How to loiter with intent: lessons from Bromley by Bow

Sally Robinson | 06.08.15

The District Line train shakes and rattles its way through East London. Past Shoreditch, Mile End and Whitechapel we go until, finally, the train screeches to a halt at Bromley by Bow. I'm here on a sunny Thursday afternoon with Chief Executive Paul Morrish and fifteen enthusiastic representatives from LandAid's Foundation Partner network to visit the Bromley by Bow Centre, a community facility supported by LandAid funding.

The Bromley by Bow Centre isn’t your usual community organisation. For starters, the Centre itself is a maze of beautiful interlocking buildings, designed to provide a positive and welcoming environment to those it serves. There are no physical barriers: every door is open and every room is multi-functional. Signs are discouraged and CCTV is nowhere to be seen. Every space encourages you to linger.

Jasmine, the Corporate Partnerships Manager gives us a tour of the site, taking in a converted church which lies at the heart of the centre and plays host to everything from Eid celebrations to art exhibitions, and a public park which is used for sport, socialising and today, a summer fete. “It’s all to encourage loitering with intent”, says Jasmine, as we’re invited into the stained-glass decorated waiting room of the centre’s health clinic.

It’s a phrase which sticks with me for the rest of the day. In an incredibly fast-paced city where defensive architecture is on the rise and loitering without purpose can be an offence punishable by arrest, it is heartening to find a place which doesn't ask you to 'move along'. 

There’s a lot we can learn from that.

Bromley by Bow’s innovative approach to its physical surroundings is mirrored in the services it provides. Everything is integrated. “We like to think of it as the John Lewis model”, says Chief Executive Rob Trimble, “a real focus on customer service, a broad range of experts and an interesting ethos of accessibility and ownership.” Offering everything from clinical and holistic health care (the centre lays claim to the first ever patient-owned GP practice in the UK) to careers advice and art workshops, the Bromley by Bow Centre is a department store with a difference.

The Centre’s approach to future generations is particularly impressive. The borough of Tower Hamlets, home to the Bromley by Bow Centre, has staggering levels of unemployment (33% above the London average) and child poverty. Fast food outlets are everywhere, obesity is common and the borough is ranked third in London for alcohol specific hospital stays. Yet, the Centre is committed to changing the life chances for those most likely to lose out.

The Capital Talent programme is one such way that Rob and the team nurture the borough’s young people. Thanks to funding from LandAid in 2012 and an ongoing partnership with Barclays, the personal development programme has helped 1,200 young people prepare for the world of work in the past four years. Jana and Wade, two graduates of the programme, give credence to the impressive statistics. “I wasn’t getting anywhere with job interviews and didn’t want to spend 50 grand on university, on something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do”, explains Jana. Having flourished on the five-week programme, she has since found her forte as a careers advisor and is currently working as an apprentice with the Centre.  

Everything I've seen and heard today, from the passionate people to the vibrant buildings, points to the Centre's core value: assume it's possible. In a climate of cuts to public services and declining opportunities for those in poverty, this is a remarkably powerful statement. It's this ambitious attitude in the face of adversity that truly sets Bromley by Bow apart from the rest.

 

With thanks to staff from Cluttons, Cushman and Wakefield, Knight Frank, LaSalle, Paragon, Segro, Tower8 and LandAid trustees Suzanne Avery and Jenny Buck for attending the visit to Bromley By Bow. LandAid Charity Visits are free to all Foundation Partner companies.