If you’re a business based in South Bank, there’s a good chance you’ve taken a walk through Bernie Spain Gardens, picked up a present from one of the artisans in Oxo Tower Wharf, or grabbed a bite to eat in Gabriel’s Wharf – however, you may not be as familiar with the organisation underpinning it all, Coin Street Community Builders. A social enterprise that was born from a derelict riverside site in 1984, their 13 acre site is dedicated to creating a thriving and inspirational neighbourhood for people to work, live and play. From their nursery to their community programs, for many people in South Bank Coin Street provide a crucial lifeline.
With the pandemic and lockdown restrictions leaving many of their programs disrupted, or forced to stop completely, the Coin Street team had to look for new ways to ensure the valuable services they provide to the community would continue. We spoke to David Hopkins, Director of Community at Coin Street, to learn more about how Coin Street’s vision of ‘community’ has changed due to the past year, alongside the opportunities that can come from times like these.
Can you briefly take us through the history of Coin Street?
Coin Street emerged out of an extraordinary local campaign which began in the 1970s and culminated in the eventual purchase and redevelopment of our 13-acre site in 1984.
During the Second World War, the South Bank had suffered extensive bomb damage. The 1960s saw a huge increase in the number of office buildings in the area. By the early 1970s, the residential population of the area had fallen from 50,000 to just 4,500. Many schools, shops and local businesses closed.
By the mid-1970s local people were beginning to feel increasingly marginalised. Residents came together and created a community plan which prioritised people and aimed to make the neighbourhood a place where you could live, work and play. Coin Street Action Group was set up in 1977 in response to plans to build Europe’s tallest hotel and over 1 million square feet of office space. Supported by other local organisations, the group drew up plans for housing, a new riverside park and walkway, shops and workshops, and leisure facilities. After a long battle, the group won the right to purchase the derelict land in 1984, beginning the serious work of bringing their plans to life.
What is Coin Street’s idea and vision of ‘community’?
The kind of community we believe in is a place where you feel like you belong, and which is a vibrant and welcoming place for people to live, work and play. The mix is important to us. By that we mean you can find different people doing different things, sharing space and rubbing shoulders with each other.
You can see that reflected in the community spaces we look after. Turn up at 9am on a typical morning at our neighbourhood centre and you might find students from Kings College arriving for a seminar, parents dropping their toddlers off at nursery or attending a cookery session in the children’s centre, people waiting for a consultation with a CAB advisor or professionals from local businesses arriving for a workshop or a business meeting.
Visit Oxo Tower Wharf, The Colombo Centre, Bernie Spain Gardens or Gabriel’s Wharf and hopefully you’ll get that same sense. We’re aiming to create spaces where you wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised to bump into a group of children from the nearby school, a local designer maker or three, our MP, a group of senior citizens, workers from businesses out on their lunchbreak or your neighbour!
What do you think Coin Street’s role is in the South Bank of today?
The South Bank is undoubtedly the jewel in London’s crown. Even during lockdown, it has been a space people have naturally gravitated towards to squeeze the most out of their exercise time, which speaks volumes for how much love there is for the South Bank.
We’ve always championed spaces for artists and designer makers, as well as interesting food and drink businesses. Covid has given people time to reflect and we’re already finding new entrepreneurs and craftspeople are beginning to step forward. We’re so excited about helping introduce them to the world, working out of our retail and designer maker studios at Oxo Tower Wharf and Gabriel’s Wharf.
We’re also excited about our plans to transform the northern section of Bernie Spain Gardens into a green oasis, with lawns to lie on, flower beds and seating along the riverside, a new gardeners’ pavilion and a diverse mix of pollinator plants and trees to improve air quality and attract wildlife. Covid has reminded us how vital parks and gardens are for our wellbeing, and we know Bernie Spain Gardens and the riverside have been lifelines for those locally without gardens to get their fix of nature. You can read more about our campaign here.
What were some of the particular challenges the Coin Street team faced during lockdown?
As with many organisations, the initial impact of Covid on Coin Street and its community was huge, and quite sudden. We were running face to face groups and activities seven days a week and we had to work out how to get these online, and how to help get the people who usually attend online. Cue lots of Zoom tutorials and getting hold of smart phones, SIM cards and tablets for those in our community who couldn’t afford to get online, or who wouldn’t know where to start (particularly amongst our older participants).
The sudden drop in footfall to Central London had a great impact on the many small independent businesses housed on Coin Street’s site, which includes Oxo Tower Wharf and Gabriel’s Wharf.
And our community had to deal with the many issues that are now familiar to most: the closure of schools, loneliness, loss of jobs and a heightened sense of vulnerability. Thankfully, we were able to react quickly and respond to the needs of our community.
How have some of the projects Coin Street were planning to take forward been impacted by the pandemic?
Many of our services and activities moved online, and we now run countless virtual sessions weekly for people of all ages to stay connected. These include homework tutoring, youth groups, fitness classes, parent and toddler sessions and our art clubs.
Additionally, Coin Street has delivered over 16,000 meals to the local community, given out over 1000 activity and care packs to toddlers, children and adults, helped children attending Coin Street’s summer camp to access 228 ‘take and make’ food boxes, and provided 246 grocery packs for the most vulnerable.
Over Christmas, we delivered 102 packs for seniors including teas, masks, soaps, G&Ts and children’s artworks. We delivered 76 packs to families including 40 bags of food, essential supplies, and some special items, and we delivered 21 packs to young people and young adults. We delivered 199 packs altogether!
How do you think your position as a vital member of the community has influenced your actions during lockdown?
It’s been brilliant to see all the local organisations and businesses pulling together.
We’re happy t been able to play a role connecting local businesses who can help with those in the community who need a bit of help. With our income failing through the floor there is no way we could have afforded to provide so many care packages and meals without the incredible support we have received from local businesses who donated so many goodies, which brightened up many a doorstep when we dropped them off!
We know many of Coin Street seniors were deeply moved when they received a hand-crafted Christmas card and personal message from a local young person we had matched them with, to brighten up an otherwise lonely festive period.
Connecting the dots has been more important than ever, and we’ll continue to do so at Coin Street!
How does the commercial side of Coin Street, such as the restaurants, Gabriel’s Wharf etc, support the wider Coin Street community?
Every time you go for a meal at one of the restaurants, or buy a handcrafted gift, piece of art or clothing at Oxo Tower Wharf or Gabriel’s Wharf, or even grab a drink with a friend at Coin Street, you’re investing in your community. That income is the income which helps us run our youth clubs, look after the riverside and Bernie Spain Gardens, support our housing co-ops, put on our weekly gardening club and community choir, and helps fund our summer boat trips and Christmas parties for seniors, and all of the other community activities for which Coin Street is known.
We generate about 75% of our income from our commercial activities and reinvest most of that back into our community. The idea is to keep the money circulating in the local economy and putting it to work locally.
It’s not just about the income though. We aim to curate commercial businesses across the Coin Street estate, which are both useful for our community and make for an interesting and vibrant mix for those visiting our sites. As well as creating start up space for those at the beginning of their journey in business, which has always been an important element of what we can bring to the South Bank.
Have the challenges of lockdown strengthened the sense of community within Coin Street?
As a nation we’ve all been reminded that when the chips are down, community is what matters.
Organisations in and around the South Bank have always been pretty good at collaborating, with SBEG and the BID being a great example.
The challenges of lockdown have brought us even closer together and Coin Street is working closely at the moment with a small group of community organisations to develop plans for a new Waterloo Community Resilience Hub to underpin the recovery effort.
We know young people are going to bear the brunt of the longer-term impacts of Covid on their prospects for the future. We’ve got some brilliant businesses and some brilliant people locally, so we’ve got real opportunities to make sure our young people don’t fall through the cracks Covid has opened up. We’re up for the challenge of rebuilding and recovery – as the history of the South Bank shows: we’ve done it before!
To find out more about Coin Street’s work please visit www.coinstreet.org