How the arts can regenerate urban areas

A rundown area of London’s docklands has been transformed into a thriving creative hub for the arts. John Burton explains how

I’ve been working with Urban Space Management for 20 years, collaborating on all kinds of regeneration initiatives. We worked on Camden Lock Market, created Merton Abbey Mills in Wimbledon and designed Gabriel’s’ Wharf in what was then a very quiet South Bank. In the recession of the 90s we took on the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre (and painted it pink) along with Spitalfields Market which we ran for 8 glorious years, making something very special out of what was then an edgy location.

Trinity Buoy Wharf's Container City
Trinity Buoy Wharf’s Container City

Now we’re concentrating on Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s docklands. Our goal was to take this redundant site and turn it into a centre for the arts and creative activity. We’re not allowed to build houses or hotels here, ensuring we stick to the original aims of the project.

The creativity that goes into regeneration projects sometimes translates easily into working within the arts…but sometimes it doesn’t. Working with artists and creatives is very different to working with people who are commercially motivated. The creativity of regeneration must fit into our model of making things happen, paying for themselves and generating interesting places. It’s more akin to curating a show or producing one.

Some very important and essentially non-creative elements also have to be used and that we share with normal property development: raising money for new works, working on leases and property agreements, letting space and managing the mix of tenants. We are lucky in that we do not have shareholders or investors to keep happy and we like to control our own environment. Over the years we have found that control is a key and essential element.

Trinity Buoy Wharf
Trinity Buoy Wharf

As an arts quarter, Trinity Buoy Wharf provides a stable and welcoming place for creative people to work, but we also have performance and rehearsal space as well exhibition and events space, plus living space and work space. There is less and less workspace in London, particularly for creative organisations, so we fulfill an increasingly important role.

This is also a truly different part of London and very inspiring. Over the years as the environment around us has changed with more residential schemes: we will be a beacon of difference rather than an outpost.

John Burton, senior project manager at Urban Space Management
John Burton, senior project manager at Urban Space Management

We have a long-standing relationship with English National Opera, and we have given a wide range of small businesses and creative people the chance to have a space to do business or perform their art. Having the ability to take short-term space is very useful for a lot of organisations and unlike many landlords we are really up for that as it keeps things fresh.

Recording Britain Now, an exhibition of drawings by 23 artists, runs at Trinity Buoy Wharf until 30 November.