The next big thing is a lot of small things

19 August 2019

The Next Big Thing


We need to reimagine our High Streets.

Bow Arts and Notting Hill Genesis are pioneering a new approach to Placemaking around creative enterprise at Royal Albert Wharf.

Out of town shopping, the internet, economic boom and bust. For the past decade, we have been watching the decline of the High Street. Businesses move out as needs change, leaving boarded-up thoroughfares in their place.

The development cycle is slow, too. New developments are being completed with huge double-height retail units at their base which were designed to attract high-street shops and casual dining. Yet as more household names go into receivership and the markets shift, many of these retail units are never fitted-out and remain behind hoardings.

Our High Streets used to be the centres of our communities: places to visit and meet friends and neighbours while going about our daily lives. These spaces drive the social life, economy and atmosphere of a neighbourhood.

In the face of the terminal decline of the High Street, we need to reimagine what a successful centre looks like. How do you make the intangible qualities of community and civic pride real, in an economic system that stands up to scrutiny?

At Royal Albert Docks in East London, Nottinghill Genesis has taken a new approach.

Royal Albert Docks was one of the first London Plan projects commissioned by the GLA. Working to an overall masterplan by Maccreanor Lavington, FCBStudios are working on three projects within the 6.2ha site, to develop a new residential neighbourhood and sustainable community around the historic docks.

Rather than creating a mood board of the kind of commercial and retail development they might previously have wanted to attract, Notting Hill Genesis instead looked to allow what grew naturally to take over.

Bow Arts were invited to pioneer this new approach, taking on the placemaking strategy as facilities manager for Royal Albert Wharf alongside 36 affordable creative workspaces.

Bow Arts’ mission is to support community renewal by delivering arts and creative services through their financially sustainable social enterprise model. With a dozen sites across London providing artists’ studios, gallery spaces and schools education programmes, their workspace schemes support over 500 artists with affordable safe spaces to work and grow.

Their social enterprise model aims to translate between the developers and the local people, to manage the outcomes, create trust and bring people in.

The backbone of the strategy is to provide affordable, flexible, friendly, creative workspace for artists, makers, designers, and other creative practices. The model offers affordable rents with flexible terms, which in turn creates a market and results in high occupancy. Because the occupied units aren’t subsidising empty ones, rents remain affordable.

This virtuous circle of occupancy and economics means it is possible to move very swiftly to 100% occupancy, activate the site with a strong creative presence and kick start interest in the area in a wide range of ways. Bow Arts studios remain at 95% occupancy across all sites and have done for 25 years.

Communities build up and professional networks flourish. People share contacts and contracts, promoting and engaging each other, creating new markets for growth and engendering a sense of pride and ownership for the area. With the growth of the creative community, so the residential community will also grow.

Large new developments take time to establish. As the phases of development progress, hoardings are a familiar landmark for those who move in early. Using their networks of artists and educators, Bow Arts are able to put in place a programme of meanwhile use in empty units that aren’t yet ready for full-time occupation and curate art, education and events programmes in spaces across the site. This sense of activity, ownership and care helps to develop a sense of place and belonging.

Arts, education, placemaking and community all go hand in hand. Investing in local projects means that a larger share of money spent will stay in the local areas. For example, an independent local café will use local suppliers, employ local people, get involved in local training schemes and spend its profits locally, whereas an international chain is more likely to channel the money and community benefit elsewhere.

During the early stages of development, a standalone café wouldn’t be able to exist economically. At Royal Albert Wharf, Bow Arts committed to opening a public café at weekends only. This café, RAW Labs, is a community hub for Royal Albert Wharf, which during the week hosts an ever-changing programme of events and workshops open to the public and acts as a training hub. At the weekend it is a great place to meet friends for a coffee.

A recent training scheme used the space to offer a 10-week course in food hygiene, health and safety and skills for the hospitality industry and in doing so ensured the space remained inhabited and paid its own way. At the end of the course, the students set up a stall at the weekend market to prove their new skills with real customers and get feedback to take into their new careers.

As the site develops, and the Royal Albert Wharf community expands, many small actions add up to create a new neighbourhood with a strong sense of place, a feeling of longevity and plenty of reasons for people to want to live there.

Bow Arts founder Marcel Baettig and Project Manager Joss Taylor talked at FCBStudios about place, art, education and community during the London Festival of Architecture, in conjunction with the Places Between exhibition. FCBStudios are working on three schemes for Notting Hill Genesis within Royal Albert Wharf. Great Eastern Quays, which is currently on site, and two schemes on Gallions Reach.


Top: RAW Labs at Royal Albert Wharf hosts an ever-changing series of events and workshops that are open to the public, including weekly art classes for children, life drawing classes, film screenings, workshops, exhibitions, talks, and more. The space also has a cafe, serving the best coffee in town!  Photo (c) Rob Harris for Bow Arts

1. Simple spaces allow artists to modify the studios to suit their needs and easy licence agreement allows flexibility for artists (c) Agnese Sanvito for Bow Arts.

2. A broad range of artists\, makers and creatives have workspaces at Royal Albert Wharf (c) Rob Harris for Bow Arts.

3. Community spaces\, galleries and temporary space provide a forum for events of many kinds which bring people together (c) Rob Harris for Bow Arts.

4. A residency programme activates space that might otherwise sit empty and provides affordable workspace and opportunities for artists (c) Rob Harris for Bow Arts.

5. Placemaking in action (c)Rob Harris for Bow Arts.