Vested Development

by ben spencer


Have you been to Wembley recently? A couple of weeks ago I was working on some pop-up screenings there. It was – how can I put this politely…somewhat dispiriting. The stadium devours the sky like a colossal spaceship from Independence Day, blinking gigantic commercial messages at the human ants below (it is, apparently, connected by EE). Its huge white arch straddling the stadium is not beautiful or even visually arresting but it is the ‘longest single span roof structure in the world’, an accolade as meaningless as it is desperate. You can almost hear the project committee booming at the cowering architect: ‘OK, the iconic twin towers have gone, what the f*ck are you going to replace them with?’

But it gets worse. Around the stadium and arena and (the genuinely iconic) Wembley Way is a massive ongoing development of retail and residential monoliths, an overbearing hodgepodge of steel and glass structures promising high-end luxury residences, concierge gyms and every possible consumer desire gratified. Walking through this bewildering labyrinth one feels dwarfed and insignificant. In the heart of it is a library and Civic Centre but these seem like lip service and the latter’s gaping marble lobby which accommodates nothing more than an over-sized Starbucks is an ingeniously created metaphor for its gaping spiritual void.

Does it have to be like this? Well yes, probably. Development on a grand scale can presumably only happen with the help of powerful, calculating commercial interests: no wonder the resulting environments these interests create are so imbued with the spirit of money. The need for profit shapes the design: from the outrageous quantity of rentable retail units to the oversized billboards, the overbearing advertising screens, the vertiginous apartment blocks, the sprawling car parks.

This is why such large-scale building projects tend to feel so soulless. It is not just that their formulaic design lacks character or individuality, or that they are so large and anonymous it is hard to relate to them. It’s that they seem to pre-define the relationship between the people in the place and the place itself, narrowing it down to one of mere monetary exchange. It’s as if the place exists for no other reason than to foster financial transactions between tenants and landlords, consumers and retailers, advertisers and advertising space owners…

Big developers must know that their creations are a little lacking in je ne sais quoi because they hire people to make them feel less ghost-townish and empty and more vibrant and happening. Admittedly the language they use for this exercise is not promising – creating a destination, adding value etc – but at least it’s a start. However, as urban designers have known for a long time, the thing that really makes a place is a community. And therein lies the rub: a meaningful, active, neighbourly community requires the people in it to relate to each other and to the place where they live in other ways than merely fiscal. It is a paradox gnawing away at the concrete foundations of the big new-build place-making schemes.

So big developers, what can you do to make your designs a little more conducive to the cultivation of authentic communities? Here’s a suggestion. It’s by no means the only thing that needs to happen, and it’s certainly not going change things overnight. But on the plus side it’s almost free and really won’t get in the way of your profit-making priorities. The suggestion? Put up some community noticeboards.

Simple, eh? Of all the big new-build residential complexes I’ve experienced recently – East Village in Stratford, the Streatham Tesco, Wembley – I haven’t once spotted a good ol’ fashioned public noticeboard for residents and locals to share information, tell others about activities they’re organising, and publicise their get-togethers. It wouldn’t hurt to put a few up around the place, would it? Go on developer, you know it makes sense. 

Holding The World Together

by ben spencer

Duct tape: without it, without doubt, the world would fall apart.

Backstage, production crews the world over call it gaffer (although, strictly speaking, gaffer is vinyl-coated for a matt finish, duct is shinier). Others refer to it as Duck Tape (although, strictly speaking, that’s a brand of duct tape, doubtless its most successful brand, created in 1975 by Jack Kahl, who cheekily trademarked the name it had in its original incarnation back in the 40s).  

However you refer to it, you’ve no doubt used it at some point in your life. If you haven’t, what did you use to stick that loose side panel back on your car, or the suction tube to the hoover, or your glasses back together, or the note on the front door for the delivery man…

One of the best things about duct tape is you can tear it. I get a frisson of satisfaction every time I remember I don’t need my teeth to rip a piece off. No scissors or extra hands required, unlike fiddlesome and overrated Scotch Tape. Unroll, tear, apply. What a great invention: more versatile than a swiss army knife, more situation-saving than Lassie.

Even life saving. Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise wouldn’t have made it back to Earth alive without their trusty roll of duct tape which they used, along with plastic bags, cardboard and hoses from their space suits, to construct makeshift carbon dioxide filters. (I love the fact they took duct tape to the moon!) And only this year, hiker Cody Michael and his dog were found in the Californian wilderness after air crew spotted his help message spelt out in big letters using – you guessed it – duct tape.

This life-saving potential of duct tape was the reason it came into being. It was Vesta Stoudt who first had the idea. Stoudt, mother of two US Navy sailors, happened to be working in an Illinois ordnance plant during World War II inspecting wooden cases packed with cartridges. She noticed the paper tape used to seal together the top and bottom of the cases wasn’t strong enough, especially when wet, which is why it would often rip off in soldiers hands mid-battle when they were desperately in need of more ammo. In her letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in early 1943 she wrote: “Now your son, my son and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or his knife if he is lucky enough to have one, nine chance out of ten he hasn’t any.”

Imagine that: trying to get your fingernail under the edge of the tape to prise it off while enemy shells are exploding all around you. Maddening is not the word. Stoudt prototyped a stronger, waterproof cloth tape that didn't rip when being pulled off, but the government inspectors she showed it to ignored its benefits. Which led her, as a last resort, to write to the President.:“You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved.”

Roosevelt acted quickly, sending the idea to the War Production Office, who wrote to Stoudt saying her idea “was of exceptional merit" (and encouraging her to send any more she may have!). They contacted Johnson & Johnson, makers of surgical adhesive tape, who went on to produce the first rolls of Duck Tape. Soldiers in the field named it “100 mile an hour tape” and began using it for all sorts of purposes other than sticking cartridge cases together.

A timely, creative solution; a persistent protagonist; a brilliantly enduring and adaptable product whose usefulness has far exceeded its initial reason for existing. Next time you use duct tape remember Vesta Stoudt, the concerned, ingenious mother, and all those soldiers (and astronauts) whose lives were saved by her invention. And don’t forget to pack a role of it when you go on holiday. 

The Joy Of SAGs

by ben spencer

Event people, you've been to your SAGs. For those less fortunate, welcome to the world - the very, very dry world - of the Safety Advisory Group.

What's this? It's a multi-agency forum in which events get discussed - or more specifically, their health and safety. Typically, it involves a large room with about thirty people round the table, each representing either a council department, emergency service or other operational authority. And at the end sits you.

You've just presented your event to the room. You've run through your security plan, audience management plan, production plan, publicity plan, barrier plan, welfare plan, health and safety plan, traffic management plan, accreditation plan, contingency plan, noise management plan, waste management plan, and wind management plan. (You've done a lot of planning.) Now you're going to be grilled. 

I approach SAGs with a heavy heart. The very acronym is enough to wilt the spirit. The first one I went to was in Greenwich in 2011 for BT River of Music - and we were summarily interrogated.

But I've learnt over the years how important and useful they can be. They're not always to be feared. Occasionally you're not asked any questions at all. But even if questions arise it's mostly beneficial: not only for those asking them, but for us, the event planners.

Because as we know, all plans are imperfect - even beautifully crafted 200-page event management plans. We may have overlooked something, or not considered its impact. We may be underestimating, or overestimating.

Events are complex beasts with a lot of elements involved - and a lot of people. They can be just as organisationally convoluted as a large building project - and, what's more, they involve the public. Taking your plans to the SAG may be unpleasant at times - but it is also drawing from the deep well of event experience round the table.

SAGs are like lymph nodes in the timeline of your event. They strengthen the planning immune system, helping to fight off unforeseen risks and hazards. They are not sexy or particularly fun. But they make your event safe.




Recipe For Success

by ben spencer

Another June, another Streatham Food Festival. I've been working with its director, Pauline Milligan, for three years on the festival - and each year she has produced a little gem of an event that punches well over its weight in quality and reach.

This year (as always) it was crammed with enticing, original foodie events which at least 5,500 peole came to - a triumph on such a small budget. And it was not only the famished and food cognoscenti that benefitted. Local businesses felt an economic uplift in measurable terms: over 4,200 dishes were sold on the food tour, and over 5,000 for the food fair.

People came from far and wide, encouraged by mentions in the Evening Standard and Time Out. I was on the streets during the food tour managing volunteers, and was surprised by the provenance of many festival-goers: not only nearby areas such as Tooting and Clapham but even north London.

So what's the secret behind such success? No secret really, just brilliant ol' fashioned event producing - an auspicious blend of creative programming, positive relationship building, tight organisation, and extremely hard work. If you want the recipe, here it is...


  • 1 x festival director with a passion for food
  • 1 x local area with lots of food
  • 1 x supportive local business network (that also likes food)
  • dash of sunshine.

Step 1: Take your festival director and pour into a bowl with all your local eateries and food related organisations. Mix together until a firm consistency and the ingredients have bound together.

Step 2: Add the juice from your local business network and fold into the mixture. 

Step 3: Season to taste with creative ideas.

Step 4: This is optional but always produces a better dish: a good slug of sunshine.

Step 5: Stick on a low heat for 5 months, checking regularly.

Step 6: Don't allow to cool, eat fresh!