LB Tower Hamlets has the fastest growing and one of the youngest populations in the UK. Young people can be challenging to engage, but several local organisations are succeeding, using digital engagement, education, training and design programmes to involve young people in projects relating to local placemaking and employment. On 26 September, we visited Devons Road and St Paul’s Way to learn about some of these organisations and their approaches. This was the penultimate field trip in our placemaking programme.
Local area characteristics
Adjoining Devons Road and St Paul’s Way carry a high volume of traffic towards the A12, bisecting a residential community of predominantly 20th-century low-rise housing blocks. Housing Association Poplar Harca owns a large number of buildings, including homes, shops, and community centres. Paul Augarde, Director of Placemaking, said this density of ownership provides a strong starting point for Poplar Harca to carry out placemaking, but he stressed that getting the right partners together is necessary to take plans forward.
To date, placemaking improvements around Devons Road have generally occurred in isolation. Poplar Harca hopes to change that by undertaking a long-term scoping study to support a joined-up approach to planning. Led by David Black, Director at Leaside Planning, the scoping study imagines what Devons Road will look like in 2040 and works backwards to understand the partners and infrastructure needed to achieve that vision.
The study is in progress, but early findings anticipate better parks, schools and mixed-tenure housing. Changes to housing mix are likely to shift the socioeconomic profile of the area, but Poplar Harca is keen not to displace anyone and promotes a ‘no net loss’ policy for social housing and community amenities. For example, during regeneration of neighbouring St Paul’s Way, the demolished Burdett Estate mosque was redeveloped, with some elements created through a community co-design process.
Engaging with placemaking
As a contrast to the scoping study’s area-wide approach, Commonplace is an online platform for collecting and analysing public views on issues within neighbourhoods. In 2015, seeking a pilot project to showcase its approach, Commonplace partnered with Poplar Harca, who wanted to gather opinions about Devons Road. Mike Saunders, Director at Commonplace, explained that although Commonplace projects are based online, the feedback exercise was also promoted in pubs, churches, mosques and other community spaces to reach a wide range of people, including those who may not have digital skills or access.
Respondents praised green space and public space for young people – as long as they are well-designed and safe – but expressed concern about anti-social behaviour, traffic speeds and volume, and the large number of betting shops and takeaways. Many offered constructive feedback with suggestions for change or outright positive comments, giving insight to the spaces and types of improvement most valued by community members – particularly the harder to reach under-30s age group, who submitted half of all comments.
Supporting young people in education and employment
The high proportion of feedback from young people is not out of step with the proportion of young people living in Tower Hamlets: 47% of the population is under 30, compared to 40% in London and 37% in England. For Poplar Harca and several other local organisations, engaging and supporting these young people is central to building a community.
One such organisation is St Paul’s Way Trust School, a mixed campus-style school with 1,400 students from reception to sixth form. Jan Iley, Director of Enterprise and Employability, stressed the importance of local partnerships in delivering youth programmes, such as employment and mentoring schemes with JP Morgan and access to science labs and services for vulnerable youth with the neighbouring Prince’s Trust. The school also supports the wider community, offering training courses for local parents to run the sixth form café, work opportunities for former students, and use of facilities for community groups. Jan also credited the school with improving academic achievement and helping students feel less entrenched in their home postcodes.
Ricky Simmons and Moshin Hamim, Outreach Executives from the Prince’s Trust at the Morgan Stanley Centre, noted that many young people are loyal to Tower Hamlets and want to live or work locally. But while training opportunities are plentiful, they don’t always lead to jobs. Echoing Jan Iley, Ricky and Moshin consider local partnerships key to bridging this gap. For example, one recent Prince’s Trust programme helped young people qualify for Construction Skills Certification Scheme cards, then supported them into paid construction roles through partnerships with employers. Partnerships and networks also help the Prince’s Trust reach out to young people in the first place, such as through mosques, churches, career fairs and local festivals.
Living locally as young professionals
The Devons Road scoping study only needs to look towards nearby St Paul’s Square to catch a glimpse of how housing and demographics are changing. Mahbub Khandoker, Associate Director at Countryside Properties, explained that the scheme has renovated 335 homes from the post-war Leopold Estate and is delivering 486 new homes for completion in spring 2018, split 65%/35% between private sale and affordable rent. The development is encouraging an influx of young professionals from other parts of London using the Help to Buy shared ownership scheme, bringing a brand-new community to the area. Tenure-blind design, community centres and estate boards help newcomers and long-term residents mix with one another.
Symbolising the changes in the area is a large sculpture at the heart of St Paul’s Square. The sculpture resembles a rope to acknowledge the area’s past rope-making industries; each strand has a different pattern to identify various migrant communities throughout history. Sculptor Gary Drostle worked with students at St Paul’s Way Trust School on the design, showing another way for young people to engage with local history and placemaking.