In working to make the Peckham Coal Line happen, we are not deaf to this debate. From the outset it has forced us to ask big questions of wider society and ourselves. What is ‘community’? For whom would the Coal Line be an ‘improvement’? And when is an initiative not welcome?
Peckham, along with many other inner-London neighbourhoods, is changing. Connections are improving, cafés are opening and the demographic is shifting. As the area becomes more popular, once affordable rents are being pushed out of reach of some long-term residents, a situation many of us find unacceptable.
We share the frustrations around this issue. Some of us are feeling the effect first-hand. It seems logical to single out an initiative like the Coal Line as compounding the problem because - even though we are running it as a not-for-profit organisation - in seeking to open up a neglected green space and helping to link the two sides of Peckham, it is likely contribute to the perceived attractiveness of the area. This is true, to a greater or lesser extent, of almost any perceived ‘improvement’ to an area, from replacing windows on a council block to a new Tube stop or improved leisure centre.
So we have to ask ourselves how, in this turbulent economy, we can take control of the direction of the neighbourhood we live in. How we improve our lot without adversely affecting that of our neighbours. It is extremely difficult. It takes time, commitment, engagement and criticism, which is why even turning a wasteland into public asset can be contentious, and rightly so.
There are guidelines to help protect communities from rampant gentrification set out by the Sustainable Cities Collective. One of the key objectives of the Coal Line is that, through the process of establishing the physical park, there is continuous local engagement. These connections foster community networks beyond the Coal Line, creating a neighbourhood more resilient to further, inevitable, change.
To do this:
- We have to ensure that every stakeholder in the community has a place at the table from the outset (Smith, 2014). Community to us means every resident and business owner in Peckham. Different groups need different styles of engagement. Reaching out means we walk into every shop and visit every church. We work with tenants and residents associations and post letters to the Peckham Society. We tweet to the digitally connected and pin notices to community boards. However we still need to do more - we need to engage with schools and young people and if we’ve any chance of making this happen we need to reach out to wider London as this initiative would benefit many beyond our postcode. Maybe you could help.
- We have to use the opportunity presented by the Coal Line to learn together how the planning and development process works – how changes to our streets happen and what voice we have in affecting that change. We are simply local residents, who live and work here, and the momentum of the project has taken us by surprise. We are not paid. We are currently crowdfunding but will only receive the donations if we reach the total and that money won’t go on wages – it’s to work out how to build the thing. So all the time and expenditure is our own. Sometimes it seems completely insane but it has captured the imagination of the neighbourhood and it is providing us with valuable lessons in planning, politics and engagement in the process.
- We have to use policy tools available to protect residents and preserve housing diversity (Smith, 2014). The Coal Line opens up areas of council land that could be used to provide more council housing. It will also open up potential commercial space in otherwise inaccessible arches. Increased supply helps keep high street rents down.
We are proud to live in an area where we ask big ethical questions and where so many people see this bigger picture and are not seduced by glossy images and instead ask questions about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘fair’.
Again, we are not deaf to the debate – we want to encourage it. We believe the Coal Line will benefit Peckham and the people who live and work here. We also believe it won’t work without the support of people who, like us, live and work here.
Thanks for reading this. If you feel strongly about it, please get in touch. It won’t work otherwise.
Nick Woodford, chairman Peckham Coal Line team.
Some common questions and responses:
Resident Question: You say "Community" this and that. But your video doesn’t seem to reflect all of the Peckham I know. Are you doing anything to address this?
Response: Yes – we need to do more filming. In this instance it is the video that is not representative the project rather than the Coal Line not being representative of Peckham. Specific events seem to attract different groups and the ‘Chelsea’ fringe walk, where we filmed, attracted a specific demographic. We’re resource poor and the one day of filming done at this event doesn’t reflect the true nature of the ‘community’ involved in the project. Since December we’ve been engaging with the friends of Kirkwood Nature Reserve, The Cossall Estate TRA, Brayards Road TRA, the ARARA and Joe Richards House. We have and continue to go up and down Rye Lane and Queens Road into all the shops to try to engage people into the project and there is a broad range of people involved but there is undoubtedly more we can do and it is a challenge to get all sections of the ‘community’ engaged. We have to reflect this work in our future films and we will be doing this over the coming weeks.
Resident Question: Is it frustrating always being compared to the New York highline?
Response: It is flattering to be compared to such a successful and popular project and of course the concept shares some similarities, just as the Highline shares similarities with the Promenade Plantee in Paris and our very own Parkland walk here in London. While the headlines that proclaim the Coal Line as London’s Highline might be seductive in the short term, long term they devalue the project by implying The Coal Line is replicating a concept when in truth the projects have different origins, context, program and agenda. The Coal Line is truly a grassroots initiative – the core section of the project is 900m long but the network it creates extends over 5km across South London so it might be a destination but it will also be a park that is as useful as it is beautiful.
Resident Question: What do you think of the Garden Bridge – specifically is the Coal Line a community driven alternative to the Garden Bridge?
Response: They (Garden Bridge + Coal Line) are so different that it’s not possible to compare so we don’t think about it. The Coal Line is truly grassroots and while Southwark is very supportive of the initiative, as is MP Harriet Harman, there has, so far, been no public money committed to the project. We, the people, are raising the funds and creating this for ourselves and so it has to be a park that is as useful as it is beautiful . By bridging the missing link in a network of greenways extending across South London it could transform connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists at the same time as being somewhere unique to visit.
Smith, S., 3 Ways Communities Can Take Control of Gentrification – Next City. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/gentrification-solutions-affordable-housing-ideas. [Accessed 18 August 2015].