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An eye on urban regeneration

Acklam Bridge
Acklam Bridge in north Kensington before and after Urban Eye's transformation

By Boc Ly
BBC London

Artist Miles Watson founded an organisation in the late 90s called Urban Eye that would use public art to regenerate inner city areas.

More than a decade later, Urban Eye has been involved in nearly 30 projects that have transformed public areas that were previously neglected and had become magnets for anti-social behaviour.

Miles, 50, of west London, talks to BBC London about Urban Eye and the philosophy behind their work.

The first blinks of Urban Eye

Miles Watson
Miles Watson is an artist and founder of Urban Eye

I was becoming a little less interested in the gallery world in the 90s when the YBA (Young British Artists) thing was kicking off. It was good for the art world but it wasn't the direction that I wanted to go in personally.

A pivotal moment was a competition for improvements to Portobello Bridge back in 1996 with one of the regeneration organisations. I put in some designs with an architect friend.

Nothing happened from the competition but that triggered an interest in looking at the built environment and thinking about things that could transform bits of the inner city.

Involving the community

We have worked a lot with local communities, schools, youth projects and associations. We've done quite a lot of work on estates to improve rundown areas with some success.

Some of our projects have been on sites that affect the quality of life for the people who live nearby. We want to transform these neglected sites and improve the space for the community.

The process
The sites are chosen by the fact that they are obviously neglected and that they fall between two or three stakeholders who don't or can't maintain them. They are often suggested by us or sometimes a local authority will come to us and ask us to address a particular site.

We want to transform these neglected sites and improve the space for the community
Miles Watson, Urban Eye

We can get permission to do something on a wall, possibly at a school. We decide on a theme with the school and sort out the funding. We'll start a drawing workshop with the children for some design ideas.


My job is to select the best of the drawings and match it with existing mosaic colours. Then we scale that up and the children will make it and we install it.

Some projects are more technical than others. It might involve a lot of permissions and agreements with engineers to find out if and how any work can be done on a bridge or other structure.

Then we go through the actual process to find out in detail what's required and then the costs. These type of projects have got quite a long lead time and we have to get all those agreements signed up before we even know what the artwork will be and the artwork tends to fit into a narrow brief.


Safety first

Acklam Bridge
The improved lighting has made a big difference at Acklam Bridge

Some sites have a reputation for being unsafe so we have done quite a lot of projects that are in alleyways where people have been mugged.

There was a pedestrian bridge [Acklam Bridge] in north Kensington and it was a very hostile environment. Our aim has been to try and transform the environment to make them feel safer.

So we are not only adding colour and trying to transform the feel of the environment but also to make it feel safer at night. Upgrading the lighting is one way to do that.

Legacy

We've done 15-20 mosaic projects and after ten years they've remained virtually graffiti free, including the ones that we have put into areas that were well known for the graffiti and vandalism.

We have worked with children that have been excluded from school and you might expect them to be the ones who did the graffiti. However, in one case when some graffiti did appear they were the ones who cleaned it off and they went and threatened the guy who had put it on because they recognised his tag.

When things are in good condition, people leave it. It's a little bit of the broken window effect. It's not a magic bullet and doesn't prevent graffiti completely but we have made a difference.



SEE ALSO
Slideshow: The art of urban regeneration
02 Nov 09 |  People & Places
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29 Sep 09 |  People & Places

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