Placemaking field trip: Rye Lane

Peckham is one of the UK’s most diverse neighbourhoods and one of London’s fastest-changing areas. The growth of creative industries over the last decade has helped shift Peckham’s reputation. It’s also shifting the mix of residents and businesses as well as intensifying activity in this busy, well-connected town centre. On 26 July, we visited Rye Lane to learn how different stakeholders are approaching these changes and contributing to placemaking.

Peckham Rye station and library square co-design

Neil Kirby, Head of Regeneration South for LB Southwark, described the council’s role as guiding change and being willing to try new ideas – such as co-design for major redevelopment schemes. At Peckham Rye station, plans to extensively redevelop the station forecourt and railway arches were scrapped following local feedback. In 2014, LB Southwark commissioned architecture firms to ‘co-design’ a new station forecourt with locals, soon extending co-design to nearby Library Square.

Architects involved in co-design used meetings, workshops, drop-in events and social media to capture local aspirations for Peckham as well as consider more detailed design treatments for each space. But the co-design process and outputs weren’t without criticism.  To learn from these projects, LB Southwark commissioned a review by Kaizen. They found the co-design concept and process needed better definition, expectation management, and trust-building among other things, but credited its community building aspects and ambitious, creative approach.

peckham rye station retail arcade
Peckham Rye station is currently enclosed by an art-deco style retail arcade.

peckham rye station square
In February 2018, the closed-in retail arcade will be replaced by an open square and small shops.

Peckham Coal Line

The community-driven Peckham Coal Line offers another model of placemaking. Co-ordinator Louise Armstrong explained that the project team – a ‘fluid core’ of around eight local people with complementary skills – came together in 2014 to build a new green corridor between Peckham Rye and Queens Road Peckham stations. Enthusiasm for the project swelled after it was publicised in the local newspaper, eventually raising £65,000 from over 900 local people and £10,000 each from LB Southwark the GLA through the Mayor’s Crowdfunding Campaign. The funding is being used for a feasibility study.

The route, using a combination of Network Rail’s disused coal lines and the Kirkwood nature reserve, is the missing link in the south London greenway. Neil Kirby noted that the Coal Line now has ‘planning clout’, citing its place in the New Southwark Plan and ability to rally support against conflicting neighbouring developments.

Pempeople: People Empowering People

In January 2016, LB Southwark provided pop-up space for local organisation Pempeople in an unlet shop on Peckham High Street, where they operate an employment academy and event space for local people. Founder Nicholas Okwulu described the pop-up shop as ‘window into Peckham’: its prominent location gives visibility to the organisation and projects run by local people. It’s also important for reaching harder-to-engage residents, providing a place to learn about development and policy from other locals – hence ‘people empowering people’. Nicholas aims to prepare residents for the changes coming to Peckham; Pempeople’s skills- and knowledge-building are critical to this, and he hopes to secure permanent space to carry on long-term.

peckham coal line
Parts of the proposed Coal Line are visible from ground level near Peckhamplex.

Pempeople’s pop-up arrangement with LB Southwark means funding can be put into local initiatives rather than rent payments.

Peckham Vision

Community organisation Peckham Vision keeps people informed of and engaged with development around Rye Lane. Founder Eileen Conn explained that the organisation began in 2005 to review plans to demolish part of the town centre for the cross-river tram depot. It has since been instrumental in seeding ideas for Peckham Rye station’s redesign as well as promoting initiatives such as a townscape heritage initiative, restoration of the station’s Old Waiting Room, review of the long-term future of the multi-storey car park, and creative uses at Copeland Park. Peckham Vision works with other local groups such as the Peckham Society, Rye Lane Traders’ Association and Copeland Park, and mobilises local engagement to influence local policy and change in Peckham. Eileen considers relationships integral to placemaking; Peckham Vision’s objective is to establish an integrated town centre and nurture connections among its places and people.

But she’s concerned that proposed development doesn’t always acknowledge these relationships. While ecologically significant land can be designated – and protected to a degree – as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but no similar designation exists for ‘human places’ with intricate relationships and interdependencies, such as Rye Lane. She suggested that a ‘Site of Special Cultural Interest’ classification could identify such areas and require consideration of how proposed development will impact existing uses and their potential.

Copeland Park & Bussey Building

Comprising a large industrial factory, several light industrial units, former department store and shopping arcade, Copeland Park & Bussey Building has been instrumental in establishing Peckham as a creative hub. Owner Jonathan Wilson shared his vision for the site: rather than redevelop as housing, he wanted to support the community. In 2009, following defeat of the cross-river tram depot development, he opened CP&BB to more creative use, spurring economic activity. CP&BB’s buildings host 120 tenants in workspace, artist studios, entertainment venues and more. Jonathan avoids large occupiers and chains, preferring diverse tenants which include record stores, galleries, gyms, restaurants and a church.

central rye lane
L: A sampling of occupiers and activities at CP&BB; RT: Eileen Conn discusses Rye Lane; RB: Peckham Levels comes to the multi-storey

Multi-storey car park/Peckham Levels

Peckham’s multi-storey car park is now more associated with Frank’s Bar and Bold Tendencies’ art installations than parking. From October, Peckham Levels will further activate the underused multi-storey with studios, workspace, event space, retail, and restaurants. Site Director Lodewijk Van Den Belt gave a sense of scale to the project: over 300 jobs will be created across seven floors, or 90,000 sqft; 75% of the units have been let to people from Peckham and a further 10% to people from wider Southwark; and a fifth of the studio spaces are available at 35% of market rate.

As a ‘meanwhile project’, Peckham Levels will operate until 2023; the multi-storey and attached Peckhamplex cinema are in LB Southwark’s proposed site allocations for redevelopment – although a Peckham Vision-led campaign to review this has received support.

Local economy

Beyond creative industries, Rye Lane’s economic mix is astounding. Eileen Conn discussed the importance of ‘below the radar’ businesses and micro-economies, echoing work by LSE researcher Suzanne Hall which highlighted Rye Lane’s unique retail arrangements: several shops are sub-divided, providing space for multiple occupiers on short-term leases. These sit alongside single-occupier shops, market stalls, and high street chains. Shopping arcades stemming from Rye Lane are also packed with businesses, making for an intensely active town centre.

However, Neil Kirby confessed there’s a shortage of retail space. Schemes such as Peckham Levels will provide some relief, but others will displace businesses. For example, several shops will be lost to the station redesign, including Blenheim Grove’s salons. Southwark Council is relocating them to a new, purpose-built scheme called Peckham Palms, but some salon owners are concerned about loss of visibility and footfall. Regeneration is also changing the mix of businesses: new burger joints and brunch spots rub shoulders with long-standing butchers and beauty salons. Incorporating newcomers while supporting the creative and economic mix that’s built Rye Lane’s sense of place will be a key challenge as Peckham continues to change.

rye lane economy
Rye Lane and its shopping arcades are home to diverse businesses, many of which are co-located within subdivided shops.