Breaking Down Barriers








“Do you know social living is the best?”

Southwyck House, aka The Barrier Block, is one of Brixton’s most recognised landmarks. Its definitive exterior ‘zig zag’ design has become part of Brixtons graphic identity and is featured on the local currency – the Brixton Pound. Built in the 1980’s it was designed as a barrier to a then proposed motorway flyover that was set to tear through the heart of Brixton and thankfully never happened.The estates’ history has been fairly chequered and has seen some low points, but in recent years, has become far more family friendly and community minded. (The estates’ story is succinctly summarised on the local blog, the Brixton Buzz)

In late summer 2016, we were approached by leading street furniture designers and manufacturers, Vestre who were seeking a location to re-house their ‘Stripes‘ range of street furniture, that had been exhibited at Clerkenwell Design Week earlier that summer. We contacted the Brixton BID, and together with the BID, consulted with the local community. The central entrance to the Barrier Block (Coldharbour Lane, opposite Valentia Place) was identified as an ideal site. The Brixton BID funded the soft landscaping and our bespoke designed tree guards. The garden was refurbished and planted with the help of the local community, in time to be ready for the Brixton Design Trail (BDT) as part of The London Design Festival (LDF) 2016. An enormous amount of goodwill brought about many in-kind offers of support. We are especially thankful to Lambeth Council‘s Housing Department, Pinnacle PSG and Veolia Environment, whose support was integral to making it all happen.

There was initial scepticism in regards to adding street benches to the site. All too often there is a knee-jerk reaction against public seating. ‘People will congregate’ as though that in itself is a crime. What’s being overlooked is the power of good design and greenery to improve the feeling and perception of safety at otherwise neglected sites and empower a sense of well-being in a neighbourhood. The aim of the planting and furniture was to transform an otherwise uncared for site and to improve an area for local residents to sit and enjoy and provide a catalyst for positive change to help enable the breaking down of the barriers between old and new Brixton.

After the trail period, the benches stayed, the site has remained clean and vandalism free. It has been a resounding success, far from encouraging further anti-social behaviour, it encouraged social behaviour and the estates’ residents are said to be very happy with the results.

A project like this is for life and not just for design week (LDF), however, there’s no doubt in our minds that the LDF helped make things happen that may otherwise have taken far longer to achieve. We received a tremendous amount of ‘can do’ attitude from our in-kind supporters. Lambeth Housing were very proactive in helping us connect with the people we needed to make additional transformations at the site happen. At community engagements, we discussed with local residents how else could this site improve aside from adding street furniture and a beautiful garden. The answers were simple. ‘Can we have it cleaned please?’ ‘Can we have street bins?’ ‘Can we have the street lighting fixed?’  We brokered those questions and thanks to Lambeth and their subcontractors, the site was pressure washed and cleaned, two new street bins are in place and used, 14 bollards were painted to our RAL colour specifications to match the Vestre benches, and the street lighting was fixed! All these elements, along with the overall design upgrade, gave a greater sense of security, pride and belonging in the community.

As we planted the three fruit trees in September 2016 and spoke to passers-by of 70+ plants added to the existing flower beds, many of which are herbs, the response was huge smiles greeting the concept of an edible garden for the residents.

The Brixton BID is now funding a second round of community planting which we are organising to be part of The Chelsea Fringe Festival 2017. Here come the berries…

This is a revolution of the edible kind. This is breaking down barriers with good design. This is Brixton at its best!