aspire to live in from the outset, and become part of the story as it evolves over time.
Anna Howell is a senior urban design with JTP and a member of RIBAJ’s Rising Stars cohort 2017
RIBAJ Rising Stars is a scheme to recognise and reward up and coming construction professionals. It is open for entries now
Rising Stars is produced in partnership with Origin Doors and Windows