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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Development Perspective: The Changing Landscape of Dalston

7 December 2020
As Dalston becomes subject to increasingly invasive development projects, Lewis Duncan discusses the insensitivity of these proposals and what they could mean for the people who live and work there

People continue to flow down the local high street or convene in squares and commons, coming into close proximity with more than six, trying not to think about the lockdown. There are great disparities of behaviour, bending social distance rules, breaching 2m, some with masks and some without. That aside, commuting in London has the same attitude – masks are no different, most of us weren’t smiling at each other on the bus or tube anyway. The surrounding city expounds my frustration. A complex environment for us to navigate becomes more difficult with a pronounced underlying anxiety about health. Inclusive and considerate future design is presented as a glimpse post-covid, but I imagine we will continue as we were, just with extra-restrictions; restrictions that differ in tone to positive alternative futures.

I see few visceral design changes in the city for helping interpret confusing government guidelines and prioritise safety. Meanwhile, the public spaces that have retained relevance for the community during the pandemic are unsafe, separate from health – they are under attack by persisting forces that are harming and manipulating London. 

In Dalston, near where I grew up, the uncertainty is aggravating the ongoing existential crisis of community and public space, where the latter exists precariously. Gentrifying developments are making a flank manoeuvre on this area in Hackney, North London. The rampant development mindset and process sweeps the carpet from under the feet of those living or working somewhere with ‘growth-potential’. Agency is robbed and there isn’t time to consider the community’s plight, because the city works its magic quickly. Boris says “Build build build”, adding fuel to the fire of an already gung-ho model, overshadowing the nuance of ‘what, why, where and who’ questions.

One example which we must not let slip under the radar is Ridley Road market and the proposed development of the Ridley Road Shopping Village building into new office spaces and apartments. The #SaveRidleyRoad campaign opposes this step in the direction of a familiar tale of middle-class osmosis into a working class area, which has already begun at worrying speed across Dalston. In the face of a housing market crash and vast empty office spaces in the city, with an evolving office culture due to Covid, you couldn’t pick a worse time to uproot the sixty artists and makers, and those who have used the building as retail and storage units, for the past decade.

The shopping village was purchased in 2016 for £6.5m by Larochette Real Estate Inc., and​ in late 2019 Rainbow Properties submitted amended proposals, with enormous collateral damage: 28 suspended market stalls will be moved to provide a clear path to the site and to prevent conflict between stalls and construction vehicles. Ridley Road Market’s 150+ traders are permitted to work hours from 8am-4.30pm during Coronavirus. For the duration of the build there will be increased traffic and vehicle access along the road. Not during market hours but traders set-up at the crack of dawn and can stay on till late, so will undoubtedly be affected.

A stone’s throw away, the Barratt Homes development of Dalston Square is an abscess in the heart of Dalston. The library there got me through GCSEs and A-levels, and is a refuge for regular locals. But the library does not justify the rest of the plot, which is devoid of character, a sparse modern strip. The example can help us grasp the significance of #SaveRidleyRoad as Covid looms large.

Another strong-hold of the community is on the other side of the high street from Ridley Road. Gilet Square is unique in the face of most (new) community spaces in the UK. It’s busy until late with people eating and drinking, playing cards, skating, or attending a show at the Vortex or Dalston Jazz Bar. Gilet is also in danger of change, although a development from Hackney Co-Operative Developments (HCD) prides itself on a better design ethos.

Too often those ostensibly improving the city lack the empathy required to effectively understand the importance of community, built-in, rather than as an initiative or sound-bite.

Finn Williams of Public Practice and David Chipperfield for the Guardian highlight the problem of quantity driven policy pushed by Build Build Build, and how the rhetoric can muddy understanding of good infrastructure. Essentially, they argue, we need a returning of power; “empower planners to be proactive and creative, to demand quality and shape development’’. But gov.uk states that builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes. Development critically concentrated in the city will only be intensified by these new guidelines.

Jestico + Whiles architects have designed a sleek glass and brick facade for the Shopping Center, a line of balconies on the third storey to look down on the market, topped with a zig-zag steel roof that pokes out like a line of docked battle-ships. Bench seating with planters are placed in-front – but why, and for whom? It doesn’t need this type of pause circulation, every inch of the street is used as market space. This building would stick-out like a sore thumb, rather than embedding itself and assimilating. While gentrification seems inevitable, it can on occasion manifest with consideration to history and character. Here, there is apparently no consideration for surrounding buildings because it’s so drastically different, an architecture anticipating that soon enough, similar boring rich friends will join the party.

Why design as an incendiary, when you can strive for inclusivity? Taking on a project in a charged and active space requires relatively simple extra steps in the design and research process that can make significant improvements for the preservation of community.

#SaveRidleyRoad won’t succumb to the inevitable. On August 20th Alfredo Broccolo’s new film Ridley Road 2020: A Street Market Under was screened onto the Shopping Center. I came to the event with friends, all having grown-up in the area, thinking we were clued-up on the value of the market despite not shopping there on a regular basis. We came away having our own bubbles burst. Regulars, local flaneurs, looked up and nodded or clapped as they passed through on their way to play cards on the fold out chairs and tables at the corner of Ridley Road and St Mark’s Rise.

Adam PD who lives locally and composed the music for the film expressed his concerns:

“I think people would be more willing to accept change if there was more consideration taken for those that the developments are affecting. But as it stands the local government has taken no care in dealing with the traders of Ridley Road.”

After the film screening we strolled back down the road past the Market Bar which sits beside the proposed development, and sustains the buzz of Ridley Road until the early hours of the morning. As we approach the end of the street, where Ridley meets Dalston Lane we stumble across more evidence of Ridley’s energy. Ridley Road Social Club was offering an open-mic jam-sesh in a large newly refurbished space, tucked away, without any exterior suggestion of a laptop friendly cafe with hanging plants and vinyls for sale. The dirt and grime painted over the shopfronts and warehouses are a veneer of value and behind them there is the potential for varied and interesting small businesses.

A specific objection on the Open Dalston forum makes a valid point about the night time economy: “There is a popular neighbouring licensed premises with permitted hours extending to 3.30am on Thursday-Saturday. Absent extensive acoustic insulation, Ridley Road is unsuitable for noise-sensitive uses.” Introducing middle-class residential lets could incur a conflict of interest, when those trying to sleep will be met by those frequenting the road loudly, throughout the night, as has been the case since the market came into being. 

Further objections on the forum address the planning authority not appearing to have undertaken an equalities impact assessment of the proposal; “only 10% will be reserved as “affordable” and this is defined by the applicant as 80% of market rent whereas the Council’s policy LP29 C ii provides for 60% of market rent.” Or how ¼ of stalls will be moved for the duration of the build. A build where, I want to stress, there is already a building. It displaces black and minority ethnic businesses providing an essential service to Hackney residents. Impact to communities is key here, although apparently difficult for officials to understand.

Capitalism is less neoliberal in an open space like Ridley Road market, where competitors know each other and have no desire to bankrupt each other. The market harking and rustling of bags and shopping trolleys contribute to the vibrancy of the market, a vibrancy conducive to a pace and rhythm that will be unfamiliar to those with ‘developer money’. Thus the new design, the changing of Dalston and of London, is dissonant.

The latest step in the campaign is the formulation of a 5 point manifesto for the preservation and standards for respect of Ridley Road and the community. The cultural and heritage significance, the Afro-Caribbean community’s interests, the market extends to the whole street and its architecture – it must be preserved, the music, art and culture needs to be protected, and the market as an asset of community value recognised by Hackney, should extend to the whole of Ridley Road.

It would be devastating for Ridley Road to be morphed into something it’s not. Unfortunately Tory blasé attitudes on social justice will be slow to pick-up on the clash between ‘build, build, build’ and the appropriate relationship between community and architecture. When it comes to developers, the profession is just another job, but the antagonism that is paired with development highlights the widespread consciousness of the impact ill-conceived projects can have on communities.

At a recent Dalston Social Club event, a mix of jazz and spoken word, I saw Trisha Waku perform. Waku is a student and grew up in the area; her poetry points the finger at those she sees defaming her home, and appeals for empathy:

 

Face of a Rebel

Tell me about your plans to destroy me and my livelihood.

Black girl from the ghetto, yes that description should fit me really good.

Tell me how much pride you’ll take watching me suffer – slowly.

Tell me how many cheques it’ll take to make our community sad and lonely.

Tell me why you think your life is more valuable than mine.

Tell me why your egotistical trade should dictate mine.

Tell me why my childhood memories are worth the compromise.

Solid in form, solid in uniform.

The face of this rebel does not commit to your reforms.

Tranquil in the mind, but so vicious in the soul.

When this rebel face arises,

get ready for the storm.

You can object to the planning here: https://www.saveridleyroad.com/write-hackney-council-a-letter-of-o

Words and images, Lewis Duncan