The London Festival of Architecture has always proved to be a platform for vigorous debate – both about our theme and about wider issues affecting London. On our Views Pages we give space to a range of contributors including industry leaders, curators, academics, politicians and other less-heard voices to express their views and ideas. These are their opinions and not necessarily those of the Festival. We hope you find them in equal parts inspiring and challenging.

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Ros Morgan on Boundaries

  • Ros Morgan is Chief Executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance. In this essay, Ros talks about the important challenge of choosing which boundaries to celebrate and which ones to obscure.

 

The Heart of London Business Alliance is defined by geographical boundaries. It is located in the City of Westminster and spans the neighbourhoods of Piccadilly, Leicester Square and St James’s as well as the edges of Chinatown, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. Among many famous streets in the area are Piccadilly, Regent Street St James’s, Haymarket and Jermyn Street, which all have long, rich histories. To some extent, the definition of our patch is instinctive – it feels about right.  As with many boundaries, it is also pragmatic. Its boundary has been set based on the property locations of current Heart of London Business Alliance members, including an extension beyond the current BID area to the east of Charing Cross Road. The area is also defined and divided by countless – often overlapping –  boundaries: physical boundaries such as pedestrianised zones and vehicular and public transport routes, but also the thresholds between different land ownerships, different uses, historic character zones and different development projects.

 

Some, like the threshold between two historic neighbourhoods, are fundamental to our enjoyment of the city.  They highlight its richness and its history; celebrate its complexity and contrasts: the area is notable for its contrasting characters, from the formality and gravitas of Regent Street’s Portland stone facades to the ‘Piccadilly Lights’, projecting its animated collage of advertisements throughout the day and night. Others, such as the boundary between different landownerships, may not contribute anything at all.

 

Heart of London has been working with public realm consultants Publica over the past year, to establish the principles for a long-term programme of improvements to the public realm to ensure that we retain and enhance the qualities which give the area its unique urban character and world-class status at the heart of the West End. A key concern is to ensure that the boundaries – both within and around – our core area are carefully considered; that we celebrate the boundaries which enrich our understanding and experience of the city, but obscure those which don’t. We have extended our area of interest to one or two city blocks beyond our patch – taking in connections to Covent Garden, Mayfair, Whitehall, Soho and a larger portion of St James’s – to ensure that thresholds with surrounding streets and neighbourhood are given the attention they deserve. We are working hard to ensure that boundaries within the Heart of London area, particularly between discrete development projects, are not perceived as boundaries at all, but rather as part of a rich, coherent, seamless public realm.

 

These are the areas which can all too easily become the most impoverished corners of our city. Sudden changes in, say, street furniture or signage or paving treatment or management regime, can simply add to the sense of disorientation or clutter. There is a very fine line between an exciting juxtaposition and an inexcusable mess.

 

Heart of London Business Alliance is a 2019 London Festival of Architecture (LFA) festival hub. To find out more please visithttps://heartoflondonbid.london/events/lfa-2019/

 

 

 

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Rob Fiehn on Boundaries

Rob Fiehn is a London-based freelance communications consultant, working within the built environment industry. In this essay, Rob shares his thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

 

 

 

The more I think about the abstract concept of boundaries, the more I become confusingly ambivalent. I’ve always thought about them as wholly negative. A boundary is like a border or a wall (concepts which have been widely covered in global press recently) and they are divisive and unhelpful. Often boundaries separate people and places, with the impression that one group is not welcome in a neighbouring zone. As a child of the 80s, the Berlin Wall seemed to be an ever-present backdrop to the world’s problems, representing a schism between families, culture and national identity. Even at a young age I was aware of it as a violent political act and the day that this particular boundary was brought down was a symbol of liberation that reverberated around the world. Unfortunately, it seems that humans rarely learn from our collective mistakes and walls are back on the agenda.

 

Within the city body boundaries are a part of everyday life. Invisible lines delineate boroughs which are almost imperceptible to the average Londoner but they have massive ramifications in terms of planning and regulations. We also unwittingly run up against mental barriers all the time, often linked to a sense of privilege and ownership. The recent segregated playgrounds that have become a national scandal throw this into stark contrast although few of us were genuinely surprised. The housing crisis is another daily reminder that economic boundaries control our lives in cities and London is possibly one of the worst offenders in a world of inequalities.  In architecture, we regularly discuss the chasm between education and practice and this seems to set up an unnecessarily antagonistic boundary between universities and commercial organisations.

 

We’re attempting to tackle all of these issues in the upcoming series of the Negroni Talks as part of LFA 2019 and despite the doom and gloom we are hopeful. For instance, once you identify a clear boundary it becomes possible to bridge the gap or even smash right through it. We can empower architects to demonstrate to the rest of society that there are no hard boundaries and many solutions to everyday problems arise when we cast them aside. Not only that but the interstitial space between boundaries is often where the most exciting things happen. The borderlands between local authorities is one visceral example where visionary buildings can be created in the spaces where control is in doubt. The profession must use the tools in their architectural skillset to investigate boundaries and then demonstrate why they’re irrelevant in the bigger picture.

 

 

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Fluid Boundaries – community contemporary dance performances responding to architectural landmarks

Clare Richards is the founder and director of ft’work (Footwork Architects), a non-profit organisation, working to help create thriving communities and ensure clear social principles underpin development within the built environment. She is also a patron of the London Festival of Architecture. In this essay she shares her thoughts on our 2019 theme of boundaries.

LFA Patron, ft’work, is partnering with leading contemporary dance company Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in a public dance response to the Festival’s theme of ‘boundaries’, bridging the gap between physical, social and cultural barriers.
Here’s our first update.

 

SJD has now recruited dancers from schools and community groups. Secondary school students from Oaklands School and Mulberry School will be taking part alongside senior dancers from Green Candle Dance company. Under Shobana Jeyasingh’s guidance and using her hallmark creative process, they’ll shortly begin work with the company’s dancers, producers and an architect to create a short intergenerational, site-responsive performance. The final work will be performed in two outdoor locations in central London, as well as in the participants’ schools and local communities.

 

The first site has been selected — Aldgate Square. It’s ideal for several reasons. The backdrop of both old and new buildings reflects the rich social and commercial history of the City: a church, a school, a public square, shops and office blocks. The physical form of the renovated square, with a sculptural stone boundary, seats, pavers, flowerbeds and lawn, provides a range of levels, textures and surfaces. It has a large footfall, with a new café at one end and with people enjoying the space for their lunch breaks.

 

Our amateur dancers are looking forward to creating their own dance movements and to explore the architectural landmarks. It will allow the young people to dance directly with older dancers, to benefit from a truly creative approach to making movement and to work with their bodies and minds. By also performing in front of their peers, they’ll have a unique opportunity to bring contemporary dance to new audiences. As one of the teachers remarked: ‘This is a great project with huge benefits for participants and the public’.

 

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Boundaries Change…

Chris Dyson is the principal of Chris Dyson Architects. In this essay, Chris shares his thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

Living and working in Spitalfields, I have seen the boundaries of time change a neighbourhood for the better. Commercial Street used to be a major division between the City of London and the poorer parts of our neighbourhood, carved out by Act of Parliament in 1825 to improve the safe passage of goods from the Thames to the West End. The Spitalfields that I have come to know and love is now a cosmopolitan place with a great tradition of accepting people and affording them places to live, such as French Huguenots, Russians, Irish and most recently Bangladeshi. Being open in spirit as place and people has, I think, made Spitalfields what it is today: long may it continue to thrive.

For good or ill, Commercial Street is still the main artery – lined with 4 and 5 storey warehouse buildings with episodes marking places along what is becoming our high street – no longer a divide but a place in itself. However the traffic and pollution is atrocious and I hope one day the artery of vehicles can be restricted to the bare essentials and cyclists will have a safer passage along its length.

Our practice recently relocated to the junction of Fashion and Commercial Streets, giving us a corner profile and great address – where much like a department we offer the visitor coffee, bespoke tailoring and architecture! Just as Harry Selfridge first did in 1908, the department store in its finest form offers no boundaries, drawing people to visit and marvel at wonders sourced from all over the world. Our Cobb Street project, now on site on the edge of the City, is an artist’s studio and residence reflecting this ongoing process of change. The mixed use development will offer much back to animate the local streets, hopefully creating a new artistic quarter in this part of Spitalfields.

Youth knows no bounds on the streets here, enjoying the cafes, gyms, yoga centres, clubs and all the independent retail experiences the place has to offer. Old Spitalfields Market is a great model of private development for public good – formed like a donut with shops lining its perimeter and a covered piazza style space within with myriad small independent food outlets. As a building form it has obvious boundaries with gateways, but is essentially open and inviting, providing a heart to the neighbourhood. Here I can walk my dog Milo and visit my favourite bike shop for coffee and feel at one with the place. Much like Halifax Piece Hall, it provides a sense of place – open and inviting and quite the opposite of an Oxford or Cambridge college quadrangle.

As architects we can draw upon these successful urban models as we create new masterplans for the expansion of our city. Tall buildings and increased density work well if designed alongside green open spaces for interaction – something we do miss around here, although I’m hopeful that the redeveloped Bishopsgate Goodsyard and nearby Allen Gardens may offer this in the future.

Like so much of central London, Spitalfields is a palimpsest of people, places and activity where boundaries constantly change. Recognising that old ways are no longer relevant is not a negative act: it I can be a positive one that offers new hope and relevance for the neighbourhood. We must learn to embrace change and throw away the boundaries we impose upon ourselves.

 

 

Inspiration for our place …“Changing Place, Changing Time, Changing Thoughts, Changing Future” artwork by Maurizio Nannucci (2003).

Neon light. Private collection Stetten, Germania. Courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

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Vanessa Norwood on Boundaries

Vanessa Norwood is the creative director of the building centre. In this essay, Vanessa shares her thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

Boundaries shift. Architecture is often viewed with a sense of permanence but time brings a fluidity to the physical fabric of our cities. Boundaries are not erased with each new community that settles but reclaimed, repositioned and repurposed. Architecture adapts.

Boundaries are the result of many forces that push and pull the city and its inhabitants; the political zeitgeist, the will of developers reacting to the financial opportunities of a place, the need for growth and modernity often at odds with our desire to keep the familiar. ‘Gentrification’ shifts boundaries and large areas of the city that once housed artists and students become unaffordable. We ourselves are shifted by boundaries.

 

London has faced recent criticism for becoming a ‘property portfolio’ where booming prices and government policy has led to a social apartheid within the city. London is home to anincreasing number of  ‘ghost towers’ as foreign investors, deterred by tightening regulations and a looming Brexit, find the glut of luxury developments less appealing.

 

Writer and activist Jane Jacobs led a campaign in the late 1950s to save what we consider today to be quintessential New York, Little Italy and Soho, from Robert Moses and his developer’s scythe. Jacob’s 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities celebrated the active sidewalk; ‘Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves’.

 

Truly democratic public space is of vital importance to an activated city. George Monbiot in his 2017 book How Did We Get Into This Mess? warns against the semi-privatisation of public space noting that UK city centres ‘are being turned by the companies that run them into soulless, cheerless, pasteurised piazzas’ where street life is ‘reduced to a trance-world of consumerism, of conformity and atomisation.’ The UK Government has recently appointed a Minister responsible for ‘loneliness’ while the co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission for Loneliness reports ‘When the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear, we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society.’

 

Good architecture is a key protagonist in the story of a successful city. When Lina Bo Bardi designed a building having been set the conditions that it must not obstruct important views of the city beyond or destroy a valued ground level gathering space she pulled the building in two making the elevated form of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art completed in 1968 one of the 20thcentury’s most iconic works.

 

The London Festival of Architecture offers an opportunity to celebrate the city and to bring us together to consider what we must cherish and what must be challenged.

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Clare Richards on Boundaries

Clare Richards is the founder and director of ft'work (Footwork Architects), a non-profit organisation, working to help create thriving communities and ensure clear social principles underpin development within the built environment. She is also a patron of the London Festival of Architecture. In this essay she shares her thoughts on our 2019 theme of boundaries.

I did two things this week in preparation for LFA 2019. The first was to visit a hospital-based project in Waterloo that intercepts young victims of gang violence and then works with them for 6 months back home. The second was a meeting with a leading contemporary dance company which, as part of its outreach, creates choreographies to bring together people of all ages and backgrounds.

So what do knife crime and dance have to do with a festival of architecture, or the built environment for that matter? The stark picture of London, as it sets about addressing a housing crisis and failing high streets, is of growing inequality, intolerance, child poverty, homelessness and isolation. Rather than improving people’s lives, many communities see regeneration and development as something that is done to them, not with or for them.

I happen to believe strongly that it’s the collective responsibility of those of us shaping the city’s built environment to rise to the social challenge that this represents. The question of how to value and bring value to London’s existing communities is at the heart of this, yet our preoccupation is with the red line that marks the boundary of a site — whether as a physical constraint, a design challenge, or an economic opportunity. Behind physical boundaries there are invisible social boundaries, yet they only feature in development currency to the extent that we choose to identify them, reveal them and respond to them.

In fact I’m an optimist and I think we’re moving in the right direction. I was heartened at the launch of the RIBA’s current exhibition, Making it Happen, New Community Architecture, to hear curator Pete Collard describing a growing interest among students and young architects in “designing for public good”. This isn’t just about being more socially aware, it also makes good economic sense — thriving communities add value in every sense.

That’s why, for this year’s festival, I am working on two projects exploring how physical and social boundaries overlap. The first is a series of short films, one of which will trace an apparently innocuous postcode boundary, with a voice-over of comments by the young victims of violence for whom this boundary has a very different meaning. The second is a cross-cultural and inter-generational dance project on the theme of ‘boundaries’, culminating in two site-specific public performances.

The Festival is now so well-established, its reach so impressive, that it can call upon London’s huge pool of design talent to come up with ambitious events responding to all manner of boundaries — social, cultural, technical, material and physical. The LFA not only shows the world what London’s designers have to offer, it’s an important showcase for what we can offer our city, which is why ft’work greatly values being a Patron.

I see this year’s theme as an opportunity to push the festival’s own boundaries, to reach outside the design world to all Londoners.

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Peter Murray on the streets of London and boundaries

The West End Project is a splendid thing. It involves widening the pavements of Tottenham Court Road, excluding all motor vehicles except for buses. Gower Street will revert to two lanes for traffic and will be enhanced by a segregated bicycle route.

The first phase of the project will be completed in spring this year in plenty of time for the delayed opening of the Elizabeth Line which will spew over 200,000 pedestrians a day onto the pavements around the new station.

High-quality new paving is being installed. Elegant and smooth, it aspires to the sort of placemaking one finds as a given in European cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Milan. But why on earth is there an untidy line of mortar which straggles down the middle of the sidewalk, spoiling its pristine appearance?

It’s a small and often unnoticed boundary that is a characteristic part of the London street scene.

New paviors butt uncomfortably against panels of glazed blocks that allow daylight into the basements of the buildings fronting the street or panels that allow smoke out in the case of fire.

It’s not just a problem for Tottenham Court Road, but many of the public space improvements of recent years. Look at the impressive work that has been carried out in Bond Street recently and you’ll find the same thing happens where there are basements which run out under the highway.

In some cases, it has been possible for designers to negotiate with the building owners to extend the paving treatment over their private property, but not where there are glazed blocks. In some areas, it was not possible pave over private property because it would have meant the local authority taking on liability for any structural damage – something that it was understandably unwilling to consider.

The project was made considerably more complicated by time-consuming negotiations; even where there was a willing property owner, lawyers ensured any agreement was hard won. Sometimes tenants wanted a seamless sidewalk, but property owners weren’t interested.

These little boundaries, these untidy lines between public and private city reflect the primacy of property ownership in the capital. The problem has been overcome where the historic estates are funding street improvements, and since they own the freeholds of all the buildings, they are able to extend paving up to the building edge.

So do we seek a way to recreate the seamless sidewalks of our continental neighbours or do we accept London’s untidy, pragmatic way of responding to physical change? It’s probably the latter, although it would be nice to think that contractors could come up with a more elegant solution for joining the public and the private elements of our pavements than a smear of mortar.

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Martyn Evans on Boundaries

Martyn Evans is Development Director at the Darlington Hall Estate and Deputy Chair of the London Festival of Architecture. In this essay he shares some of his thoughts on our 2019 festival theme of boundaries.

Where does one place end and another begin? The nature of commercial development in cities like London means that sites are almost always developed in complete isolation. The need to deliver independently viable schemes drives development language: ‘Our scheme in Clapham’; ‘Our site in the heart of The City’. What this immediately engenders of course, however well the scheme is designed, is a sense of disconnection from the surrounding environment and an abrogation of responsibility to see an individual site as part of a living, breathing eco-system. The creation of false boundaries.

We can look back, with rose-tinted hindsight, to the days when Abercrombie and Forshaw had all of London on their drawing board and an opportunity to present a vision for the core of virtually an entire city. I’m sure there are many in London’s Boroughs and in City Hall who would love the power to deliver such a vision today. Fortunately, what happens to London now is delivered from a more localised and democratic imperative.  Well…that’s the theory anyway.

Of course, the gutting of London’s borough planning departments by austerity and the private sector plucking out the best people, means that planning teams can just about deal with the workload of applications. The days when borough architects could design and control how community development played out are long gone, replaced by an adversarial system where the much deeper pockets of private sector developers tip the scales well in their favour. One of the clearest results of this is the piecemeal, boundary-strewn development programme that characterises much of London today.

So, what to do? How do we encourage developers to look over their own fences, to see the world around them and care about more than that which drives their development appraisals? Architects have a clear role to play. What drives architects, so much more than developers, is an understanding of people. How they want to live, work and relax and how they want to interact with the places where they live. That requires an inherent understanding of how boundaries are broken down, how people travel and how they relate to those around them. Like meerkats, architects need to be the first up on their hind legs, sniffing out what’s going on in the world and reporting back to the group – in this case, their clients.

It’s the responsibility of developers to work WITH planners to demonstrate a clear understanding that whilst there might be real financial and construction boundaries to development schemes in cities, political and social boundaries only exist where they are built. How about if we all came to work every day determined to step outside the boundaries we create, work together and see our city for what it is, a beautiful mess that works best when it is at its most free.

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Breaking Boundaries and Transforming a Society

  • Del Hossain is Managing Director of Adrem Group. Del is an Architect, a Wellbeing Psychologist, a former London Business Mentor of the Year and has been a Managing Editor for Business publications for the RIBA. In this essay he shares his take on our theme of boundaries, following a recent trip to Colombia.

Comuna 13: the transformation of a bario through colour

What do the East End of London and Medellin in Colombia have in common? Beyond the commonality of notorious gangland families immortalised onto film, they have also both existed as impoverished environments. Today, both places have had a miraculous metamorphosis and crossed significant boundaries because of technology and creativity.

The once dilapidated terraces of Shoreditch are now a nursery for creativity and state of the art technology-based entrepreneurialism, which has become a threshold of change. Imagine a similar grit and position it into Central America and you have the vibrancy of the barrios with their reconquered spaces in Comuna 13 in Medellin.

Medellin has 16 favelas, the most notorious of which was Comuna 13. Cradling the side of a valley of a huge hill, boundaries were crossed with catastrophic repercussions and in 1993, Comuna 13 was called the most dangerous place in the world. Violence and car bombs were commonplace but the city’s urbanist leader, Echeverri, created a programme to address these territories. By looking at the urban environment through the planning of a social infrastructure such as schools, play spaces and communal areas, murder rates were significantly decreased by 95%. This in itself is an incredible story of how an unapproachable area with a no-go boundary became approachable but add to that the power of art and the human story emerges.

The youth of the community started to depict the narratives and recent history onto the walls through mesmerising graffiti. The amazing street art attracted so much mainstream attention that competitions took place for the best pieces, with artists practicing in sheds used as make-shift artists’ studios.

A reference to mothers waving white flags, surrendering to soldiers to stop them from shooting

Each piece of Graffiti depicts a different tale

Spanish Hip-Hop

In the recent years, the internet had brought Spanish Hip-Hop into the favelas as another creative medium. As a result, young internet sensations are able to make a better income through digital streaming. Other creative but more traditional business pursuits such as cooking, and hair dressing salons have also sprung up, alongside collector’s edition street wear such as t-shirts and hoodies.

Further assisted by government funds, the community now have access to escalators built alongside the hill, saving tremendous time and effort of climbing over 300 steps. With better connectivity to outside communities, local businesses are able to utilise this to develop and thrive.

This is a positive example of boundaries being changed and the transformation of an embattled neighbourhood through improved urban planning, art and a community led culture.

An escalator traversing up the hill introducing a raft of people and interests to the barrios

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Peter Murray on Boundaries

  • Peter Murray is the founder of the London Festival of Architecture and the chairman of New London Architecture. In this essay he shares his thoughts on our 2019 theme of boundaries.

London grew and flourished because of its river, but of all the capital’s boundaries, the Thames must be the greatest. When the Romans built the first London Bridge in AD 50 they linked the stable, rising north bank to the marshy low-lying south; to this day the varying geological makeup of two banks has impacted hugely on their development and their prosperity.

Until the opening of Putney Bridge in 1729 London Bridge was the only crossing in the capital – earlier plans had always been defeated by lightermen who were worried about losing their ferry monopoly. Since then the proliferation of crossings from Tower to Hampton Court has done much to knit the south and north of the capital together; except in the east. Between the Tower and Thurrock, only the much-maligned Emirates Air-Line cable car takes people across the Thames above water. There are plans afoot to remedy this situation – Silvertown Tunnel, due to open in 2024, will ease blockages in the Rotherhithe and Blackwall tunnels and designs are being prepared for a walking and cycling bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf as well as rail connections across to Thamesmead – TfL funds permitting.

The tunnel proposals are rightly criticised for merely increasing the number of cars and the volume of pollution; active travel infrastructure – walking cycling and public transport as mooted in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy – must surely be the way forward to deliver sustainable connectivity and allow convergence of riparian communities. After all, it was the Jubilee Line extension and the Millennium Bridge which did most in recent years to boost the local economy of  Southwark. Road bridges don’t have the same effect – vehicles are, in the main, driving through, not stopping and adding to the economy.

Which brings me to the nub of this blog: the proposed car-free bridge from Nine Elms to Pimlico, the result of a competition launched five years ago. The winning designers Bystrup and Robin Snell Architects are still at consultation stage in the search for a suitable landing site on the north bank. Both political parties in Westminster Council are fighting the plans as are the residents of Pimlico resurrecting once more the historical conflict between the established north with the upstart south.

Recently, I brought the wrath of local amenity groups on my head by accusing them on Twitter of being Nimbies. For some reason, they find this insulting in spite of the fact that they are saying in no uncertain terms “we do not want this in our backyard”. While some of the antagonism towards the project is based on the loss of public space around the landing points, talk to locals and they just don’t like the idea of the influx of cyclists and pedestrians from the south through their ‘urban village’.

Which made me realise how relevant LFA’s theme is to the contemporary debate about development. How do we get the balance between such local communities and the wider city? As a cyclist, I always find it odd that people will accept thundering traffic through their neighbourhood but fight tooth and nail to stop a new cycle route, as we have seen in Swiss Cottage with Cycle Superhighway 11 and in Chiswick with the CS9.

Permeability is an essential part of placemaking in today’s city, focusing on active travel and healthy streets to link communities rather than separate them – and that includes communities on both sides of the river.