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Ever Dreamt Of Turning That Empty Lot Into A Secret Garden? Interview With The Caravanserai Team

Caravanserai Canning Town shows us how it’s done!

This is a community post, untouched by our editors.

Just before the Easter break, I went to Canning Town to meet with the team behind the Canning Town Caravanserai. Hajir, Emily, Christina, Alastair, Valerie and Cany shared their stories on how this oasis of community fun was born in one of the most ethnically diverse and most deprived wards in London, what is the concept of self-made cities and long-term temporary spaces, what difference it is making and what’s the next step for the project.

Now, before we get to the heart of the topic I need to come clean. I am always a bit cautious not to say skeptical about self-proclaimed community-led public space projects. Maybe it is the fact that I have just moved back from Asia where I have spent the past 7 years.

Over in Asia, a lot of the planning of community spaces is a heavily top-down process dominated by complying with government rules in exchange for more profit. The words “community-led”, “public engagement” and “participatory” are used to describe at best a masquerade where questions that have been answered long ago are asked to local residents to comply with the planning process and avoid negative press coverage. People are also so busy working that if you asked them what they wanted, they would probably respond: “that’s the government’s job to think about that, not mine. I am too tired”

It is changing however, particularly thanks to a growing urban farming movement led by a new generation of energetic young dreamers like TimetoGrow  and HKFarm.

Rooftop Farming in Hong Kong, TimetoGrowHK

But as an urban designer whose job description is after all to design happy places for people, I was starting to find the whole top-down thing quite dissatisfactory in meeting the community’s needs. So I was keen to look at people who successfully managed to engage with the people we design spaces for and even better: to design for them with them. I had been following from afar the community-led movements in Europe take shape, particularly my former classmates from architecture school who have done it here, and amazing people in Madrid who I later met in Hong Kong who have done it here and there.

So when I moved back to the UK early 2014 and heard about Caravanserai through both women-led network Urbanistas UK and the Academy of Urbanism’s Young Urbanists, I was dying to meet the team. I also wanted to go to the site in Canning Town very badly to see if it is indeed possible to do it. I was particularly intrigued by how a project like that is born and how it sustains itself through time.

One grey afternoon right before Easter, I took the tube all the way to Canning Town to chat with the busy volunteers and have a walk around the various spaces. We talked for quite some time before they kicked me out to get on with the never-ending work of scavenging, gardening, building, fixing, fundraising, organizing and shepherding that such an enterprise involves.

They all enthusiastically opened up about the project, its messy beginnings, their shifting roles, the trickiness of perpetual fundraising and how Caravanserai resonates with the things they care about. Enjoy our chat!

Welcome to Caravanserai!

Laura: What is Caravanserai?

Cany: Caravanserai is probably best described as an adaptable and long-term interim space. It is located on a demolition site near Canning Town underground station and there the community can organize and participate in events, learn new skills through workshops but also experiment with space and forms of enterprise. It is really a kind of life-size laboratory but most of all it is a prototype: something that can be replicated in other places. So much so that one of our volunteers, Hajir who is studying for an MArch Cities and Innovation at Central St Martins is creating a toolkit for adaptable interim spaces as her thesis.

Laura: How did the project come about? Where did the idea come from? What initiated it?

Emily: Well originally it all started with the Meanwhile design competition launched in 2011 by the mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, and mayor 
of London Boris Johnson to find “meanwhile” uses for three prominent brownfield sites – and the adjacent water – in the Royal Docks and Canning Town. The sites were owned at the time by the London Development Agency or the London Borough of Newham and some of them lied on or close to the route between the main Olympic site at Stratford and the ExCel Centre supposed to arrive directly at Canning Town underground station.  There were three sites earmarked for regeneration but that the mayors wanted occupied in the meantime : Site 1: Canning Town centre, the one Caravanserai is currently standing on, Site 2: Dockside at the Royals Business Park, Royal Albert Dock and Site 3: Pontoon Dock, Royal Victoria Dock.

Site 1 : Canning Town

Laura: What was the original intent?

Emily: It was supposed to extend the positive impact of the Olympics further into neighbouring areas. However, the primary access route was changed later so Canning Town was no longer the main station and the site never got the footfall expected. The project was maintained though and three out of the four winners from the Meanwhile competition got to implement their ideas, to varying degrees of success and longevity.

•Royal Docks Baths for Pontoon Dock: proposed by Studio Egret West, was to be a floating swimming pool in Pontoon Dock made from seven re-used Thames Lighters to form a pontoon, floating structure, café, restaurant and spa. This site was not in the original competition but the judges decided it should be an extra winner. However, it was put on hold shortly after two of the other pop-up schemes folded.

Capitalising on the Olympics •21st Century Pleasure Gardens for the Pontoon Dock site: proposed by the creator of Shangri-La at Glastonbury, Strong and Co. was to be “waterside festival site” to feature year-round attractions but the overselling of tickets of the first pop concert saw its premature death.

Industri[US] for the Royals business park site: proposed by Fluid, with Colliers International, Dare and others. Their concept aimed to rework and revalue found materials and waste products, bringing together artists, entrepreneurs, social businesses, local people and scientists. This project also shut its door earlier than anticipated due to a lack of footfall.

Laura: How has the original intent evolved with the constraints?

Emily: Caravanserai for the Canning Town site was originally proposed by Exyzt, Space Makers Agency, Community Links, Ash Sakula and others, aiming to create an “adaptable open courtyard surrounded by busy shops and production spaces”, collaboratively produced by architects, thinkers, makers, community groups and local residents. That was based on the footfall supposed to come from the access route to the Olympic Site flowing directly from Canning Town Station. When that changed, the entire project changed. In a way that’s a good thing because it means it’s been re-thought from scratch with the surrounding community and it’s evolved a lot more organically.

Cany: The competition was an exciting time with lots of meetings and late night designing. We were at that time working on two plots: one with a caravanserai and lots of open exhibition space and the other with an arts colony with spaces for artists in residence from all over the world and a local community hub using two existing blocks of flats. After we won the competition the flats were demolished but we clung to this smaller site as it was available for five years and the other one only for two. Because there was no funding in the project, many of the ideas fell by the wayside.

Laura: Who is really behind this project in the end?

Cany: Originally, we had split tasks between the different members of the team. Community Links were going to take care of the leasing and licensing. Space Makers Agency with their experience on a similar project in Brixton Village, were going to take the lead on surfacing unconventional demand for the arts colony units, by hosting local events and engaging with existing organisations in the area. And Ash Sakula would make sure the planning application went smoothly and harvest existing knowledge on noise, transport and other issues from friendly consultants who had worked in the immediate area and with whom we regularly collaborate. After the site was significantly reduced Ash Sakula kept going : putting in for planning and leading the day to day running of the Canning Town Caravanserai, a company limited by guarantee with 6 unpaid directors. We are now applying to be a charity and working with volunteers to build the digital space of the project and develop the physical space of the Caravanserai to host many activities. So really the successive generations of volunteers,  who year after year have and continue to relentlessly design, build, grow, fix, outreach, fundraise and engage are the true heart and engine of Caravanserai. Without them, there literally would be no Caravanserai today.

Laura: How busy is it during the week? How do you get people to know about it and come along?

Emily: We go to all the coffee mornings organized by Newham Council at the Hub, and we all also meet people by chance at The Place next door, that’s how we got local resident Alastair onboard and Valerie, our horticulturalist mans the café there from time to time.

Emily: We have a long-standing relationship with Poplar HARCA, particularly the Green Network and the Enterprise program. We also love to work with trusted local groups such as the theatre company FAITH Drama Productions run by Gbemi Ikumelo. During the week there is always 2-3 volunteers at a time with Valerie gardening. At the weekends, we usually organize activities with local groups or interesting people we invite on site. We also participate in larger events such as Open House or Ecobuild to get Caravanserai known outside of Canning Town and the architectural community.

Laura: As a volunteer, how did you hear about Caravanserai and why did you volunteer in the first place?

Hajir& Christina: We heard about it through a job posting on Dezeen.

Alastair: I just came across the team when they were having coffee and recharging their laptops and phones at The Place and was intrigued and interested as I live nearby. I didn’t know a lot of the volunteers had an architectural background, I don’t know how to build stuff but I’d love to set up a waste re-use and re-cycle workshop, that’s why I joined.

Playground @Caravanserai

Laura: What do you do as a volunteer? What are the different spaces and what are they for?

Hajir: We are pretty much separated into 3 groups: the social media team, the building team and the engagement team. Depending on each person’s skills and the needs at the time we’ll rearrange into one of the categories. On site we’ve got a to-do list mainly driven by horticulturist Valerie that keeps us busy non-stop ;-)!  The Caravanserai is an open-air laboratory where you can really test stuff in life-size and also organize really cool events. There is the Community Garden, the Market Kiosks to trade things, the Playground for kids and big kids, the Welcome Porch a space that is really flexible in use, the Flitched Yard which is a workshop-cum-yard where we store the scavenged materials and build but also organize workshops when it’s rainy outside, the 17m Long Table for community meals and large parties, the Flying Carpet Theatre where we do concerts and shows, of course a cafe called the Oasis Café as appropriate for a Caravanserai and finally the Cube, a very versatile space designed by the students at the University of East London with pivoting doors that can close or open the cube completely and all states in between perfect for exhibitions, a chat, a nap or to read a book.

The Long Table

Laura: How long has the project been running? How is the project funded? And what have you been up to since the beginning?

Emily: The project has been running since 2012 and the lease for the site expires in October 2015 so we still have a year and a half of exciting events. Since the beginning we’ve been focusing on experimenting with the community and organizing events with trusted local groups and schools such as art and music performances, a trade school, growing food, parties, games for kids, a market and workshops. We even had a school use the site as a classroom until their building was completed! Obviously the first years we had to focus a bit more on building so we could not have events on all the time, but we tried our best for the site to remain active and accessible. Early 2013, we organized a competition for our Flitched Yard dedicated to up-cycling  which was won by a team that met on twitter (yep, you heard me right)…

The first year was all about scavenging for materials, now we are scavenging for people and activities. It’s all about proving that it makes a difference by activating as much as possible. We would really love to get the lease extended and keep a continuity. It’s really important to be able to provide that free space for people to create their own thing, especially in an area squeezed tight by regeneration.

Community Garden @Caravanserai

Laura: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Cany: Maybe deal with health and safety issues a bit better to allow the site to be used more frequently? But we did organize events very regularly throughout the construction period…

Emily: From what I have heard and experienced, putting in toilets and a covered space (thanks British weather) would be priority #1 next time around.

Laura: What happens when the lease runs out in October 2015? What’s the next step for Caravanserai?

Emily: Well, we’ve already been talking to Tower Hamlets about another site where we could relocate. It is on the other side of the Bow river in a community that is very isolated from transport connections so we think that Caravanserai could really help there.

Cany: Caravanserai is an urban laboratory for other forms of enterprise, new ways of producing space and we really hope this creates a toolkit for communities that can be replicated elsewhere.

Laura: Can you or when will you be able to tell if Caravanserai has been successful?

Cany: I think it is. It’s all about serendipity, a trick of the light that changes the mood of a place. At the blink of an eye, an abandoned empty space becomes a vibrant secret garden.

I’ll let you, the readers be the judge of that, but to me the grit that this project is showing deserves credit in itself!