Soho Green is a charity set up in 2001 with the object of improving St Anne’s Churchyard in Soho for the community. Soho is a central London ‘village’ also known as ‘London’s Gay village’; ‘London’s Sex District’; and ‘Theatreland’.
It is seen by many as a vibrant lively area where you can easily buy drugs on the street and drink and eat to excess. It also happens to have a strong community, a parish school, a church and all the accoutrements of residential living except, at that time, it had no safe green space.
St Anne’s Churchyard is a public open space but in 2001 was seen by all local people as ’no-go’ area neglected by Westminster City Council and used for drug dealing, rough sleeping, and bottle fights. It is within 2 minutes walk of the parish school which has a tiny playground and yet local children never went there, their parents legitimately fearing they would come across a used needle, human faeces and vomit.
When one local four year old did pick up a used needle and accidentally stab his mother with it, local parents felt enough was enough.
They organised an anti-street trading of drugs campaign culminating in a 5,000 person signature petition and a 6 foot syringe being placed on the doorstep of no. 10 Downing Street. Local councillors got worried about the influence this group had and agreed to see them.
Many improvements resulted from the campaign but the organisers realised that they could achieve something permanent and lasting for the community. They asked Westminster City Council for funding to improve St Anne’s Churchyard and were offered £100,000! That was when the real challenge began. The campaign organisers set up a charity and called it Soho Green.
Fuelled by indignation at the present use of green space, the Soho Green founders shared a common and powerful vision of safe community open space in Soho. Initial enthusiasm for what could be achieved was dashed when they realised there were powerful local factions from the church and local amenity society who were against any kind of change, to the then headmaster saying ‘Don’t bother, you’ll never get anywhere’.
Lengthy consultation with the community followed at local events, the school, door to door and in a temporary shop front where possible plans were displayed. Interested people started approaching the trustees with their ideas: swings, tree-houses, playgrounds, no children, cafes, helter-skelters, art installations. As well as naysayers averse to change, the consultation revealed to enthusiastic volunteers offering wildly impractical ideas and a huge range of priorities for what could be put into the space.
IMG_2555.JPGCore to the vision was safety and it was clear from consultation that many people felt that whatever went into the space would be wasted because it would soon get spoiled. One local architect came forward with what initially seemed like an extraordinary idea for a curved fence lit up at night and barely visible by day. This would be a big departure to the low level, easily scalable black Victorian railings.
Opposition to the idea in the community was forceful. Many held the opinion that it would destroy the view of a listed church tower, it would look like a prison camp, it would be a waste of money. But the Soho Green trustees could see that it would provide the necessary security in a stylish way as well as improving the lighting in the street at night and raising the profile of the space by day. They got a local company to create an image of how it would appear and did much work persuading local people it could work. They then applied for planning and church permission. At the eleventh hour, the week before the planning hearing English Heritage retracted their opinion that the existing railings were not listed. The Soho Green trustees spend long and late hours developing an argument against this decision and arrived at the planning hearing with 40 local people all wearing Soho Green T-shirts. With fantastic support from their local councillor the decision went through on a knife edge.
Over the following months, the designs were developed, budgets finalised, funds raised, and a partnership structure with the council put into effect. Work was done in raising the profile of the space as a potentially safe place to go with police escorted picnics and sports days for the school and summer events. Considerable opposition and fear was listened to and there were serious moments of doubt and worry but eventually, three years after the charity was set up, the Wall of Light was installed with a vibrant launch event and much celebration marking a new era for St Anne’s Churchyard.
Surveys prior to installation revealed that 80% of people thought it would improve security but only 50% thought it would look attractive. Afterwards the percentages went to 100% and 80%. The lighting and the structure have won several awards. Since the Wall of Light was installed it has been possible to add other improvements to the space so that it has now become vibrant community space used for food feasts, table tennis, summer fairs, theatre, Tai Chi and much more. Crime in the street and the garden has dropped dramatically.
Thanks to the myriad of supporters of Soho Green including: The Lilac Project; John Lyon’s Charity; Awards for All; Shaftesbury PLC; Crossrail; Century Club and many many local people and businesses. Together they have made a lasting difference to the village of Soho.
St Anne’s Churchyard is a public Open space and open daily. The Art Loo is for use of children, community groups and on event days. It is also open annually for London Open House Weekend.