Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Remarkable examples of beautiful and truly generous design are popping up all around the world. By generous, I mean places designed for people to use, enjoy and improve – at no cost and for no profit.  Here are five examples of which I am a big fan.

1. Copenhagen Harbour Baths, Denmark

I first visited the harbour baths when they opened in 2002. To this day I would still say that they are the single greatest example of generous and intelligent design anywhere in the world.  

The baths form part of Copenhagen harbour and are in water that only 15 years ago was so heavily polluted with sewage, algae, oil spills and industrial waste that it posed a tremendous health risk. Today, after extensive work on behalf of Copenhagen municipality, the water is clean for swimming and the harbour hosts five pools, two of which are for children, and three diving areas, catering for more than 600 people at any one time. On the bank, umbrellas and chairs have turned the area into a city centre beach. This is a remarkable area filled with leisure activities for all age groups.

 This is clearly not a PR stunt. This is magnificent generous design at work.  It has allowed people to colonise this once harbour area and make it one of the most popular spots in the city. I think it has been so successful and affective for four reasons:

1. It is different, edgy and it breaks the rules. Swimming in a harbour? With big ships? Open to hundreds of people at one time and unguarded diving boards! It is exciting and inviting and you know if you lived there you would have to have a go. 

2. The design is both beautiful and unique. Clearly, the function of a public bath would always be popular, but take a look it at. People cannot stop photographing it; social media pages and photo sites are filled with pictures taken from every angle. The look of it means people want to share their experience of being there and to talk about it.  Given nowadays many live by Twitter and Instagram, the baths do as good as any job in getting a place in front of people. Fantastic promotion.

3. It is not overly policed. The signs are ‘swim at your own risk’. You get to make your own decision. How liberating is that? Can you imagine this in a canal or somewhere in the UK? Health and safety alone would heavily alter it. Tight rules and restrictions are not part of the game here. Just enjoy yourselves.

4. It is free.  It’s genuinely for everyone. 

And, I should add, it cost just over £0.5m. It is staggering what can be achieved for what is, comparatively, an affordable amount for most cities. These baths have been so popular that another one just like them was opened at nearby Amager Strand Beach in January this year. This is place people want to copy. It is replicable because it works.  Just remarkable. 

2. Magdeburg Library, Germany 

Magdeburg, Germany, hosts an open air 24-hour free library. To do something so interesting in a city that is not a capital is really special. The rest of the story is even more interesting.

The industrial city was once part of East Germany and since reunification its city centre has had trouble recovering, with commercial vacancy rates approaching 80%. An extraordinary effort was made to create this open-air library after interest was expressed by residents, and it is remarkable that they pulled it off.

The library, designed by Karo architects, was initially assembled as a 1:1 scale made out of donated beer crates to demonstrate to potential supporters that the library could work. The community then raised enough money to build it. This is not just about an open-space library – it is also completely accessible to everyone. No registration is required. The 70,000 books available are borrowed on an honour system and it is staffed during the day by volunteers.

To do things like this, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. And if you do, people will respond positively. In this case the benefit of being created by the community really works. The design and the place is so impressive and shows how simple it can be to offer something extraordinary to everyone.

3. Merida Youth Factory, Spain

The scale of this project in Spain is mind blowing. Described as ‘less a junky jungle gym and more a creative community centre’, the array of activities on offer is staggering, ranging from rock climbing to dancing. A skate park winds through the plazas connecting the buildings (almost all the ground is actually skateable), and there is a concert stage, lessons in street art lessons, circus training and, if you head indoors, music and dance.  And the whole place has Wi-Fi.  Have you ever seen anything like it?

This is such a draw for kids of all ages. The design is just brilliant – modern, vibrant and fresh. 
I am particularly enamoured with the approach towards skating. It really feels like it has been designed by people who know what skaters want. There are no assumptions and most importantly of all it is also not tucked away in a car park or somewhere the public cannot see. The message is that skating should be promoted, exposed and watched.  
Equally, it’s not just about skating. The activities are for all ages, interests and skills. The place itself is so colourful and open (designed inside out) it stops it turning into something shady or dangerous.  This is as good as it gets –  a purpose built modern version of a youth club.  

4. Stormwater pipes, India

This installation in India feels so right for the area it inhabits. Stormwater pipes are a common sight through cities in India. In Surat architect and designer urfun lab had an ingenious idea of covering one end of the pipes with coloured cellophane. When the evening sun filters through, beautiful and colourful patters are cast.  
It is an innovative and cheap way to create interesting design. The pipes are so visually exciting that people want to explore and create. It is as simple as it gets. 
Indians are often very good at upcycling and this is another example of that approach to improving something and giving it a whole new meaning.  It needs only the smallest budget – and some creative thinking. 

5. Blackpool Comedy Carpet, UK

Created by artist Gordon Young, and designed in collaboration with Why Not Associates, the Blackpool Comedy Carpet is a celebration of comedy on an extraordinary scale. Referring to the work of more than 1,000 comedians and comedy writers, the carpet gives visual form to jokes, songs and catchphrases dating from the early days of variety to the present. Sited in front of Blackpool Tower, the 2,200m2 work of art contains more than 160,000 granite letters embedded into concrete, pushing the boundaries of public art and typography to their limits.

A remarkable homage to those who have made the nation laugh, it is also a stage that celebrates entertainment itself.

More than anything else, I love how many mentions I have seen in the press. If there is one thing Blackpool needs, it is positive press. 
This is urban design and art in the landscape working together in a seamless and perfect fashion. It celebrates kitsch, history and modernity, and has something for all tastes.

Visitors love the Comedy Carpet and they cannot stop photographing it and talking about it. Just look it up on Twitter or flickr or Google images, it is staggering how many images you’ll see. Bingo – success. 


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I am sat reading yet another headline that says a regional city is suffering compared to London. This time it’s one of my favourite cities, Sheffield “Action needed to stop Sheffield’s 30-something braindrain”.

The media is full of justified concerns about an increasing financial chasm between London and regional cities outside the South East. The discussion about whether High Speed 2 will benefit the regions it stops in is one worth continuing and analysing. The two speed housing market is gaining momentum (but may in time, turn out to be more of a problem for London) the jobs market outside London continues to be sluggish in most areas. But I am being nagged by a thought that culturally there may be a widening divide.

There was a north / south divide when I was a teenager growing up in Lancashire, in the 70s but we had football teams that dominated (isn’t it great to see Liverpool and Everton doing so well again?) and regionally based hot spots of youth culture. My mum was able to witness and enjoy Mersey Beat (a name which came from an independent magazine that celebrated the music of Liverpool), a movement that had a recognisable style and was more than just the Beatles, with over 500 gigging bands in Liverpool between 1958 and 1964.

My first “youth culture”, and one that has stayed with me, was Northern Soul, a movement with a distinct fashion style, based on dancing and collecting black music of the 60s and 70s. Northern Soul was famously based around northern towns such as Wigan, Blackpool, Stoke (and Burnley where I met my wife at a Northern Soul Club). Coach loads of southerners and Scots would descent on these northern clubs every weekend. Many Northern Soulies went on to embrace Disco and Jazz Funk and venues like The Highland Room in Blackpool and The Ritz in Manchester became mecca’s for young dancers from all over the British Isles.

Punk shook Manchester as much as it did London. We were spoilt for choice with the likes of The Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs, Warsaw, V2, Eater and The Drones. The Post Punk scene was incredible in Manchester with bands like Joy Division, Magazine, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column and a fashion aesthetic mined regularly worldwide (Raf Simons seems obsessed by it).

The New Romantics came out of Birmingham in equal step with London (The Rum Runner Club was as important as London’s Blitz and Billy’s). Two Tone was defined by Coventry (and defined Coventry) what a style and what a list of bands, The Specials, The Beat, The Selector. Sheffield was unbelievable with its asymmetric haircuts and modernist leathers and of course those seminal electronic bands, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, Heaven 17, The Thompson Twins. Cool had a real home in Sheffield then.

Liverpool had its own significant music and fashion scene going on in the early 80s with Echo & the Bunnymen, A Flock of Seagulls, Teardrop Explodes, the Mighty Wah!, OMD, China Crisis, which left a lasting legacy.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, the distinctly indie Postcard Records created a recognizable indie movement with Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and The Go Betweens.

My first label, Red or Dead, flourished in the massive Madchester scene of the late 80s and early 90s and we picked up distributors in Japan as a result of the 1000’s of Japanese kids who would flock to Afflecks Palace and The Royal Exchange to get baggy and emulate their heroes in The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Northside, James et al.

My home town of Blackburn had its time in the sun at the same time as Madchester with the infamous Blackburn Raves. The powers that be may have hated this at the time but Blackburn could do with more of that youth culture spirit right now.

Bristol spawned Trip Hop’s Massive Attack, Tricky and arguably the graffiti movement that led to Banksy.

But whilst there has been nothing quite as seismic as punk since the 70s there has been a youth movement of sorts, Britpop (albeit being loose and being music only rather than music and fashion). Britpop, with the exception of Oasis and Pulp, was mainly centred on Camden, London. There the “urban” movements of Jungle, and Drum and Bass, the modern day version (bastardisation?) of R & B but whilst none of them can be classed as overtly visually recognisable, and are not “owned” by London, they are linked with London more than any other city.

There are some that would argue that it’s not a divide but rather that youth culture movements don’t happen like they used to. The argument coming from some quarters that how can young folk rebel against their parents when their parents were so rebellious? Hence all that “norm – core” rubbish coming out of the fashion industry. Another argument is that the all – pervasive internet both prevents youth culture from fermenting and brings things overground too quickly and also allows young people to build their own individual online identity making mass youth culture movements obsolete.
Anyhow, come on youth of Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham. Show us what you are made of, make London jealous.

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When I am giving talks and lectures, in the questions at the end of the session, I am often asked what is the greatest attribute of a designer and a creative mind. I know that for me and my design partner Gerardine, it has been common sense.


When I am giving talks and lectures, in the questions at the end of the session, I am often asked what is the greatest attribute of a designer and a creative mind. I know that for me and my design partner Gerardine, it has been common sense.

When asked what is my greatest achievement and design I always seem to come up with moments in the design process that revolve around common sense decisions. At HemingwayDesign we believe that design is for the common good and that design thinking can help to solve most challenges that society faces with a core philosophy of aiming to “improve things that matter in life”. It is the process of “design thinking” where we employ our human nature to use common sense.

In 2001 when we first started to design housing estates I remember a meeting where the eureka moment about common sense came to the fore.

When I wrote the infamous article in the Independent about how most mass market housing in the UK was uninspiring and not fit for purpose, the housebuilder Wimpey, approached us to put our design skills where our mouths were. This led to us being given the chance to design a 780 unit housing development: The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead. We had no experience of designing affordable housing but we had many years of being brought up and living in low cost housing.

Looking back to our own childhoods some of our best memories revolved around “playing out”. Gerardine is one of 5 sisters brought up is a “two up two down” workers cottage in Padiham, Lancashire. Hers was a home where the small back yard opened onto the “rec”, a grassed recreation space that provided the venue for play and parties. From the “rec” it was a few yards to the allotment where Gerardine learnt how to grow veg and flowers, and developed a knowledge and passion for plants that has really helped the landscape side of her career as well as giving her a healthy and rewarding hobby. From the house I was born in Morecambe, to Queens Park Flats in Blackburn with its wonderful landscape and sports facilities to our home on a new estate in Blackburn, I always had space to kick a football and mark out a mini cricket strip. Sport has since been a constant companion and source of relaxation for me as well as allowing me to share and further develop the passion with my four children who have all gained confidence and friends through their sporting activities. Sport has helped them stay fit and healthy and they have learnt so much about striving to win and learning to lose graciously and about the importance of “team” through sport. Through having outside space where they could build dens and just “lose themselves” they have all grown up to be creative and active.

When we sat and talked about what was important about home we quickly discovered that we had never bought a house but had always bought a place. It had always been the location that came before the actual property itself. We had always considered if the locale in terms of connectivity, amenities and ambience were suitable for our lifestyle and aspirations, was suitable. After determining the suitability of the locale, we would then look for a property. When we got talking to friends and family it was clear and obvious that this was the case for just about everyone. We started to find out that this philosophy of “placemaking”, where the place came before the architecture was delivered .It was common sense, and human nature to understand that your home had to be in a place where you could survive. For our ancestors there would have been no point having a nice dry cave if it wasn’t in reach of food sources and water. So despite pressure from Wimpey to show them the houses we were designing our common sense told us to change the order of doing things. After all I had been writing about housing estates being built in soulless environments in places they should never have been built.

From then on in, the process of identifying existing practices that flew squarely in the face of common sense became de rigueur.

We drew on our own experience of an active outdoors childhood and the joy that we were having with our children through being fortunate to be able to afford a large garden to make the bold statement of designing the play and recreation spaces before designing the houses. This nearly got us kicked off the project , Wimpey hadn’t heard anything like it. One of the first things at The Staiths we wanted to do was to build play areas that were challenging, creative and far more exciting than a few chickens on springs and a “health and safety” approved climbing frame. We showed the council play officer an example of an exciting play area that we had come across in a wonderful development in Freiberg, Germany, made simply from old trees that were left in their natural state for kids to balance on and a generous helping of sand. We wanted play areas to encourage “free range kids”. I remember the council saying that they loved our concept of “free range kids” but couldn’t countenance a play area with sand all over the ground. This wasn’t about the danger of dogs and cats soiling the sand but another very strange reason was given. The council play officer proceeded to say that “Babies will crawl around the sand and eat it”. “But that isn’t a problem”, I replied. “We can replace it; sand is only £1.99 a bag at the local DIY store”. I then proceeded to search on the web for “Child eats sand and dies”. Try it – it’s not something that throws up any obvious returns, but common sense had already told me that.

We had a much more worrying run in with the local Police, who have a say in planning permission based on their “Secured by Design” initiative (www.securedbydesign.com). We had the idea to deliver “home zones” (streets designed for pedestrians, children playing and cyclists). Rather than build driveways, we planned to put the parking around the side of homes, along the gable ends. In doing this, we believed the streets would become more animated, the community would pass each other more in the streets and it would be inherently safer and friendlier. The police didn’t agree saying that the cars would get broken into. I said that I was more interested in my kids safety than that of the contents of my car, to which the policeman replied “but you have got that wrong, once they have broken into your car they will be back to assault your kids “. This sounded preposterous to me and I also had a hunch that modern technology, such as central locking and micro chips in car music systems that rendered them useless when removed, must have had an impact on car crime numbers.

I was bang on. By simply checking on the Home Offices Crime Statistics website I was able to show how dramatic the decreases in car crime had been.

We had turned accepted thinking on its head and that opened up an avenue for real change. The physical design process was easy. We were using common sense.

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“A two-day “festival of cycling” will be the first large-scale event to use the Olympic park when it reopens in 2013 after this year’s Games, the London mayor, Boris Johnson, announced on Thursday. The festival will culminate in a 100 mile race for amateurs and world class competitors starting at the Olympic Park that organisers say will be similar to the London Marathon – but for cyclists. Johnson said he wanted to create one of the world’s leading cycling events in the capital as part of the legacy of the Games.” – The Guardian

“Its going to be a fantastic feast of velocipedes. I have been conscripted for the 100 mile ride and I will perform. I will be a chiseled whippet by the end !” – Boris Johnson

As a patron of SUSTRANS, and someone who loves cycling in London, but who is peeved that London is still a country mile behind the likes of Copenhagen and Amsterdam in terms of cycling ease and safety. I hope this two day cycling extravaganza on the first weekend of August prompts more investment in enabling cycling to become easier and safer in the capitol. London has not been making fast enough progress for my liking.


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Leigh Park, near Havant, in Hampshire  has a terrible reputation. The website chavtowns.co.uk starts off

“Once the largest council estate in Europe, Leigh Park has a long tradition of chavness and could well be the origin of all Chavs upon this Earth. (were there any evidence that anyone’s moved out since 1959)”

I don’t like the term “Chav” and the website goes on and becomes much nastier.

Leigh Park is the result of re housing families from the WW11 bombing of Portsmouth. 27,500 people live there and the reputation would have you believe that all 27,000 are out setting fire to vagrants on benches as happened a few years ago.

My 14 year old was playing a match against a local Leigh Park team and during his pre match training / warm up I went on a run to explore Leigh Park. Yes the shopping parades are tad bleak in parts, and there is far too much litter, but there has clearly been significant investment in community facilities and there is no excuse for kids to be bored, with  great  facilities, play areas and wonderful wooded areas with streams to play in and den building opportunities a plenty. Yet the youth of Leigh Park have a terrible reputation amongst those that don’t live there.

Leigh Park

Anyhow I came back from my run, thinking that Leigh Park’s reputation as a “hell hole” was not deserved at all. Yes the 50s, 60s and 70s flats and  houses are mostly unattractive (with lots of grim pebbledash), but it certainly wasn’t threatening nor did it feel like it needed raising to the ground as so many people from outside the area often comment it should be!

However the football match clouded my view. In 19 years of watching my kids play football I have never seen anything like it. If some of the local kids’ foul language on the pitch wasn’t enough then the latent violence exuded from the parents and the blatant cheating from the local referee and linesman (who cheered and clenched their fists when their team scored!) was very sad indeed. At times it felt like watching another species. All human decency and morals seemed to have been replaced by aggression, nastiness and a reveling in getting one over “the opposition” at all costs. It seemed sub human behaviour and left me numb and sad and wondering if there was any hope. What had made these these people become so disenfranchised? Whether it’s the equality gap, or just a breakdown in human values, as a society we had better sort it out!

I am not going to elaborate other than to say that I left thinking it may not matter how much money is invested by a council and support agencies in a deprived area, if the parents lead by bad example, the kids are likely to grow into equally nasty people.

Sad sad Sunday indeed.

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There are a number of historical social housing estates, built philanthropically that I have had the pleasure to visit, Lever’s (as in soap) Port Sunlight, Joseph Rowntree’s (as in sweets) New Earswick Estate in York and Bournville (as in chocolate) in Birmingham.

All are wonderfully liveable estates that have stood the test of time, been well maintained and are without doubt desirable.

They show how it is possible to do “social housing” and to avoid the pitfalls that result in vast sums being spent on regeneration. Housing providers and planners need to regularly visit these precedents to remind themselves to stop delivering the dross that has become commonplace over the past few decades.

It was heartening to hear that Kraft (the new American owners of Cadbury) have understood Cadbury’s heritage an decided to make its “global chocolate centre” at its historical home, Bournville.

Great decision and I am sure that the Cadbury employees are going to enjoy working in this environment that the founders of the brand left as a wonderful housing legacy…

For more information on Bournville click here
And here are some pics…

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Any right minded person is saddened by the events of the last week. The mindless violence and wanton destruction is totally abhorrent and inexcusable. The immediate response from the government to promptly bring the perpetrators to justice is welcome but it’s the long term that we should all start to think about and act on quickly. (more…)

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