Columns for EC1Echo by David Wilcox

Oliver Bennett, editor of the EC1 Echo, invited me to contribute a regular column. It is a great opportunity, and I have started a Connections blog to amplify stories and develop more in between print publication. On this page, below


EC1 Echo column June/July 2022

One of my favourite children’s books is You’re Called What?! by Kes Gray, in which the Ministry of Silly Animal Names offers creatures like the Ice Cream Cone Worm and Blue-Footed Booby the chance to change their names. Part of the fun is that the names and creatures are real.
Things aren’t quite so strange in EC1 – but neighbourhoods in the south are getting second names, or designations. Who is in or out of various zones can be confusing.
A few years ago the City of London designated its north west boundary district Culture Mile. Next year there is likely to be a Business Improvement District. Each element has its own boundary, because each serves a different purpose. That’s on top of traditional Ward names like Farringdon Within, Farringdon Without, Aldersgate, Cripplegate and Castle Barnard, which generally come to the fore at elections. 
In answer to the question “where do you live” people are more likely to say Barbican, Smithfield, Golden Lane Estate or maybe “near St Paul's”. In Clerkenwell, some still refer to the old borough of ‘Finsbury’, as still seen in manifestations such as Finsbury Library and Finsbury Town Hall, but the possibility of getting it mixed up with Finsbury Park in the north of the borough bordering on Haringey is too great. Other than that, it’s a mixed bag, with Mount Pleasant, Farringdon and St Luke’s all vying for attention within the wider EC1 area.
The area south of Smithfield, where I live, now has hundreds more residents largely due to a major development by Helical Bar. They decided the scheme should be called Barts Square, which resonates with St Bartholomew the Great, and Barts Hospital. The older name is Bartholomew Close - from the church lands - but maybe that sounded too suburban.
Barbican residents are currently mounting a campaign against development plans for London Wall West - better known as the site of the Museum of London and Bastion House. They rightly argue that the significance of the development extends beyond the boundary of the site, and so want to involve their neighbours in Farringdon and Cripplegate, as well as Aldersgate. The Barbican Association has floated the idea of The Barbican Quarter to describe an area embracing Golden Lane Estate, Smithfield, Barts Square and beyond.
I'm not sure about the name, but I can see the need for a wider conversation. Other major developments over the next decade include refurbishment of the Barbican Centre, the new Museum for London in Smithfield, and new uses for the main Market buildings when traders agree to the move to Dagenham.
If proposals for parliamentary boundary changes go through, the City will no longer have an MP in common with Westminster, but with south Islington neighbourhoods. What will that constituency be called, and will the change strengthen links between City and Clerkenwell?
Behind the matter of names and zones is something more important - our sense of belonging to a place, with some shared understanding of who’s who, and what’s happening. That was clearly important during the pandemic, when some estates and neighbourhoods were able quickly to organise mutual support. Walking through Smithfield into Clerkenwell I get a sense of the “hidden village” tour guides talk about ... but does it feel like that for residents?
Does a sense of community and neighbourhood matter so much in new developments like Barts Square, where many residents may be young City workers working long hours?
I’ll be interested to hear the results of Tom Butler’s research, reported in the Echo (p14), thatexplores where people feel the boundaries of Smithfield lie. It would be fascinating to research other neighbourhoods as well.
At the moment I’m not sure we have a lot in common beyond the postcodes.

EC1 Echo column August/September 2022

Community drop-in sessions at Barbican Library this year highlighted needs including spaces to meet and chat, activities for different ages, mental health support, residents giving tours to make connections, ways of telling stories. These in-person activities could be supported by an online community, calendar, and maps

The Barbican Centre Communities and Neighbourhoods team, who ran the sessions, have now said that an information hub could be created in display space on the ground floor of the Centre, which you pass on the way to Barbican Kitchen

What an opportunity. This offers people the chance to engage not just local residents and workers, but visitors from London and beyond.

I shared some initial ideas - and was delighted to do some work for the Communities team building on my previous experience in the field, including consulting for The Peel, and have suggested that different panels might be used to show local walks, articles from the Echo, maps of the neighbourhood, and a calendar of activities.

In addition, we could create a “shop window” of printed and digital information cards in the hub and online.

The printed cards could be about places, people, resources, and projects like those supported by the Imagine Fund. QR codes could provide a link to more information online.

While the display space isn’t good for meetings, it could provide a rendezvous point for people to connect and then have a chat in the Centre’s other spaces, bars and restaurants.

It could even be made into a community learning project. How about a Creative Communities Lab to help people contribute content to the hub - and/or start their own hub space with a Hub Kit?

Sometimes these ideas are bit theoretical, so I've asked whether there were any elements that could be practically useful, and if so whether it might realistic to develop a network of linked information hubs, in libraries, community centres and other public buildings. 

"One of the big challenges for communities is how they create or access opportunities to connect with each other," said Olu Alake, chief executive at The Peel. "David and the Community Team at Barbican have rightly recognised that they have there a space that could be utilised very interestingly to address this issue. I am particularly intrigued at the idea of an interactive information board, where people can find out what is going on in their localities.

"This can be developed further using emerging AI technologies to place Barbican's rich cultural offer within the local community in more accessible ways that resonate more tellingly with their own social and cultural backgrounds and areas of interest. This could be the start of something very special indeed."

There would be great benefit in an ideas session and development that combined the resources of the Barbican Centre, Library, and other City organisations with the inspiration and expertise of The Peel and other centres in south Islington.The hope is that it could lead to an EC1 network of hubs for Creative Communities.

You’ll see a rather ambitious vision for the hub on a new blog I’ve created to support and expand on this column. There's a link at the end and do get in touch with any ideas.


EC1Echo column October/November 2022

I live just south of Smithfield, and enjoy walking through the market buildings into Clerkenwell, via St John’s Gateway, St James Churchyard, Spa Fields and Exmouth Market. There are lots of other interesting routes, and I’ve been experimenting with different sort of maps, photos and videos to record explorations. That’s given me great insights into the shared history of EC1. 

Nick Higham’s story of the New River water supply for the City, featured in the last edition of the Echo, offers one strong thread. 

I may not live in Clerkenwell, but it feels a familiar and welcoming next-door neighbourhood.

But what’s it like for Clerkenwell residents to walk the other way? Is the City as interesting and welcoming … or just somewhere to visit for the Museum of London, an event in the Barbican, service in St Bartholomew the Great or St Paul’s, drink or meal in restaurants that are even more expensive than Clerkenwell?

I was nudged into think about joining up the north and south of EC1 by the editor. Oliver welcomed my article about a new square near St Paul’s, in this edition, and suggested adding a line … “It would also help to create a pedestrian route from Clerkenwell through to the Thames, knitting EC1 to the City and the river”.

What a great point. As I’ve found, reflective walks are the best ways to engage with neighbourhoods, familiar and unfamiliar. The Footways project, which promotes quiet and interesting routes throughout central London, has charted one from Angel to St Paul’s, and there are a host of other guided and self-guided walks for EC1. 

The City would certainly like to be more welcoming, and as reported elsewhere in this edition is staging a major festival on October 15 to launch its long-term Destination City campaign to attract visitors and provide more entertainment for workers and residents.

The City’s Culture Mile - which is the City’s north west district including the residential area of Barbican, Barts Square, and Golden Lane - is due to become a Business Improvement District

From surveys it’s clear that businesses rate highly projects for greening, cycling and walking, and tackling air pollution. I’m sure residents and visitors would agree - and creating the BID will provide additional funding through a levy on local firms.

However, projects just provide a better environment. It is people who create welcoming neighbourhoods, and people need places to get to know each other, and do things together. 

As I wrote in my last column, community drop-in sessions at Barbican Library highlighted the need for a range of different meeting places. Clerkenwell is lucky to have the Peel at Three Corners, and Golden Lane Estate their community centre, but there’s currently nothing further south in EC1. That may change with the creation of a community room in the Barbican library

I’ve suggested to the BID team that mapping local assets to create a neighbourhood guide could help us make more of what we have.

We could do with better joining-up of our lives online. We gather in many different places on social media, and via email threads, but there is no one commonspace. 

One proposal for the BID is a community forum, and it is tempting to suggest a complementary online forum for the area. That might work for BID-related discussions, but generally it can be difficult to engage people and facilitate discussion on a new platform. Both Barbican and Golden Lane already have their own.

My hunch is the best way to systematically build some new connections is to identify the human connectors - whether that’s their professional role or personal enthusiasm - and offer ways to meet up. Those would be fun gatherings, both in-person and online. If you agree, get in touch.

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