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“Next decade will refocus our industry on community value”. Clare Richards on the importance of NLA’s Community Prize

We must celebrate and learn from projects that make a meaningful impact on the places where they’re located. NLA Community Prize responds to the need to put exemplary community design at the heart of London’s development and to celebrate and encourage very best practice.

The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of community and the key role people can play in making their communities more inclusive and resilient. Increasingly our industry is also understanding the value of local involvement in creating successful developments that deliver to users and investors alike. So if we are to inspire good practice into the future we must recognise and champion the very best of what we do. But what makes an exemplary community building? ftwork was involved in defining the stringent criteria for the launch of the Community Prize in 2019, when we also became its sponsor. The prize will be awarded to “the scheme that demonstrates the most positive and meaningful impact on the place where it is located” and is “exemplary in its response to the social context, contributing to a sense of local identity and helping communities to thrive”. Applicants must provide a statement of support from the community to demonstrate its involvement.

There were many good entries this year and with fellow assessors Olaide Udoh, Director at First Base and Kate Nottidge, Head of Engagement at Grosvenor Britain and Island, we arrived at the very strong shortlist of five. Most impressive is their range – in scale, type, funding and procurement. Together they demonstrate that, besides good design, successful community buildings are about respect for their social and physical context; about how they address local needs; and about the community’s role in their delivery. In short they all value and bring value to the places where they are located.

The gradual restoration of  Battersea Arts Centre, the huge Victorian former town hall, has been a 12-year labour of love on a limited budget, led by its occupants – multiple local creative businesses. In an equitable arrangement the design team at Haworth Tompkins became part of the programming team and the community part of the design team, together achieving their aim to fulfil a wider community and creative purpose. The result is an ingenious and much-used collection of flexible creative and performance spaces. We were impressed by how well local needs and potential were responded to.

Build-Up Hackney by contrast, is a revived outdoor public space resulting from a collaboration between young people aged 10-21 and local charity Build Up, which runs practical construction projects to enable them to ‘make real decisions and see the real-life impact they can have’. Located in a busy Homerton location, this project provides an exemplary model for others to follow: with excellent support the young team began from ground-up, by asking different generations of residents for their ideas. This informed their design which won the backing of Hackney Council. They then set about transforming an unsightly corner into a pocket park with swings and shaded seating, where people now choose to come. Quite apart from its success, those involved learnt valuable skills and succeeded in giving something of real value to their community.

St Mary Magdalene, G.E. Street’s beautiful church, stands at the heart of one of the UK’s most deprived wards. Grand Junction, by Dow Jones Architects is an infill extension between the listed church and adjacent school, providing a new focal point in a park that connects the canal path with the community. Providing a café, education facilities and new use for the undercroft, the project has transformed the role of an underused historic church into a busy hub for the diverse community. Close collaboration included volunteer design and heritage groups working alongside the design team; and volunteers and apprentices taking part in the construction. To quote the community’s endorsement, “the most important effect has been in raising local morale… This project, with its insistence on co-creation, has engaged many local people of different backgrounds, and has given them something to be proud of, of which they also now have a sense of ownership”.

International House Brixton, is more a design concept than a design. Social enterprise, 3Space provides affordable workspace, working with local authorities, businesses and developers to put empty commercial space to productive use for local benefit. In Brixton they have transformed a large council building for interim use, using their BuyGiveWork initiative: whereby for every space sold, one is given away rent free to local start-ups, creatives and non-profits. The 5 ‘Buy’ and 5 ‘Give’ floors, have been designed with the involvement of Assemble  among others. With minimal funding for renovation, every aspect was driven by its social purpose – from the mentoring ‘buy’ tenants must provide to ‘give’ tenants and the 22 new youth-led businesses, to the 5000 volunteers employed. The project demonstrates how creative, social and commercial purpose can work together to bring tangible benefits to communities.

Of all the short-listed projects Southbank Undercroft Skate Space, located underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall since the ‘70s, must be best known to Londoners. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ restoration came about as a result of the dogged determination of skaters, who approached the South Bank Centre about giving it the makeover it deserved. The project has extended this iconic space, restoring architectural features and creating new skateable elements, seating and lighting. Not apparent, though, is the careful engagement that took place, using social channels to ensure continuous involvement. Feedback at every stage and effective community decision-making has resulted in a huge increase in use. All involved grasped the opportunity to preserve the unique relationship between the skaters, Londoners and tourists, greatly extending the life of this rare piece of youth-led cultural infrastructure for future generations.

Each shortlisted project is a shining example to the industry. As the New London Awards celebrates its 10th year, the Community Prize  is heralding in a new era, by demonstrating what can be achieved with collaboration and a shared vision. With the pandemic as a catalyst, we believe the next ten years of awards will witness the power of the built environment to support and build community, refocusing attention on architecture’s social purpose.

Published online by New London Architecture, November 2020:

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