Old Town Masterplan: I have a dream

By - Wednesday 23rd April, 2014

Andrew Dickinson contemplates what Croydon could become if Exchange Square were given a greener purpose

Image by hahnchen and used under Creative Commons licence.

It’s a warm Monday night in June 2018. A cooling breeze blows over the cobbles in Exchange Square. A group of fifteen students have just left the Croydon Environmental Centre (CEC) based in the pumping station after the first of a four day residential permaculture course. The members of the group wish each other a pleasant evening and break in to separate groups, beginning their evenings of relaxation.

Some of the younger members amble across to Matthews Yard café to have a leisurely meal and hear some live music. A few of the more mature ones are venturing down to the Restaurant Quarter in South End to sample some of the great places they read about in the local brochure. One is going over to Wandle Park to see the river and catch some live music in the bandstand and two are off to Westfield to buy some essential items that they left at home. Once their evenings are complete they will all fall asleep in a nearby hotel to recharge their batteries as tomorrow they will be off to the Croydon Ecology Centre to see some permaculture principles in action and do some practical work and meet the sheep.

It’s another busy week for the environmental centre. Since it opened in autumn of the previous year every course on the timetable is fully booked day and evening! There’s just time for the six full time staff and four part-time to cross over shifts, get the chairs and tables back, tidy up, grab a bite and prepare one of the rooms for Croydon Friends of the Earth to come in for their annual general meeting.

The arts and crafts market had become the go to market in South London for the one-off, crafty, arty things we like to spend our money on

Later in the week another group of students is coming in for a one-day course in urban mushroom growing on waste coffee grounds and will be taken on a tour of the urban mushroom farm. Several of the group had requested the course on a Friday, necessitating a reshuffle of the timetable so they could stay overnight to see the popular arts and crafts market on Saturday in Exchange Square. This event, established in 2014, had become the go-to market in South London for the one-off, crafty, arty things we like to spend our money on.

The arts and crafts market runs alongside the artisan food market and Surrey Street fruit and vegetable market, making this area of the Old Town vibrant and alive. Several traders who had moved out to the Crystal Palace market a few years earlier had returned when the Exchange Square project had blossomed. All this resurgence came about from a proposal in response to the Old Town Master plan focusing on the use of the pumping station and Exchange Square.

* * *

What’s the background to this idea for the future of Exchange Square? Well, pre-Matthews Yard café and workspace, I was making enquiries about the pumping station and was disappointed to find that Croydon didn’t own the building. I wanted to see inside to get an idea of what state it was in and was told by the council that the keys were held by an asset management company. Armed with the name of that company and the person to contact I got in touch and the gentleman explained that an offer had been made and accepted on the premises and, being of a commercially sensitive nature, he could say no more. That was that.

The pumping house was still left, disappointingly, untouched

I then started to follow the early developments of the building work of Matthews Yard under the impression that it was being built in the pumping station. I couldn’t understand why there was never any construction mess outside the station or scaffold or anything – only to find many months later that it was under the Conference Centre and that the pumping house was still left, disappointingly, untouched. In the following years I have heard rumours that a gym or a restaurant, or – wait for it – offices were being lined up to go in there, three suggestions that we already have an abundance of and which I feel would be an inappropriate use of such a historical and interesting building.

Instead of offices or restaurants, here are some of my ideas on how the space could be used to achieve the idyllic vision I described:

1. The pumping station

The first suggestion is to use the pumping station building as the home of a new initiative, the Croydon Environmental Centre (CEC). A multi-use community building that gives Croydon town an environmental heart, something that it lacks and seemingly has never had. The idea is that the level of daily activity created by holding residential training courses throughout the week and having weekend events would lead to a resurgence in the use of the Exchange Square piazza.

2. Croydon Environment Centre (CEC)

The CEC would offer daytime and evening classes in subjects ranging from permaculture, food growing, cookery, arts and crafts, cider making, food dehydrating/preserving and urban beekeeping. There could be a full programme covering many mainstream eco-activities. The courses would be fee paying and can be residential as Croydon offers several nearby hotels and there are numerous cafés, restaurants, bars and other entertainment for groups and individuals to spend a series of evenings in Croydon, thereby boosting the local day and nighttime economy. CEC could negotiate discounts with hotels, restaurants, retailers and car parks to offer attendees. Croydon’s position and transport links make it an easy choice for these courses as I know from personal experience that attendees travel miles even from overseas for the right course.

The CEC would be twinned with the Heathfield Ecology Centre and would enable relevant groups to visit the centre when attending a course. Also there would be visits to the Good Food Matters project in New Addington, joining up the dots between these fantastic organisations and creating supportive bonds and creating a wider audience. There are also several community food growing spaces springing up around the borough and a tour of these could be included. These visits would be an easy journey by public transport, cab or, better still, a donated CEC mini bus.

3. Meeting place for groups

Croydon has numerous, active groups and one difficulty for them is having a usable meeting place and a usable space that is comfortable, reasonably spacious and quiet. I’m part of three groups and each of them faces the same problem of having somewhere suitable to convene. With the CEC properly set up and divided into usable rooms and workspaces then more than one group could be in residence at any one time and not be disturbing the other. It could lead to an interesting fusion of groups and ideas to make various events and ideas happen. A small charge could be levied for the use, but not initially. Groups that could use the site include:

  • Croydon Natural History Scientific Society
  • Croydon Friends of the Earth
  • Croydon Fairtrade Network
  • Turf Projects
  • Croydon Transition Town
  • Croydon Green Party
  • Various Friends Groups: Friends of Wandle Park, for example
  • Croydon Arts Network
  • Croydon Herb Society
  • Croydon Trade School (where appropriate)
  • South Croydon Communities Association
  • Croydon Communities Consortium

4. Environment standards of the building

The building could be heated by waste from Surrey Street market – paper, card, food, wooden crates. With solar panels on the roof there could be a community solar project along with bees kept on the roof producing urban honey and wax. It could also have a rainwater harvesting system.

5. Croydon Radio studios

The station has outgrown its Matthews Yard home and has a need for extra studio space in which to present and produce shows. Croydon Radio has ambitious plans for the future. There is a need for a training space to help develop new and existing presenters to grow their communication and radio skills and make themselves more marketable in the professional radio sector. Croydon Radio will pursue an AM or FM license in the future so the potential is there for this initiative to really grow and become well known in Croydon and beyond. Just imagine, “Croydon Radio broadcasting live from Exchange Square in the heart of Old Town”.

6. Croydon arts and crafts centre

There’s a groundswell of interest and activity to boost the arts in Croydon, it would add to the offerings of the Fairfield Halls and the David Lean auditorium, and plug other gaps in the borough’s arts scene. There’s the recently formed Croydon Arts Network which has come together to drive this. There’s a monthly Arts and Crafts Market starting in Exchange Square. The Pump House can play a part to be the centre point for a thriving arts and crafts renaissance or beginning even. Surely it’s the most appropriate place for it to happen in town?

7. Light industry

This arts and crafts renaissance could lead to an establishment of light industries in the unused units alongside any shops and cafes that opened. Any light industries could have a unit to sell any of the goods they are producing. Creative types could be encouraged by initial low rents whilst they establish. An example could be a business building a product unique to Croydon such as ‘the Croydon Bike’, creating jobs and making the public fitter. You’ve heard of Boris bikes – well, we would have the Croydon bike. Part of a broader desire to get residents cycling, to get cars off the roads and to make us all fitter, from the very young to the very old.

8. Croydon Green Fair

This annual environmental event held in North End is looking for a permanent location and Exchange Square could be that location again with the CEC as its centre point. The square would give the event an enclosed, bordered space, thereby creating a better feel than where it is now, sprawled along North End. This would also mean there was an annual event to add to the calendar, which could grow year on year, and again add to the local economy by bringing in large footfall.

9. Croydon Fairtrade Network/Fairtrade Fortnight

The CEC can act as a focal point for more expanded Fairtrade Fortnight events. Rather than being held in the Whitgift Centre, Centrale, a library foyer, or in the future possibly not being given space in Westfield, the CEC would act as the centre for Croydon’s Fairtrade activities. It would endorse our reputation as London’s first Fairtrade borough.

10. Health food shop

Since the closure of Authentic Roots the only health food shop is the chain store Holland and Barrett. We need an independent offering. It would also be a positive if the shop sold fairtrade products as the town once had a Fairtrade shop, ‘Fair Enough’, down by the minster, which disappointingly closed many years ago. Croydon has an obesity problem and an interest in healthy eating and living could be generated from here with individuals and groups who would like to see this happen adding to the established health initiatives already out there.

11. Croydon urban mushroom farm

As previously mentioned, it could have Croydon’s very own Urban Mushroom Farm. Gourmet oyster mushrooms grown on waste coffee grounds collected from local cafés and restaurants would apply the ‘proximity principle’ of waste being disposed of or used as close to the source of the waste as possible. Collected by environmentally-friendly cargo bike or Croydon cargo bikes by volunteers or part-time employees, the grounds are inoculated and then produce the delicious ‘Cr’Oyster’ mushrooms. These can then be delivered to restaurants and individual customers by the same means when collecting the grounds. This could be an income stream for the centre.

12. Croydon cider

We are very fortunate to have the new brewers of the Cronx Brewery operating out of New Addington. There’s room for a Croydon Cider Company which would make use of donated and windfall apples from around the borough and brought to the centre where they could be pressed, and the technique could be included on a cider-making course. Spinoffs from this could be a Croydon apple juice and a Croydon raw vinegar – again, creating income streams for the centre.

13. Funding

I’ve heard it said that the pumping station has no floor, no electrical wiring, and over time has not been cared for, meaning that it would cost millions to bring it in to a usable condition. It is disgraceful that it was left in a unusable condition when the whole square was refurbished. What a missed opportunity, not to have built this into the costs of the whole project. So we – or rather the owners – are left with a shell. I can see this project being part of a partnership of funders much like Wandle Park had, with contributions from the Mayor of London, property developers, National Lottery Heritage funds and our own money from the council and private investment. I’m sure that there are enough significant businesses with a vested interest in the town who could be approached to contribute funding.

14. Other Old Town suggestions

  • Surrey Street Market to have a roof put in for stallholders and electrical power for lighting
  • Exchange Square to have roofing to make it more suitable for all weather
  • Ryland House to have a natural green growth covering it (imagine that from a distance)
  • Wrought iron overhead signage at both ends of the market saying Surrey Street Market and at the entrance to Matthews Yard and Exchange Square

* * *

So there it is. The CEC and Exchange Square are now as synonymous with Croydon as Westfield, the World Heritage Croydon Airport and a certain hairstyle. Numerous other London boroughs now use the CEC’s consultancy services for setting up their own environmental centres as green issues and how we continue to live on this planet become foremost in peoples minds, and central government has made the funds available to councils to enable this to happen. As with many things, Croydon is a leader once again.

Andrew Dickinson

Andrew Dickinson

I'm a long term resident of Croydon and I'm lucky to live and work in the borough. As a schoolboy my proudest moments were playing representative football for Croydon where I would fight tooth and nail to win for the borough and contribute towards its sporting reputation. For 18 years I worked up in London and became distanced from the town. Now I've re-engaged with the place over the last 20 years and feel frustrated in finding a way to vent my passion for Croydon (as I'm too old to play football) so I'm always on the lookout for any new initiatives to bring positivity to the place. I live on Bramley Hill with my lovely family and I have an allotment locally. I'm a keen amateur in gardening, environmentalism, permaculture, photography and website design. I'm an oyster mushroom farmer, run a social enterprise called Green Croydon, I'm part of the Croydon Fairtrade steering group, part of the Croydon ReUse Organisation, current chair of Croydon Transition Town and a community gardener; I'm on the borough Food Programme, Parks and Social Enterprise steering groups and a community apple presser. I currently work for the council as an officer creating and promoting community events in the beautiful Wandle Park. I put on the Croydon Environmental Fair each year and the Summer of Love theme and festival was something I dreamed up. I inspired the 'I would make Croydon better by' theme. There's also the Give and Take events in Surrey Street. I started the monthly Arts, Crafts and Vintage market in Exchange Square. Formerly I was a Turf Projects trustee, a Croydon Radio presenter and part of the Old Town business association.Between all this, I write the occasional article for the Citizen. I support local artists and local musicians by enabling the space for them to create I also support local independent journalism.

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  • Croydon Radio

    A great vision, Andy. And thanks for thinking of Croydon Radio too! :)

  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    Absolutely phenomenal, Andrew.

    I’ve been a big fan of the environmental/Green/Transition Town narrative and am very keen to really see it accelerate.

    As someone who’s doing this from the tech angle and getting noticeable results; can I strongly encourage you not to let this embryonic manifesto for change disappear into the ether but rather be the foundational doc for the Croydon green movement proper.

    To that effect, some suggestions of how you can do this:

    - Start a blog – make this article the foundational ‘manifesto for change’ so people know what you/they are going to be aiming for
    - Write more on this topic, across as many media sites as possible (get others to write for you if it’s not your strong suit)
    - Meet with likeminded people fortnightly, if not more. Ideally in Matthews Yard.
    - Find likeminded people (not just vague ‘supporters’) who will shoulder equal share of the work)
    - Work out the milestones to achieve each aim numbered aim, set monthly increments so you know how you you’re going to measure progress

    That’s pretty much what I did when I wrote this: jonathanrose.wordpress.com/the-vision-croydon-the-second-tech-city/ – so the above will hopefully work for Croydon’s green crew, too.

    I can assure you this ‘rejuvenating-Croydon-with-visions’ is not just a young man’s game, and I look forward to you making this a reality by 2018, if not sooner :)

  • blath8@googlemail.com

    Brilliant! What a fabulous picture to have in my mind now about how it could all look and work. The trick now is to make it happen ….

  • http://batman-news.com Mark Johnson

    “I can see this project being part of a partnership of funders much like Wandle Park had, with contributions from the Mayor of London, property developers, National Lottery Heritage funds and our own money from the council and private investment. I’m sure that there are enough significant businesses with a vested interest in the town who could be approached to contribute funding.”
    I would concetrate on Private Funding. Just assuming that the State will give you money is always the wrong way to go.
    If such a project is financially viable the you should be able to find the money. If it isn’t then the council etc shouldn’t have to fund it.
    With the negative bits out of the way. The project is a good idea on paper and I hope you are successful with your plans. It is a shame that the Square is still empty as it is a really good space that is under utilised.
    Good Luck!

  • Mark Russell

    Cider is something we have thought about doing on numerous occasions and hopefully something we will do in the future, could always make it more community based if something like this was to happen.

    We always thought the Pumping Station would make an awesome brewery though! ;)

  • constance blackwell

    i like the idea of having space for the sale of arts and crafts – and please galleries – inner london including Hackney and the east end are too expensive now for young artis
    this would also attract young people to the area and liven up the night life – as ell as day life

  • constance blackwell

    I will add one further thought – there are in Addiscombe a couple of wonderful local businesses – in particular an excellent butcher with homemade meat pies – homemade jam, their own sausages and at times meat and vegetable stock – i would like to join with someone else and over time visit the various town in the area test some of their food – and – yeas have reviews here on the news about this excellent home grown talent

  • Andrew Dickinson

    Thanks for all the comments one and all. There’s some really good advice in here and other positive remarks. I’ve had lots of feedback in person as well.At the moment for the pumping station it is sorting out ownership issues.I’ve heard that there have been other good suggestions for it that have not been disclosed. I will keep trying.

  • Joyce Veheary

    I would certainly love to stay living near Croydon if this was the future. Until then, does anyone know of any fixer upper workshops, tool share programs, hackerspace type sessions. I’m interested in getting a group of likeminded creative problem solvers together to repair tools together, upcycle furniture and share ideas on a regular basis. Does anyone else like the idea? Get in touch if so?

    • Andrew Dickinson

      Hi Joyce
      Croydon ReUse Organisation (CRO) is just setting up in Reeves Corner touching on the ideas you raised. Are you around this afternoon to meet up?
      Andy D