At the heart of Hackney Wick is an area of former East End industries that have either collapsed or vacated the area, creating the opportunity for artists, makers, designers and media industries to take advantage of relatively low rents and to occupy a diminishing supply of large and adaptable industrial buildings. As London has developed, land and property values have increased, causing small creative industries to be forced further and further to the margins of the city. A century ago the centres for artists were areas like Soho and Chelsea, now they are the East End, ensuring that the Hackney Wick area has one of the largest concentration of artists, designers, media and makers studios in Europe. Galleries, breweries, bars, cafes, restaurants and inviting community spaces enhance the studios and have created a lively, young destination with a very active night-time economy.
This formally isolated area, cut off from the rest of East London by the River Lea, the Hertford Union Canal and poor road connections, has both benefitted and is threatened by the unexpected development of the 2012 Olympics and now it is one of three neighbourhoods in the former Olympic Park zone. As a result it is better connected to the rest of London by new road, rail and public transport infrastructure, much of which was created for the Olympics and the development of Stratford. The Olympics also left a legacy of high quality buildings, such as the former press and communications centre, now the Here East development and the stunning Kings Yard Energy Centre bio mass power generator. The whole area is packed with innovative buildings and interiors using recycled materials from the Olympics.
The Hackney Wick neighbourhood is located in the London Boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets and is within the strategic area of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which is responsible for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. All three authorities work together in a productive alliance to focus on the needs of the area, its regeneration and the retention of its unique character and uses. This rare type of partnership is one of the most impressive characteristics of Hackney Wick, and is made possible by common political values and purpose. They jointly employ an officer who is the link between the local people, businesses and the strategic bodies. They have a difficult task as the enhanced connectivity of the area and the high land values makes it vulnerable to the pressure of speculative development and many of the exemplary artist led interventions are under pressure from residential or more profitable commercial development. Short leases and uncertain futures are a feature for most of the current uses and the three public bodies are making creative use of the legislation and powers available to them to preserve the mixed and innovative character of the area. They are setting up a Community Land Trust, which hopefully should help them retain some control in the future.
There are many fine examples of creatively led uses that have completely reinvigorated the former industrial area such as the very innovative Yard Theatre and the Stour Space. The Yard is an example of what is currently happening in the area as it is forced to relocate from its self-built premises to another site which, experience shows, would shift its focus from creating cutting edge theatre to building management and a greater focus on income generation. The Stour Space is engaging directly with the local community, using skills, knowledge and informal networks and functioning as a productive space for artists and makers rooted in its location. It is also an event space and uses paying events to cross subsidise community activity and facilities. It is listed as an Asset of Community Value, which may protect its future.
Here East is a very interesting and impressive example of an innovation hub housing a wide range of corporate, educational and creative activities including BT Sport, a campus of the sport specialist Loughborough University, Wayne McGregor’s dance studio, a number of creative incubator units and artist designed studios in the Gantry. It complements the self-built conversions elsewhere in the area but at a higher cost and in a more sustainable location. However, there is a clear synergy between the two sides of the area. The authorities are actively encouraging these relationships by providing ‘meanwhile’ accommodation for uses displaced by development and waiting for the right relocation. They are also formalising the development of creative industries, for example, by providing incubation and permanent space for fashion design and manufacture in partnership with the London College of Fashion in new developments on Fish Island – an interesting way of reintroducing the traditional East London rag trade. Hackney Wick is also attracting other well-resourced cultural uses such as the V&A Museum, Sadlers Wells, University of the Arts and University College London that are all moving activities to the area. The area also has very high quality international standard sports facilities. West Ham FC’s move to the former Olympic stadium is already showing economic benefits.
A key issue is housing, as regeneration is creating a neighbourhood that is attractive to developers, but the type and price of the housing is too expensive for most of the people who work there. This is a typical London problem but is resulting in steady and rapid gentrification and a significant amount of ‘informal housing’, that is people living in their workspace, which is not sustainable in the long term.
Hackney Wick is currently a strong neighbourhood, which has definable boundaries roughly created by the river, canal and the A12 and a really exciting buzz about it. The speed of change and growth in London means the area could change very rapidly in the next 5 years. Great cities like London need areas where the creative and cultural industries can develop and thrive and, hopefully, the impressive strategic approach being undertaken by the public bodies will ensure that this is not just a neighbourhood in transition.