New London Architecture

Sadia Ur-Rehman - a Hidden Hero

Friday 14 January 2022

Congratulations on the Hidden Hero Award! You were nominated for your role as Community Engagement Coordinator for the Phoenix Park project. Can you tell me a bit about the project and how you’ve been involved? 
I’ve been leading on Be First’s engagement work on the Gascoigne estate now for just over 2 years. Over that time, we have really developed the ways that we engage and the tools and processes we use to ensure that it’s not just a tick box exercise, a process that is both genuine and meaningful. In October 2020, we set up the Gascoigne Residents Forum (GRF) to ensure that the concerns, aspirations and priorities of local residents would be addressed and understood as the neighbourhood developed. We recruited 18 residents from a range of ages and backgrounds who live in the area. Over six weeks, we held online sessions with the new group to build their capacity and knowledge, to ensure they were able to take part in more deliberative discussions about the neighbourhood. These sessions included an insight into estate renewal, placemaking and the design process.
Phoenix Park was one of the first projects for the GRF and we agreed that a co-design process was required. In a series of online workshops with Fabrik; designers became facilitators and community members became designers. Everyone worked collaboratively throughout the process to infuse ideas and to discuss and develop designs as they started to emerge. 
The park itself is designed around four themes identified by local residents - exercise, play, growing and contemplation. At the heart of the park is a stage area, which can be used for gatherings, events, communal dining, games and more. The park includes a natural play area, a gym corner, a seating and stage area for relaxing in, a garden area, a large feasting table and a growing plot. It has been constructed using materials that have been reclaimed from the demolition of the Gascoigne estate or waste construction materials where possible. Any new materials such as planting or trees, will have a final, permanent location in the Gascoigne neighbourhood once it has been built. 
I’ve been involved in the park from the outset and coordinated the multiple stakeholders and residents that we engaged throughout the process and brought on the journey of co-creating the park, this includes the local authority, their landlord services, the Parks team, local councillors,  local schools, local community organisations, residents local to the park and the Gascoigne Residents Forum. This involvement has built a real sense of care, pride and ownership of the park that has resulted in volunteer days to paint and plant in the park, a launch celebration day with over 150 local residents in attendance and community growing sessions throughout the seasons. 
What did you enjoy most about being involved in the project?
I have really enjoyed the connections and the collaborations that this project has enabled, people have been genuinely involved and want to see the park prosper as a community asset. The completed park is a testament to the numerous partners involved this includes Be First, Barking and Dagenham council, Wates Residential, Fabrik and engagement agency Urban Symbiotics with residents at the heart of the process. 
The launch event ‘Celebrate Phoenix Park’ is my ultimate favourite part of the project, the event was the perfect way to celebrate everyone’s contribution to the park and launch it to the Gascoigne community as a much-needed space for respite and activity after a difficult and uncertain period with the pandemic. 
What is the importance of resident/community led design and how do you think this will affect the built environment going forward?
‘Community led design’, ‘ resident engagement’, ‘participation’ ,‘consultation’, ‘co-design’, there are so many terms in the built environment industry at the moment that describes ‘community engagement’, it feels like there is a shift and a recognition of how important it is to ensure that the diversity and complexity of the voices in the local area are heard and reflected in the design process. 
Design should be a creative mechanism for shaping a place and also a route to collaboration, building a sense of pride, care and stewardship. 
The design process for Phoenix Park fostered ownership from the offset, firstly by listening to the needs and aspirations of the community before seeking their lead in its design, culminating in the realisation of a shared place. This is now their space. 
Can you tell us more about the larger regeneration within the Gascoigne neighbourhood, Barking?
Gascoigne is a neighbourhood with a rich history that covers an area of 34 hectares and is located immediately to the south of Barking Town Centre and the Barking Station interchange. It is owned and managed by Barking and Dagenham Council. The neighbourhood is currently undergoing significant regeneration, led by Be First and enabled with an outline application that was approved in 2015 for Gascoigne East for 1575 homes and 2018 for Gascoigne West with 850 homes over 3 phases. The objective is to create a modern, sustainable new neighbourhood, providing significantly more and better-quality housing, in a mix of sizes, in an attractive, safe and healthy environment. 
If you could give one piece of advice for anyone about to undertake community engagement on a project, what would it be?
Community engagement and building trusted relationships takes time and investment, this will not happen overnight. You will need to get out on the ground, start speaking to people, unearth groups and routes into dialogue, map the area, groups and activities. Take time to understand the area and its complexities. 
Think about the different engagement tools and plan to use these to ensure an inclusive approach, include both in person and digital and being flexible in your approach as your understanding of the community grows and you become more aware of the nuances that define that community and the best ways to keep talking to them and keep them engaged. 
And once you begin engagement be sure to think about how you continue and grow.

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