“I’ve lived all my life in Brent but new buildings and parks have changed it and massively impacted young people specifically,” says Loshini Suben. “Often we come to these places and feel out of place and like we don’t really fit in.”
For another young resident of this north London borough, Yusriva Abdullatif, this sense of not being welcome in public spaces is even more marked.
“Hostile architecture like benches you can’t lie on impacts young people as do signs saying ‘no ball games,'” she says. “A lot of young people are very frustrated because part of their downtime is kicking a ball around and relaxing. Even music festivals in public parks are taking away public spaces for all users.”
Keshav Harivardhan thinks that pushing young people out of public spaces, whether out of fear or thoughtlessness, is just not fair.
“There have been a lot of discussions about policing and different dynamics in Brent which have portrayed young people as part of the problem, but a minority should not reflect on the majority who just want a space where they can come to be safe and to socialise without it being a question for other people,” he says.
What all three really want is for young people to be seen as part of the solution.
Keshav speaks for them all when he says, “Every time the area has changed, I feel that young people were never involved in the decision making or the thought process behind all the changes.”
This came down to two things says Julian Tollast, Head of Masterplanning and Design at Quintain, which is responsible for one of Brent’s largest development schemes – the 85-acre Wembley Park.
“This particular age group falls a little between two stools. The planning system is very good at designing play parks for young children and it’s really good at designing lovely places to go for adults, but sometimes teenagers feel that nobody wants them in their spaces because they’re not sure what they like doing. It’s typically quite a tricky thing to get right.”
Sometimes teenagers feel that nobody wants them in their spaces
Fortunately for the active young residents of Brent, things were about to change. They were going to be given a chance to have their say – and to make a difference.
A manifesto for young voices
The ball started rolling when Brent developed its bid to become the Mayor’s London Borough of Culture 2020 and consulted with local young people about what culture meant for them.
“Again and again, young people said, ‘public spaces aren’t for us, we have nowhere to go,'” says Rachel Crossley, Senior Programme Coordinator, Greater London Authority. “There was clearly a real tension about regeneration, with young people feeling they were being left behind.”
Brent decided to make the strength of young people’s voices a key pillar of its bid, which was successful.
Seen and Heard, a research and engagement project involving 15 to 25-year olds in the design and management of their local public space, was one of its flagship initiatives.
The project was commissioned by Metroland Cultures and delivered by the Blueprint Collective, a network of young people which had been brought together to shape the Borough of Culture programme.
Urban design researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) were brought in to support delivery of the project.
Through workshops led by architects, developers, artists and youth workers, the group of 19 young people discussed the issues that matter to them, what makes for good public space, practical considerations and the principles of a young people-centred design approach.
Out of this work emerged a Youth Charter, policy recommendations and a petition calling for young people to be given a greater role in the planning and design of public spaces.
Presented to planning authorities, including the Mayor of London’s team, published online and promoted via a video and social media, the Seen and Heard campaign raised awareness of the issue in Brent and beyond.
From passionate co-creators to paid researchers
A legacy project to translate the design principles the young people had devised into a real physical space had always been part of the plan. But the group had so impressed Dr Julia King, Policy Fellow at LSE Cities, who delivered the Seen and Heard Project alongside Akil Scafe-Smith, that she added another legacy element.
I got incredibly inspired by their energy and vision
“I got incredibly inspired by their energy and vision and found they had so much to say that I wanted to keep working with them,” she explains. “I was asking, how could we put their local knowledge in the centre of the process and how would it be if I could hire the young people as paid researchers within the LSE to be part of a learning and working experience?”
Fully supported and funded by Quintain, five of the original group of young people – including Loshini and Keshav – became the first apprentices of the LSE’s new Apprenticeship Programme in City Design.
Over 26 months, they learned about design and development and planning relevant to the context of Brent. They were also trained to apply methodologies and tools to envisage the future of new public spaces at Wembley Park. On land offered by Quintain, they then took their recommendations through from concept to design and build.
As they set about creating a sociable, non-territorialised open-air space where young people could spend a long time without having to spend any money, the apprentices considered what ‘chilling’ meant to them. They came up with three responses: calm, consume and collaborate.
Working with Quintain as well as architects and designers, the apprentices developed these loose ideas into the concept of a space with three adaptable zones.
Free to use and free from judgement
The end result is a brightly coloured, comfortable space with small, calm sheltered huts with seating, open areas with moveable furniture where people can eat, drink and hang out and a multi-layered seating area with an eye-catching, acoustically-focused soundshell perfect for performances.
The experience was everything the apprentices had hoped for.
They were very understanding that we were at the centre of the process
“The people from Quintain were really interested in what we had to say,” says Loshini. “As a firm, they were very understanding that we were at the centre of the process and that’s led to its success.”
The apprentices chose to name their space after the samovar, the large communal tea kettle around which families, friends and communities have gathered for centuries to chat and connect.
Samovar Space sits at the heart of the action in Wembley Park, at the top of the famous Olympic Way, only steps away from Wembley Stadium, supermarkets, the civic centre and public transport.
The space is proving very popular, with a regular stream of visitors, from parents with small children, lone readers and coffee drinkers in the mornings to students and office workers enjoying lunch and teens who gather after school. In the evening, lighting comes on so the space can be enjoyed safely. It also plays host to community events such as festive light installations and choir concerts.
Inclusive spaces for and by youth
The impact of Brent’s decision to put ‘non-professionals’ in the driving seat of urban design has been significant – and sustainable.
In feedback, 100% of the Seen and Heard group say the project made them happier, improved their self-esteem and gave them new skills that they want to be able to put to use again.
The learning is on both sides
But, as Dr King says, “The learning is on both sides. The apprentices have learned they can have agency in city making. My learning is how easy and productive it is to put them at the heart of the design process.”
It is not surprising then that LSE Cities is carrying forward its young-researcher-in-residence concept for work on four more locations around London. Or that the project’s work has influenced London’s new Public London Charter which sets out the rights and responsibilities of the users, owners and managers of new public spaces.
The final word must go to one of the young people who have made all this possible.
Seeing the people we did it for and seeing it come alive with colours and sounds is indescribable
“Seeing Samovar Space in use is amazing and seeing the people we did it for and seeing it come alive with colours and sounds is indescribable,” says Loshini.
“Being able to say we created a space as young people and to have had so much creative control in developing and delivering it is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.”