by Francesca Perry
Adaptive reuse in cities is nothing new. ‘Saved’ historical buildings find new purposes all the time, often as long as there is commercial gain involved. Former school buildings tend to be converted into contemporary art galleries or luxury accommodation. But what about those newer sites? City schools that have had to shut down or move due to financial or practical pressures, leaving behind whole complexes at once poignant and unusable.
One place that sets an admirable standard is the former Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth, London. The school moved to a new site in 2005, deserting a complex of 1960s buildings. But instead of another case of luxury redevelopment, the local community ensured that it was transformed in to a sports hub, offering enhanced services to people living on the local estates and surrounding areas. Starting as a summer programme, four sports halls were opened and became a new centre for sports, health and community locally. The summer programme gained support and grew in to sustained activity run by Sport Action Zone, later renamed Community Action Zone.
Now re-launched as the Black Prince Community Hub with improved facilities and a neighbourhood cafe, the place is undeniably a crucial local asset for youth provision, health and community cohesion in the middle of London. The old classrooms have been opened up and host an array of social, educational and cultural activities. Classes are run by the local Albanian, Eritrean and Somalian communities. Organisations that use arts to encourage community cohesion and empowerment have made the hub their home, including Creative Sparkworks and Fotosynthesis. The true community value of what is offered here far, far outweighs the potential commerical value of the site (developers take note).
Elsewhere, it’s comforting to know former schools are being used as crucial community hubs. The One Love Community Centre in Newham, a converted school building, provides training, childcare, and seeks to enhance employment and education opportunities for ethnic minorities locally. The St Werburghs Community Centre in Bristol, another former school complex, provides spaces and facilities for community groups and organisations, building local partnerships through events and projects.
A closed-down school in San Antonio, Texas, was recently ‘reborn’ as a Girl Scouts Leadership Center. Having been closed due to state funding cuts, the school is now a safe and vital hub for girls, Scout leaders and families. What’s also great is to see the process reversed: a disused community centre in Newport, Wales, could soon be converted to provide a nursery for an adjacent school.
While it’s great that in cities today, disused spaces become pop-up places in wait of development, and newly vacant properties can be part of residential guardianship schemes, it takes something else entirely to galvanise an unused and empty space into a real community hub – a real asset.
This is regeneration as it should be, without the increasing affiliation of gentrification: it is about supporting and providing for the existing urban community.