On January 25, Property X-Change and founding partner Cross River Partnership came together to facilitate a discussion about high street stewardship.
With reflections from the director of Brixton’s Business Improvement District, insights from the co-founder of Urban Symbiotics, and case studies from CRP’s report on Town Centre Futures, the event presented a wealth of inspiration for nurturing more diverse, dynamic, and durable high streets. Still, at the end of the discussion, one takeaway stood out above all: the key to successful stewardship is fierce collaboration.
- Gianluca Rizzo, Director of Brixton BID
- Stephanie Edwards, Co-founder of Urban Symbiotics
- Rachael Aldridge, Communications Project Manager at Cross River Partnership
The panel was moderated by Amanprit Arnold, Programme Manager in the GLA’s Regeneration Team and the GLA’s Project Manager for Property X-Change.
Brixton BID: stewards of a vibrant international community
Brixton BID is a not-for-profit organisation representing over 500 local businesses with a shared mission to create a resilient local economy.
Located in South London, Brixton is often referred to as the cultural capital of the UK’s Afro-Caribbean community in addition to being known for its vibrant day and nightlife. The area is rich in markets and small retail outlets and strong in hospitality, culture, and music opportunities. With the designation of the Brixton Creative Enterprise Zone, more affordable creative production space is being made available to the local community, furthering the district’s development as a creative tech and digital hub. In 2008, when the financial crisis challenged communities all over, Brixton launched the world’s first complementary local currency – the Brixton Pound – to help local businesses. Brixton is also home to many incredible people, including the Windrush generation and successful business start-ups such as Honest Burger and Franco Manca.
“We are pretty much ready to be fully independent as the Independent Republic of Brixton,” Gianluca teased, before emphasizing the core values of this constituency: diversity, inclusivity, equality, and justice.
In 2021, Brixton BID became the first Business Improvement District to build a partnership across the Atlantic. Following the murder of George Floyd, which sparked a global movement of people calling for justice, Brixton looked to Harlem’s 125th Street BID for inspiration on how to respond. In Harlem, the BID helped transform boarded-up shops into canvases for community expression. In Brixton, 36 banners were strung above the high street capturing messages of local significance. Later that year, a delegation of 10 Brixton representatives travelled to Harlem to further solidify this ‘bond across the pond’, formed by shared experiences of immigration, activism, gentrification, and creativity.
The ‘Brixton X Harlem‘ Festival may be the most tangible outcome of this collaboration. Funded by Lambeth Council, the inaugural festival saw Brixton host 36 free events and activities across 26 local venues over 5 days. The event presented panel discussions about change, new foods, embracing culture, and supporting creatives. Delegates from Harlem attended, of course, alongside the local community.
Gianluca expressed the importance of the event, and how it was a beautiful way to come together and celebrate shared values that will drive a better economy and society, whilst fostering amiable international relations.
“At a time of division, it is unity that can create better communities.”Gianluca Rizzo, Director of Brixton BID
Urban Symbiotics: bringing together diverse stewards of high streets
As the co-founder of Urban Symbiotics, Stephanie Edwards is a champion of research-led and people-centred design. Following a 4-step process, Urban Symbiotics aim to identify the true needs of a place before co-creating solutions with diverse communities, leading to the realisation of projects that fall naturally into local use and ownership.
Exemplifying this process in action, Stephanie spoke about their work on the Dagenham Heathway Regeneration Strategy, commissioned by BeFirst. The high street in North East London is in an area with a high youth population and a great diversity of ethnicities. Data analysed in collaboration with Transport for London found a combination of high footfall numbers and low dwell times, suggesting that people would go to the street for convenience but had few reasons to stay.
An aerial 3D drawing was used to map the under-utilised assets of the area, identifying the Heathway Shopping Centre as a prime target for intervention. The existing infrastructure of this large 1960s building provided the perfect conditions for Urban Symbiotics to ‘set up shop’ in the local community. Redesignating an empty retail unit as a community consultation hub, ‘My Heathway’ curated idea walls, hosted workshops, and sparked conversations about the future of the area.
“We spoke to groups that had different ability challenges, we had younger people, we had other charities come and use the space. But actually, it was part of testing how a space on the high street could be used. Not just in the daylight but also extending into the evening.”Stephanie Edwards, Co-founder of Urban Symbiotics
It was learnt that it is not just in the remit of the developer to affect change, nor is it the singular responsibility of the community. Everyone has a part to play. Responding to this sentiment, ‘My Heathway’ was soon renamed ‘Our Heathway’.
The Dagenham Heathway Regeneration Strategy was essentially a co-created approach using one area and its existing assets as a catalyst for change. Urban Symbiotics showed how co-creation can transform under-utilised spaces into inclusive and sustainable community-owned vibrant destinations, establishing ‘community ambassadors’ along the way.
Cross River Partnership: stewarding the exchange of knowledge between places and organisations
CRP is a public-private partnership working collaboratively with 9 local authorities, 17 business organisations, and 6 strategic agencies in Central London.
Bringing forward case studies from their recent report on Town Centre Futures delivered together with the Centre for London, Rachael Aldridge showed how themes such as air quality, transport, placemaking, and well-being are addressed throughout the capital.
Rachael highlighted three case studies:
- How The Hithe came to activate an underused site in Rotherhithe with the support of Southwark Council.
- How Lambeth is increasing the provision of creative workspaces, for example by incorporating 25 recording studios in the basement of the new Brixton House theatre.
- How Westminster Council is committed to redesigning streets to make them healthier and more child-friendly.
Later on, Rachael would reflect that while the report separates recommendations for BIDs, Councils, and businesses, the most powerful outcomes emerge when every one of these stakeholders is working together.
Stewards of a bright future for our high streets
The three presentations were followed up by a panel discussion, inviting members of the audience to contribute their questions and comments. The conversation delved further into the challenges that may be associated with high street stewardship from both an operational and cultural point of view.
“In the US, BIDs are often led by property owners, while in the UK they are led by tenants,” Gianluca revealed, “Yet in both instances, there is inequality; everyone must contribute to the BID, but not everyone has the same means to do so.”
“You never know who is best placed to take on a stewardship role of a place,” said Stephanie, “which is why we have to create platforms that help unlock people’s skills.”
The final question of the day vocalised what may be on many people’s minds: should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of high streets? Our panellists picked optimism. After all, what are these spaces if not the constant spine of our communities through centuries of change?
- Gianluca Rizzo, Brixton BID
- Stephanie Edwards, Urban Symbiotics
- Rachael Aldridge, Cross River Partnership
- Amanprit Arnold, GLA
- PX Feature: Town Centre Futures
Edited by Camilla Siggaard Andersen & Tabitha Harvey-Crowe