Reverse Commute

I’m sure it used to be the case that people would travel into the city to their places of work. It was briefly the case for me and my last job in commercial practice when I used to travel towards Euston via the Victoria line - the public transit interface / lifeline to all of Hackney as well as all those who stepped on the property ladder further north east - packed by the time I would meet it at Highbury and Islington where the long orange threads of the overground are plaited together and forced underground. The absolute drudgery of the journey was slightly tempered by the fact I’d always managed previously (bar one job in West London, like stepping daily into a alternative London entirely and an experience not to be repeated) to have jobs within walking or fair-weather cycling distance of my home.

I happily gave all that up a year ago when I stopped working in practice; between then and now (besides my university jobs) I have variously worked at home, at other people’s homes, and at the local library, each with increasing inefficiency. I’ve never had a studio but I recently reached a natural state of understanding why people get them for working on their own shit. It’s not just about space. It’s not just about seeing other people and it’s also not just about unlimited wifi or not wanting to have the heating on at home during the day. It’s all of those and a bit more. It might be that paying for space makes you more motivated to use it. Well it is partly that, but also that the brain, my brain needs a clearly designated Place of Work...

So here I am in a studio at the other end of the Victoria line out in Tottenham, joining a group of fellow architects also trying to ‘make it’ on their own terms. The other thing that unites us is that we all travel further out from Hackney, Homerton, Archway and Green Lanes where we live, to get here, our place of work. I locate the studio on my old Premier Map of London, it is just within the frame of the survey, a few roads (or short car ride) away from being cut off entirely.

The studio, at the edge of London

I don’t know this part of London well though it has a familiar city fringe feel...larger supermarkets, bigger roads, bigger terraces all with parking out front, cars cars cars signalling the suburbs beyond. My studio is in a warehouse (natch), actually more like a collection of warehouses, and not just shells of another use and time since there remains an abundance of noisy, smelly light industry here butted up against rows of terraces.

Housing up against light industry

I needed to supplement my meagre packed lunch, in lieu of a corner shop I took a walk to the local Lidl nestled in a retail park. Such places are simply not designed to be approached by foot; active frontage or enticing shop window forget about it and there actually isn’t a logical footpath from pavement to shop, instead I picked my way across a vast and crowded car park to reach the sliding front doors. There were more shops within the forecourt than I’d expected; I hadn’t seen any signs before entering, but then any advertisements wouldn’t have been for me on foot but for those on wheels.

Around 40 years ago, these parts of the city were the logical place to stick single-storey, single-use shopping containers, their forms have a kind of relationship with the neighbouring industrial sheds, I suppose, but arranged around slack forecourts designated for the car, not the body and certainly not the eye, these enclaves suck the urban-ness right out of a zone that is hinter-, not actual, suburbia.

So I travel away from the centre of London to work and the city spreads outwards too, of course, but increasingly with intent and not in the manner of sprawl which implies a kind of thinning of the quality of city. I am still in London, I don't travel to a desk in the suburbs. With me, and this phase of expansion, a mix of use, activity and scale will also flow outwards, reinforcing the edge, as it were, against the suburbs leaking in.



I made a website for my zine



My photographic series capturing architectural characters in Homerton is currently being exhibited at Hackney arts venue Chats Palace


Making Places

I spent two months over the summer pounding the streets of New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong with the aim of understanding approaches to community driven public realm.

The idea was to uncover strategies from these dense commercial cities that could be applicable to London, though I returned to capital to discover a similarly aimed initiative taking place under my nose - or at least north-eastwards of my nose - in my neighbouring borough of Waltham Forest.

Under the banner Making Places, and in partnership with arts organisation Create London, the borough asked residents to nominate sites that they felt were unloved and could be transformed through arts projects. From this initial canvassing 20 sites were selected - one in each ward - with designers then invited to submit proposals.

A smart initiative I thought, one that supports improvements in public realm in the places they are really wanted. I hope it's a success because it seems to me the kind of procurement route for community amenities that could be replicated in other boroughs. I visited the sites on a sunny day, they ranged from spaces within large parks to alleys, verges and the side of a building.

Regardless of any physical variance, the projects will be delivered for 40k each, not a huge amount, though it implies a scale and approach that is more local and will naturally draw in younger and perhaps less established designers.  Which is another way of saying that I have entered along with fellow public realm enthusiast Beni Rogers. We chose a few sites, and we hope we are successful.

Making Places sites (5 more still TBC)


"People make places, not planners"

A quote from my meeting with Becky Lee, an architect I met recently in London, who trained in Glasgow and has been running her own small practice Studio T+S here in Hong Kong for over a year. Our conversation reinforced my research to date; the prevalence of privately owned public space in HK and the increasing tendency for these to be located above the ground. The latter is an emergent trend in London most infamously characterised by Vinoly’s tower on Fenchurch Street, with its ludicrous Sky Garden that can scarcely be classed a public space when a visit requires forward planning.

Becky Lee in the T+S Studio

Becky is currently working on a self-initiated design project for a public park near her home in the city suburbs; an active space that stretches along the waterfront, used by pedestrians, fishermen and cyclists. There are plans, however, led by the municipal Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), to annexe a portion of the length and transform it into a ‘quiet park’, thus terminating the cycle route. One of the reasons given is to mitigate against dangerous cyclists, and light pollution from night fisherman and their torches. As Becky suggest, people are quite good at creating their own usable public space, here, as I see it, the planned space, to be inserted from above is more of a form of a control than provision of amenity.

Becky's sketch of the proposed 'quiet park'

Somewhat ominously, though the plan has yet to be formally agreed or implemented, it is already labelled on Google Maps as a Waterfront Park prefixed by the name of an adjacent developer, Tseung Kwan O.

The LCSD park is already marked on Google Maps, prefixed by the name of a developer

As the government’s plan enters a second stage of consultation, Becky intends to present an alternative proposal to both the local community and LCSD, one that perhaps formalises some of the activity (better segregation of bicycles from pedestrians) but permits them to co-exist. I’ll be visiting the space later this week.


Final Phase

I'm in Hong Kong for the final part of my Travel Fellowship


Walk / Don't Walk

Walking around New York's gridded streets, which enforce a strictly orthogonal circulation, I spent an awful lot of time waiting to cross the street at busy junctions. If the opportunity arose, I'd make like a local (or a Londoner) and dart across oncoming traffic in full violation of an upheld neon red palm.

Jaywalking in NYC...

Here in Tokyo, road crossing rules are reinforced by a strong law-abiding culture to the extent that they feel impossible to defy without making an open statement about foreign belligerence. If the red man is showing the pavement edge fills up with patient pedestrians at clear and busy roads alike, like a crowd spread across the bank of a slow moving river, with none willing to jump in and splash across. Consequently I am spending inordinate amounts of time sweltering at crossings (Tokyo in July is averaging 34°C, edging just two degrees over NYC, but what a difference those two little degrees makes). And the lights seem to take an age to change.

Waiting at the lights in Tokyo...

It's easier to understand now why the Shibuya Crossing - yes, really just a pedestrian crossing, albeit a big one - is such an iconic spectacle. It's not just the agility of crossers avoiding each other as they walk headlong towards one another; it's the exact stop / release. The choreography is clean and precise, with no messy jaywalkers ruining the performance: now we walk, now we stop.


Play Time

I caught up with Tokyo Play at a wonderful, messy play event they arranged at Kawasaki City Park for Children.

Their ambition is to identify and increase opportunities for play within the city, I'm due to meet with them again later in the week to learn more.

I also got talking to Free Space Tamariba, who organise and maintain the Park itself which came out of a bylaw in 2000 protecting childrens' rights. The park is a venue for their school, established in 1991 aimed at children no longer in mainstream education, according to their research this is around 1 in 27 children with social anxiety given as a major factor.

The park, then, which came about through successful negotiation with local government, is an essential component in pursuing their manifesto.


Second Leg

I'm in Tokyo for the second part of my Travel Fellowship


The Highline...

..really is magnificent.

Given how readily this narrow elevated park is referenced as an aspirational example of landscaping within developments of almost any scale, it is easy to forget the project's community driven origin (a fact also belied by the quality of execution).

The site of the park, an abandoned former elevated railway line in south west Manhattan, had been slated for demolition by Mayor Giuliani in the late 90s. But the Mayor underestimated the significance of this local landmark, and its threatened removal led to a citizen led campaign, supported in particular by the gay community of the West Village, to turn the disused piece of infrastructure into a public amenity.
Early on, the campaign initiated a design competition as a means of visioning and of galvanising support. It proved a successful approach and the park was eventually delivered under Mayor Bloomberg late 2000, its extension just a few years later up into Hudsons Yards in 2014 is testament to the fact its popularity has completely outstripped all expectation.


..and release..

Spaces within spaces

It's easy to see the appeal, it is lush, it is calm, it is above the traffic; no endless waiting at street crossings. Though it is long and linear, the planting and canny layering of closed and open views, of compression and release and the sense of spaces within spaces, is so carefully calibrated as to continuously lead you gently on without monotony

I would go everyday if I could.


City Parks

I made a whistle stop tour of a few Manhattan parks created by developers in return for additional floor area. That system works well in areas of the city that are attractive to big money, which is why the NYC DOT Plaza Program is so heavily in favour of siting new spaces in lower income areas where developers aren't falling over themselves.

Greenacre Park

I was in Manhattan late afternoon, well after what I assumed would be the busiest time for these spaces - lunchtime. They were still all well occupied and not, as one might assume, exclusively by office workers. I noted the number of elderly people, and the number of people reading.

Clearly then, these spaces are not community driven or bottom up, but they inspire approaches to design (all the ones I visited had a water feature, which as well as providing visual interest, drown out traffic noise substantially) and demonstrate well that the size of an amenity is not proportional to its use or value.

Paley Park


Interference Archive

And a well spent afternoon over at the Interference Archive, a completely volunteer run resource, gallery and venue, that recognises the link between cultural production and social movements. Books, zines, posters, banners, leaflets, stickers, badges and more act as record and display, there to be pored over at leisure by any interested person from the shelves, boxes, drawers, and erm, clothes lines.

Daniel gave me a little tour of the collection, showing me some of the rarer pieces such as original copies of Black Panther Magazine; I’ve read the latest Tate exhibition ‘Soul of a Nation’ has copies of the same, though I very much doubt I'd be able to handle those as I was these...

By way of thanks I offered up some copies of my ‘zine ROMP, I was delighted to hear they’d go into the collection.

The Lot

On a drizzly morning I made my way over to The Lot Radio, which, as the name, and logo, makes clear, is a (digital) radio operating out of a formerly disused lot. This was actually my second visit, having stopped by for the 4th July block party a few nights before, a fun night, but it was good to see the radio in its quieter, workaday mode.

4th July block party at the Lot Radio
In what remains an industrial part of the Brooklyn, the little triangular plot housing the radio was the site of a gas station after the war. By the 60s it was unused, standing as a ruin until the mid 90s when the City demolished the structure and sold the site on the cheap.

The radio has been operating out of the space for a year now. I met with owner Francois Vaxelaire who used to live nearby and had had his eye on the gated lot for some time, feeling - with the rest of the neighbourhood - the sense of an opportunity missed.

A small hand written ‘For Lease’ sign posted in April 2015 was enough to ignite the idea of a digital radio, something US-based to rival Red Light Radio in Amsterdam or NTS in London, and Francois took on a labyrinthine, bureaucratic process to realise the ambition. Given the opaqueness of that ill-defined process, it seems a significant part of the success of the radio is down to Francois’ simple persistence, and having learned through the experience, he is now involved with a small business task force; an attempt to create a little more transparency for others.

One issue in securing the lease was identifying the municipal authorities that had to be engaged (many, it transpired) given the proposed use was not so easily categorised. The other was formally defining the architecture of digital broadcasting. Since the lease couldn't be applied to an activity, only a building, it now operates out of repurposed container which overreaches its functional requirements to meet the stringent regulations of a habitable structure.

Half of the container houses the radio while the other accommodates a cafe that crucially generates enough income for the enterprise to be self supporting. During the time I spoke with Francois, people dropped by, got a coffee, sat down and hung out.

I wondered if there were any fears that the success of the radio might be its undoing, unwittingly becoming a meanwhile space by increasing the profile and value of the site, but it seems any future developer would be quite constrained by the industrial zoning laws and the need to remediate the site. Beyond this, there is also the way the project - with its aims to be ‘neighbourhood friendly; a radio, not a spectacle’ - has become a community asset, developing for example a symbiotic relationship with the adjacent church which regularly stages Lot events.

Later we take a walk to a nearby new hotel development with a landscaped park on its roof. This space has its legacy in planning measures that allow developers to offset additional floor area against the provision of public space. The spaces are meant to be signposted as publicly accessible, but this one isn't, in fact, its entry up a stair at a point furthest from the street seems decidedly private, and even once up, it has a hushed, corporate feel. The Lot, meanwhile, is open on all sides.


'People tend to sit where there are places to sit'

The same afternoon I met with Priti Patel, Senior Design Associate at Project for Public Spaces, an organisation created directly out of the pioneering public realm work of William H Whyte (as quoted in the title of this post). I learnt about their vital role as facilitators between the top down and bottom up in public realm work; PPS always work with a local partner for example regardless of the commissioning client. Following on from my conversation with Andrew Ronan at DOT I learned more too about the importance of programming a space to bring people there intentionally and encourage change in perception, from my experience there seems to be less critical focus on this element in London.

A nice bonus to the conversation was the opportunity to pick up a glaring omission from my personal library.

And while I don't have a time lapse camera to set up in an elevated spot, I like to think Whyte would approve of my observer’s kit bag...


I spent the 4th of July walking around Brooklyn, gaining my bearings, sketching, sound recording and adjusting to the heat before celebrating at a block party.

The 5th thus, began in earnest scholarship mode with a visit to the Department of Transportation in Lower Manhattan; a tall Manhattan-esqe building complete with vast foyer, bag scanning, marble finishes and banks of elevators.

I was there to meet Andrew Ronan of DOT to discuss the NYC Plaza Program; a framework for community organisations to partner with the DOT in order to transform underused streets into neighbourhood public spaces.

Note taking furiously for an hour I learned how the Program came into being, what work goes into making an active plaza, some of the spaces that have been created, how the application process works, the practicalities of the partnership and its current ambitions given it is nearly a decade old.

Originating in the Bloomberg administration’s 2007 PlaNYC economic and sustainability plan - which included the ambition that all New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walking vicinity of quality open space - the Program was launched just a year later and continues in place under the current Mayor, Bill de Blasio. Since then, 73 new plazas have been or are in the process of being created (52 are open to the public) with priority weighted towards neighbourhoods that lack open space.


Plaza priority areas in the 5 boroughs - Source NYC DOT

In order to enter the competitive application process, a community organisation needs to be formalised within certain criteria - a necessary measure since they will be committed to managing, maintaining and programming the space for 9 years in exchange for DOT closing a segment of the street then funding the design and construction of the space. Such groups will generally have already expressed an interest in creating a neighbourhood amenity, and might be steered toward the Plazas Program such that, as Andrew explained, the receipt of their application is anticipated.

Beyond the contractual obligation, the community group becomes the face of that intervention which can be crucial in avoiding the pernicious charge of city sponsored gentrification (the new plazas are identifiable across NYC by their bonded gravel, granite bollards and coloured chairs). To that end, all projects within the Program begin with a minimum of 2 public consultations, one of which might form a kind of 1 day representation of what the plaza could be.

It is an excellent scheme that seems to work well as a kind of mediator between top down and bottom up with tangible results. It was heartening to learn that in many cases a group might go on to champion other local causes as they galvanise their core, gain in confidence and learn more about how to access relevant municipal assistance. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the completed plazas across the city.



I'm embarking on the first leg of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship - studying community driven public realm in dense cities - in NYC.
And what better day to arrive than the 4th of July



Taking its cue from the music zines I bought by the dozen as a teenager in the suburbs, I have finally, painstakingly put together issue one of ROMP.

ROMP is an architectural publication that references culture more broadly - more akin to those DIY zines - than the regular architectural press, presenting the field with a little more irreverence, humour and politics.

ROMP #1 is available now for FREE, either in person or via Royal Mail
- message me your address and I'll drop in it the post.