Rights of way

Fed up with traffic-choked streets, local people in an area of north-west London have drawn up a vision for improving their neighbourhood. Scott Elliot Adams describes how Harlesden’s town charter came about

Harlesden is urban London. It’s hard, full of traffic and has an infamous reputation based on its past. But it’s also vibrant, and full of passionate residents longing to realise the area’s true potential.

It actually compares well with many other places throughout the country. There is a commercial and civic heart. Many shops are locally owned, some drawing customers in from miles around. Surrounding terraced streets are often tree-lined. There’s a nearby park. And while there’s accessible public transport, others prefer driving their own cars. Too many cars cause disruption, and the situation is made worse by poor enforcement of parking and loading bay rules. This place has all the problems of any urban neighbourhood. How do you improve it?

Broadcaster and Harlesden town champion Louis Theroux with town team chair Leroy Simpson and the Harlesden charter.

The current government sees neighbourhood plans as the way to empower local change to focus on addressing local issues. The process to develop the Harlesden Town Charter offers great insights into organising communities and creating local plans. However, it developed before the concept of the current neighbourhood plan vanguards and grew out of a great wealth of experience of delivering similar plans over the last decade and beyond from Pittsburgh to Pontefract and from Neilston to Newcastle.

In Harlesden, it only developed due to one of the inspired and enlightened traffic engineers in Brent Council. He was aware of work elsewhere and was keen to grow a potential streetscape project into one that was based on a truly community-led process. Urban Design Skills, a planning and urban design consultancy, led the facilitation process for the council and the project grew from a simple streetscape project into one that embodied some of the truly aspiring ideas of the Big Society. The process created huge challenges and opportunities, for both the council and the local community.

Developing a town charter raised more questions than answers from the beginning. As consultants, we did not know what the end result would be, but we had a good idea of the direction it would take. We did not know who would be involved, but knew the community would lead the process in the end. And we knew we needed the trust and support from our client, Brent Council, as we pushed their working boundaries, more than not, from service providers to more community facilitators.

Community-led planning is time consuming, often cyclical and sometimes confrontational. It is a great balancing act of competing interests, and must be (to a certain extent) open ended to allow the community to define their wants and desires. It is true community planning, not just a token gesture, and we knew the successful ingredients required to guide the process: a place-based approach, growing an engaged community and agreeing a common vision.

Successful places tend to be desirable. I have yet to experience a place without being inspired by its potential in becoming a desirable place, usually based on its inherent qualities. Some places take some time, even for the most passionate urbanist, to understand what works in a place, and how to enhance it. Failure to understand this often leads to deterioration, demolition and rebuilding, to the detriment of a place and its people. We’ve seen this too often, and probably will continue to do so in the future.

Traffic flows through the centre of Harlesden.

In Harlesden, however, it’s easy to see what works. The Victorian buildings have a presence in the centre, and in the surrounding residential streets. Corner buildings are accentuated through detailing, materials and stature. Grand and less grand churches punctuate the streets. What seems to undermine the urban streets are later additions, such as the supermarket shed, the central surface car park and ubiquitous shop ‘improvements’ throughout the town centre. Picture the perfect spot for a civic square, and instead there is a sea of car parking. Imagine a bustling and successful high street to enjoy. Instead there are narrow pavements, big signs and street clutter.

Worse is the traffic, and the associated engineered streets. A gyratory system chokes the town centre and some residential streets have continuous through traffic. Crossing points are limited, sometimes non-existent. Guardrails constrict pedestrian movement, lorries use the town centre as a rat run, and cars dominate the streetscene.

The town centre is not geared for people, but for traffic. A mode shift is needed in Harlesden to focus on creating a people-friendly experience, and creating spaces for people to relax and enjoy. This is true for too many of our towns and cities.

One of the town team workshops.

Overall there is a lack of spaces, limiting areas for congregation and spaces to just be. Focusing on place allows us to aspire to similar places, and to learn lessons to action change locally.

Giving examples of other areas with similar conditions allows people to visualise an area’s potential. During the process in Harlesden, parallels were drawn with other busy London streets, such as Kensington High Street, Walworth Road and The Cut.

Often there are few outlets for a community to voice its opinions and even fewer opportunities to plan changes. This leads to a perceived lack of community spirit and action. Usually the only voice a community offers is one when change is being forced onto it, such as a planning application for a major redevelopment. This can galvanise local action, often in the form of protective nimbyism, to maintain the status quo for fear of change and the unknown.

The process to develop the Harlesden charter instead focused on proactive change by identifying local people’s desires and aspirations. The problem, however, was how to engage a community that appeared disengaged, distant and even mistrusting of change.

A range of communities call Harlesden home, from Irish and Caribbean to Brazilian and African – but there appears to be little interaction between groups. Each seems to have separate social, religious and commercial spaces. Having few squares, parks and open spaces, which could allow for chance encounters, exacerbates the problem. However, while not united, there seems to be very strong ties and allegiance to Harlesden as a place.

Working with this passion, the process began by trying to reach out to existing community groups – residents’ associations, church groups, business associations and so on. Fliers were posted in local shops and to residents, emails were sent out, postings were made on local Facebook pages and the initial meeting was advertised through the local radio station. We simply asked: how would you improve Harlesden?

The hall filled up slowly on a cold, early-spring evening. Like all community meetings, most people showed up late, yet eager to listen. Many anticipated hearing forthcoming plans for the area; they were ready to discuss, debate and counter any preconceived plans.

‘Importantly, the local authority actively participated in the town team process, bringing key officers responsible for discussion topics.
It offered information and its point of view and helped to facilitate the process, but not lead it.’
Many more were eager to identify problems in the area; past (failed) efforts; and share their views that any efforts to change Harlesden would be undermined (based on living in the area for 20, 30 or 40 years). Views were negative, but people wanted to have their say.

Through a series of evening meetings people continued to come. Some showed up for one meeting and never came back. Others brought their friends, and then more friends and neighbours and notes from each meeting were shared with the wider community. Sometimes people wanted to know what was going on, but had other commitments. Sometimes they showed up when they knew a topic of interest was being discussed. Nonetheless, the community was interested. We referred to the overall group as the Harlesden town team, where any local community member wishing to come to meetings, participate and plan to improve the area would be considered a member of the team.

Importantly, the local authority actively participated in the town team process, bringing key officers responsible for discussion topics. It offered information and its point of view and helped to facilitate the process, but not lead it. Officers participated as key stakeholders with a vested interest: they provided the area services and local maintenance, and the council owned much of the land.

In time, the local community developed an ownership of the process. When new residents came along, they brought their own initial scepticism with them to their first meeting but the experienced Harlesden town team members were first to explain the virtues of the process. Members’ optimism grew, though they always remained grounded in the realities of the process (a surprise local demolition, unknown signage improvements, closure of local services and the like will dampen trust and transparency of any process). Pressing on, challenging existing practices and holding others accountable for their actions also helps to unite groups. This is how the town team rightfully responded to – and continues to respond to – issues that arise.

A representational segment of the community now felt empowered. They elected a board to lead the process for themselves; as consultants, our role focused on facilitating the publishing of the town charter, and ensuring the local community grows to lead the process themselves. Both points would be successfully accomplished. The Harlesden town team developed and grew into a locally accountable group, focusing on improving their patch, on their terms.

The town charter is the vision that guides change for an area. Our role was to focus on the possibilities of Harlesden. We showed successful places elsewhere, and suggested what could happen locally. We wanted to inspire our audience before channelling the community’s energy to determine their top issues to address.

How the town centre could look…

From the start of the process we often used group exercises to allow everyone their chance to introduce, discuss and debate issues. This method allows each group to bring a variety of issues to the table, and to narrow their ideas through consensus.

At the first meeting, and through a group feedback session, the top issues focused on parking and traffic; addressing the area’s image; working with the area’s youth; bringing together and integrating Harlesden’s various groups; creating cultural spaces; improving connections within and to surrounding areas and amenities; and improving the retail centre.

These are the issues that continued to be voiced throughout the process at subsequent meetings. These are the issues that brought the community together to highlight what’s wrong with the area. These are also the issues that the community continues to work on together to find innovative solutions. These ideas – expanded, dissected and articulated – are the foundation of their neighbourhood plan: the Harlesden town charter.

Through months of meetings similar to the first session, and a couple weekend workshops, more and more people participated and developed a sense of ownership in the process. As consultants, we wrote the draft charter based on input from each meeting and workshop. Importantly two editorial groups (self-elected from interested residents) made comments, changes and added additional elements that became part of the final draft. The town charter came from the people, and was there to guide the people. It celebrated their views, ideas and dreams for the future of their place.

The charter created the foundation for the streetscape project. Shortly after its publication and the formation of the locally-elected town team board, Transport for London announced funding of £4m for improving town centre streets and spaces. This did not fulfil the charter, or the aspirations of the town team, it is merely one portion of the community’s desire for the area.

Improved streetscape will set the scene for further improvements in Harlesden’s quality of place; growing the area’s cultural offer, improving the health and happiness of the local community and creating a positive image for the rest of the world to see. Work has only begun, and there is no end in sight. Rightfully so, a community that sees its future and works towards it will continue to find new issues and interests, so long as it finds success in its efforts. Let’s hope the Harlesden town team is up for the challenge.


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Gabriel Parfitt
Gabriel Parfitt
12 years ago

Harlesden Gallery was inspired and then created by the Town Team Process. The website acts as a database and virtual exhibition space for local artists.
The aspiration is to one day have an ‘actual’ gallery and cultural space for the community.

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