Putting the heart back into Hackbridge

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July is an exciting time at Bioregional headquarters in BedZED, as we mark the opening of the new pocket park in Hackbridge, at the entrance to the Mile Road Bridge.

Not only has this project brought more greenery to the area, but will provide a gateway to the Wandle Valley Regional Park and has managed to create a pocket of open space in what was once an overgrown, featureless entrance to a bridge where fly-tipping was a regular occurrence.

So, it would be a good time to reflect on the Heart of Hackbridge project in its entirety, now that Bioregional and Sutton Council have successfully delivered the project.

Hackbridge has been a hub for economic activity for a long time, whether it was dense mills all along the River Wandle in the 18th century or thriving watercress cultivation in the 1920s. Cut to 2012, and Hackbridge looked very different. It was a non-descript place, with cars hurrying through and very few memorable shops where no one would choose to linger.

With the help of the Greater London Authority (GLA), Sutton Council and UK Power Networks funding, a group made up of local residents, businesses and council officers, chaired by Bioregional, set out to change this. Our vision was to restore some character back to Hackbridge, provide a place for local businesses to thrive and foster more sustainable practices in the process.

The changes achieved by the delivery team have been remarkable, both visually and on paper. Local businesses have benefited from new interiors, frontages and products. They are also seeing significant reductions to their energy bills. Two new businesses have entered the mix; Toni Bridal and Sainsbury’s- both bringing new reasons to visit Hackbridge. And we cannot forget Moh, who serves his coffees to the commuters of Hackbridge from his solar-powered van.

The environment has changed too, with the new pocket park, street trees, rain gardens, more parking, benches and cycling facilities. There are also more crossing points and a narrower road- this has succeeded in reducing average traffic speeds by 10%. All of these measures are helping to deter people from simply “passing through”; in fact, survey results have shown that the proportion of people who visit on a daily basis has more than doubled from 31% to 63% as a result.

With all this success comes reflection and the importance of identifying the aspects of the project where lessons can be learnt. Here, it was the ability to ensure all users can enjoy the new surroundings, rather than feeling like the changes presented new obstacles. The council has recognised that early involvement of accessibility specialists is critical for such schemes. Also, establishing a clear route of communication for the local community to engage with the project is imperative when working with so many different organisations.

Yet here we are. Entering into another exciting phase for Hackbridge with upcoming plans for the development of the Regional Park, which will enable more interaction with the exceptional biodiversity stowed within the Wandle Valley. Local residents are in the process of creating their Neighbourhood Development Plan and so many new ideas for innovative projects are being generated.

The Heart of Hackbridge project has, without a doubt, proven that there is a strong, engaged and passionate community here, with Hackbridge’s best interests at their heart. It has also highlighted just how unique this little part of south London truly is – where else would you find a solar-powered coffee van, a world renowned eco-village and an urban wilderness within minutes of leaving the train station?

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