In London’s East End, the dockside district of Poplar, bombed in the First World War and blitzed in the Second, has since been a place of architectural curiosity. A muddle of postwar council estates and the neat remains of truncated Victorian and Georgian terraces, Poplar is home to tote-bag famous examples of utopian public housing, such as Balfron Tower, a block designed by the brutalist architect Ernő Goldfinger. Chrisp Street Market, a low-slung Fifties precinct with a concertina-like clocktower and two pie and mash shops, was the UK’s first purpose-built pedestrian shopping area.
In 2020, a new quirk of design was added to this patchwork. Aberfeldy Street, a row of shops with former local authority maisonettes on top of them, was transformed from Sixties concrete and patchy pebbledash to the most colourful street in the country.
In the Bangladeshi kantha tradition of repurposing old textiles, local residents submitted clothes and patterned fabrics to inspire murals: hot pink and navy blue houndstooth, canary yellow paisley, camouflage in primary colours and floral blooms. Along the now flourishing street are bicycle repair shops and boxing gyms, a pub and a mosque, barbers and tailors, upcycled charity shop furniture and the convenience store, Londis.
News outlets from ITV to the Daily Mail scrambled to run before-and-after shots of the revamped shopfronts: the project was reported as an innovative way to tempt visitors back to the high street after the first lockdown in 2020. Yet all is not what it seems. Just a glance at the back of the buildings, which don’t bear the same blasts of colour, shows what the street really is: condemned. Grubby and crumbling, with chipboard-covered windowpanes and peeling old balconies.
Aberfeldy Street’s colourful renaissance is a “meanwhile space” – a temporary scheme to spruce up an area before it’s demolished or redeveloped (in this case, by a housing developer seeking to put in new commercial units and high-rise flats).
“Outside it does look nice but inside, my front door is broken – for safety reasons we called [the housing association] many times but they didn’t fix the door,” a resident called Hasna told the BBC’s Asian Network when the plans were announced. “They’re not repainting the inside of the house where we actually live. They want to make that place like central London.”
One crisp, sunny Saturday in September I joined a group of millennials being trooped around this Potemkin village by an architect in round glasses and bottle-green Doc Martens. The Aberfeldy Street demolition is part of a huge and impressive local regeneration scheme, which will include a new central residential street called “Community Lane”, he informed us. He showed us around a new-build show home – all mid-century teak dressers, rattan headboards and a terrace the width of a skateboard – in a block nearby, which had been recently built by the same developer.
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Later in the tour, we finally reached the multicoloured thoroughfare at the neighbourhood’s heart. It had the inevitable whiff of a marketing campaign: literally painting over a neglected place – Poplar is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the deprived London borough of Tower Hamlets – to give the impression of a vibrant destination to new buyers.
The murals were not the result of a local art project; the eclectic businesses running in harmony on the high street hadn’t started up organically. The revamp of Aberfeldy Street was masterminded by the developer and its fellow landlord, the housing association.
Businesses there have benefited: three won their places through a competition for a rent-free year to get underway. But when the existing street is knocked down, the businesses will be relocated for up to eight years, “with a view to moving them back”, according to a guide from the housing association. It wasn’t clear what rents they would have to pay on return.
The Poplar locals who lived in the maisonettes above the shops have been “decanted” – in housing officer lingo – to some of the new-build flats, we were assured.
“They’re not thinking about the community,” one resident told a local radio “Talkaoke” event when the murals were painted. “Everybody is thinking about their pockets. Sort out the damp, sort out the single glazing.” Locals have taken issue with other aspects of the scheme, including the height of the towers, proposed closure of an underpass and a lack of play areas.
“Meanwhile space” is an uneasy compromise between market interests and local needs. Around the country, vacant shops on dying high streets are temporarily offered by landowners to businesses and charities for cheap rents. This can bring valuable experience and profile to business owners, and footfall to a neglected area. But it can also be a ploy to artificially drive up the desirability of a place (and its land value), before plonking housing there and leaving the area with little character. As an artist who moved into an empty shop in Hartlepool warned in the Guardian: “It immediately injects some life into the area, but we need to be careful not to be used for artwashing or gentrification.”
New-build estates are all too often left without the renewed public realm their residents were promised. When the build is complete, housing developers leave their creations to market forces, meaning the desired community hubs, pubs and independent shops may never arrive. Meanwhile space has a particular appeal in Britain, where the inflated housing market, flawed planning system and underfunded local authorities leave buildings and land vacant for long stretches of time. But the concept does exist elsewhere. In the US, there’s “temporary urbanism”, and there are similar projects in France and Denmark, too.
While filling empty plots and units is better than leaving them dormant until the bulldozers arrive, it is bleak that our ambition can only extend to pop-up communities, rather than rich and lasting public spaces. The urban geographer and co-author of Notes from the Temporary City, Mara Ferreri, has warned that such ephemeral schemes betray “a certain inability to visualise and imagine a future”.
After government cuts inflicted more than a decade of damage to our social fabric, Britain needs a renewed civic vision. Levelling up, the one that was promised most recently, has been ill-defined and has now been deprioritised – a victim of political short-termism. Meanwhile policymaking.
“Temporary use has already become a magical term,” wrote the architect-authors of Urban Catalyst in 2007. “On the one hand, for those many creative minds who, in a world ruled by the profit maxim, are trying nevertheless to create spaces that reflect and nurture their vision of the future; and, on the other, for urban planners to whom it represents a chance for urban development.”
Today, there is conflict over whether space – especially in areas where it is scarce – should be used to merely create housing, to meet needs and targets, or homes, with heart and community. The façade of Aberfeldy Street captures that conflict in technicolour.
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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List