Building recovery field trip: Aberfeldy Estate regeneration

Owned and managed by Poplar HARCA, Aberfeldy is an estate and neighbourhood bounded by the A12, A13 and River Lea in East London. It is among the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. With regeneration work starting in 2012, Poplar HARCA and developer partner EcoWorld London are building more than 1,000 new homes, introducing new retail and workspace, implementing public realm improvements and active travel provision – all while working closely with the community to build a place that is welcoming, safe and secure for all. On July 28, Future of London visited the site to learn what Poplar HARCA and partners have been doing as part of FoL’s major 2021 project, Building recovery.

Masterplanning with and for the community

We started at the linear park which runs through the heart of the new Aberfeldy village. In its third development stage, 901 homes have already been delivered, 29% of which are affordable rent. The Aberfeldy masterplan was designed with residents to draw out its industrial history and connecting it to the wider area. As well as new homes for all existing and incoming residents, the scheme will also deliver new green spaces, health and community facilities.

“It’s all about people” said Jo McCafferty, Architect and Director at Levitt Bernstein. From the outset, the community has been at the heart of the masterplan design process – a commitment shared by Poplar HARCA and EcoWorld. All existing residents have been offered the option to remain living in Aberfeldy and Poplar HARCA have a ‘one move’ policy. In October 2020 a resident ballot saw a 91% voter turnout, with 93% of residents voting yes to the plans.

But regeneration schemes are long, and it is vital to respond to the changing needs of communities. Malcolm Ward, Project Director at Poplar HARCA explained how thinking has had to evolve throughout the scheme. Community consultations moved online, and the pandemic created a new desire for improved open space as well as spaces within homes that are suitable for working from home. These considerations have been incorporated into the new Aberfeldy masterplan.

Nurturing local enterprise

Aberfeldy’s high street is hard to miss. Colourful shop fronts of locally incubated business are adorned with patterns inspired by the Bangladeshi kantha tradition of recycling used textiles to make something new- a nod to the cultural heritage in the community. Poplar HARCA have taken a meanwhile approach to revitalising Aberfeldy Street which will eventually be redeveloped, nurturing local enterprise to build identity and a strong local economy. Working with existing and new tenants, Poplar HARCA has supported homegrown businesses in trialling and growing their businesses, providing a one-year rent-free period to new tenants, followed by below market rates.

On Aberfeldy Street we heard from local business owners Natalie Dinsmore and Leon Herbert – owners of local businesses More Life Home and Roots Barbers respectively. For both, Aberfeldy is home, and it was important to them to build their businesses there. One participant asked how decisions are made so that shops reflect what the community wants. Leon and Natalie explained that businesses are required to apply through Poplar HARCA and pitch their ideas. Leon said that this makes sure the High Street provides a mixture of shops and services and said the competitive process also helped build his confidence and refine his business plan. Poplar HARCA has also supported with the seemingly small things that have big impacts such as making stores wheelchair accessible and linking owners to different funding opportunities. The meanwhile nature of the high street allows for experimentation of what does and doesn’t work for the community, and better connections with residents means local enterprise can serve their needs better.

Local enterprise incubation continues past the high street and up the A12 to Poplar Works. The fashion and creative hub has been created from under-used garages to provide a community café, affordable workspace and exciting skills development and employment opportunities for the community. In Aberfeldy there has been an appetite for getting involved in the fashion industry, and there is existing talent in the community to build on.

Poplar Works is home to Making for Change, the outcome of a collaboration between students from the London College of Fashion and women’s prison HMP Downview. The project provides employment and training opportunities for women transitioning to more stable lives, as well as for the wider community. Running a series of creative projects with residents helped Poplar Works get to know them better and design a programme that was appropriate for their needs and wants.

From the high street to Poplar Works, Poplar HARCA and partners are clearly getting something right. Identifying local talent, listening to people’s needs and implementing effective schemes to improve the skills of local people and drive recovery are key features of the Aberfeldy regeneration. Central to this has been a flexible approach – like experimenting with meanwhile uses – allowing for adaptability over time.  Anyone working with local economic development or regeneration should look to this as a strong example of doing things the right way.

Youth-led design

Working with young people in the area to ensure Aberfeldy (both current and future) works for them has been a focus of the regeneration scheme. We heard from Dinah Bornat – Director at ZCD Architects – who has been leading the youth engagement process to incorporate a child-friendly approach and design into the Aberfeldy masterplan. She explained that we often exclude young people unintentionally from these processes, but they will be the generations growing up through the regeneration. Young people’s lives tend to change more quickly, but regeneration is long-term. Thinking about what works for young people has helped shape interim and meanwhile features in the scheme.

For Dinah, young people are experts – they tell us things we don’t know. Workshops saw them rank every aspect of Aberfeldy’s urban fabric by a traffic light system – every road, every green space, every crossing. This helped pinpoint locations in need of greater accessibility and connectivity, or places that would be better off car-free. Listening to children gives them voice, opportunity and power. It has given them the chance to influence things and are part of the change. Through this process the masterplan has evolved to cater for young people’s needs, and in doing so makes a place that is better for everyone.

‘Regeneration’ is not always welcomed by communities in London. Poorer residents are often displaced or segregated where some level of social housing is retained. But Poplar HARCA’s approach is built on the premise that for any investment to make a difference, residents need to shape the regeneration of where they live. The work Poplar HARCA is doing in Aberfeldy serves as an example of how to plan for the future while responding to immediate needs – something we can all learn from in recovery.