Environment and community
Redeveloping a brownfield site, Barking Central capitalises on excellent transport connections, and the proximity of schools and shops, to attract new residents.
In turn, the development offers the local community a new learning centre with thriving cafe, a hotel, shops and striking new public space. Subsidised units have given independent businesses a foothold in the square. The new library enlivens the entire area – among other things it stays open till 10pm – and its use has doubled.
A substantial number of affordable homes were planned for elsewhere in Barking, so the contribution to the community by these developers was invested in the library and in public space. The scheme is predominantly private (only 36 of the 518 flats are classed as ‘affordable’) and it consists almost entirely of one- and two-bedroom homes. This was partly to make the scheme work financially, and partly to attract young professionals and first-time buyers, and create a more mixed local community. Time will tell whether this strategy succeeds. Many flats have actually been purchased by buy-to-let investors.
The scheme is rated Ecohomes ‘very good’, with over 10 per cent of energy from renewable sources, and with the technology to connect to the planned Barking ‘community heat network’. Car-free, it offers a secure bike store for 250 bicycles.
‘In many ways that is the sustainable community dream,’ concludes Jeremy Grint, London Borough of Barking & Dagenham’s Director of Regeneration. ‘You are 200 metres from a station, and right on top of a learning centre, a health centre, a theatre, a leisure centre, shops and a park.’
Barking Central is very much specific to its site. The design knits old and new together, reconnecting the pattern of streets and spaces, and reinforcing key routes and visual connections. The town hall no longer faces the back of commercial buildings but has been restored as a civic focus.
Buildings were conceived as an architectural family. Each has its own identity through shape, height and elevational treatment. Yet all share stylistic elements and a coordinated colour palette. This was chosen by Studio Myerscough to be distinctive while also reflecting local heritage, such as the green and yellow branding of the R Whites lemonade company.
The bright colours have had a mixed reception, with reservations about the citrus yellow in particular. It signals, however, that positive change is afoot. ‘The idea was that you would drive past on the A13 and know that something had happened,’ explains architect Paul Monaghan.
What really sets Barking Central apart is the care – and money – lavished on the public realm. Following mapping and engagement with local people, muf prepared plans that change an overshadowed and windy space into a shady grove with dells of planting, whimsical street furniture, and a memorial to workers from the local asbestos factory. The planting prevents a very large development from feeling overwhelming.
Many landscape features make historical links. The theatrical 80-metre arcade linking High Street to the civic square, running alongside the learning centre, is lined with giant chequerboard paving, recalling the front paths of Barking’s lost Edwardian villas. It is lit by golden chandeliers, designed by Tom Dixon. The large brick stage set of a folly on the north side of the square, made entirely of reclaimed material, ‘recreates a fragment of the imaginary lost past of Barking’. It was constructed by local bricklaying trainees.
‘Many people’s first impression of Barking, on coming out of the station, is that the place is suffering distress,’ says Jeremy Grint. ‘Then, walking through the town, suddenly you see the development jump out, and you feel “Oh...this place is very different to how I thought”.’
Streets, parking and pedestrianisation
Barking Central is fully pedestrianised and the scheme is well-integrated into existing streets and buildings, matching backs and fronts of new buildings to existing ones. For example, the seven metre-high brick folly, on the north side, conceals the blank back of a nondescript structure.
The arcade along the north side of the learning centre establishes a strong connection along a ‘desire line’ from the shopping street to the town hall, and offers a well-lit, sheltered route.
Vehicle access is provided only where necessary, and integrated through shared surfaces. The only parking spaces are for disabled use, close to the smallest and southernmost residential block. This is one of few areas where the design disappoints as these spaces, close to both a road and to the library’s loading bays, are badly managed and not well overlooked. They add to the congestion of a constrained access area.
All other spaces are well overlooked, with active street edges that add life to the public realm. The scheme has Secure By Design accreditation. It is said that whereas once you would avoid this area by night, now you would probably run to it if in trouble.
Design and construction
All properties meet the Lifetime Homes standrd, and all have a private terrace or balcony. However, most are single aspect (with windows on one side only) and, in two of the large blocks, accessed off very long corridors. Many are also north-facing, increasing the challenges to natural daylighting. This is the outcome of the dual constraints of making the scheme financially viable, and – in the case of the Ropeworks – of incorporating the existing library. This predetermined the orientation of the residential blocks above, and limited the number of stairwells that could be inserted through the structure.
Exteriors have been designed with great style. One innovation was – while using the same grey composite cladding panel all over the Ropeworks – to turn the grain in four different directions, generating a striking yet cost-effective finish. Some materials are, however, in 2010, already showing undue signs of wear and tear.
Barking Central’s public realm has been designed with great imagination and attention to detail, and is robust. It is maintained by the local authority and the high footfall deters vandals. Part of the Mayor of London’s 100 Public Spaces programme to create or upgrade public spaces in the capital, in 2008 it was the first British project to win the 2008 European Prize for Urban Public Space.