As I sit on the plane heading from London to Helsinki, I find myself reflecting on my third visit to Folkestone, England. This is a town in the throes of regeneration. Once a thriving, elegant seaside village receiving all the fineries from the merchant ships, has suffered significant neglect and downturn since the tunnel was built between Dover and Calais. Though things are changing.
Every time I arrive at central station, I make a point of having a chat with (or perhaps more accurately, interrogate) whomever has the misfortune of driving me from Folkestone central station into the town. It’s so fascinating to hear the perspective of the town’s citizens about what’s happened, or happening and why.
One of the biggest things I have realised is if we don’t craft the stories of the town, based on truth and purpose, stories will be created anyway. And these stories seem to be less based on truth, but rather stories that perpetuate the current narrative about the town.
Humans are storytelling machines. We have many generations of collective wisdom that gets passed down from family to family, of complex tales of morality, social constructs and traditions and cultural norms, all through the sharing of stories.
One particular woman, Diane Dever, is beginning to craft different stories through action. I met Di about four months ago and Folkestone’s benefactor Sir Roger de Haan had just approached her to think about what she might do with the Harbour Arm. A part of Folkestone that was once a bustling port, that has been deserted and empty for decades. This was four months ago.
Upon revisiting Folkestone just yesterday, Di hosted my business partner Paul and I at the Harbour Arm. The transformation to the revised pier was incredible. Small bars, burger joints, champagne lounges, amazing pizza, a large seagull speaker, a double decker mobile greek restaurant bus, Star Trek DJs AND live music to boot! It was just incredible and I was nothing short of moved. To go from “I’ve been asked to think about … “ to “I’ll host you at one of the bars” is just incredible. SO how did she do it? I really don’t know, as I haven’t had the chance to fully explore this with her, though these are my thoughts and observations.
With others—Diane’s beautiful sister and mother and 25 other people, were all there serving and welcoming people into the various cozy spaces and creating the space where everyone felt welcome, including a couple of travel weary Australians (that was Paul and I).
The ability to inspire and attract people to help out and invest their time and effort into the creation of a shared space for the citizens and visitors of Folkestone is a real gift. I learnt a new term as well, DFL. This three letter acronym stands for, Down From London. 🙂
Keeping it simple—I think one aspect of success was that Di and her team didn’t try to over zhuzh <technical term for over-killing the aesthetics!> the harbour arm. There are many exmaples of philanthropists doing good by creating a beautiful high quality alternative to what was there previously. Though if this is done all at once, with little citizen engagement, or without deep understanding of the people the creation is ultimately in service of, it can be quite alienating.
The bars were located in the old abandoned waiting rooms where people once waited for the trains that ran from the ferries to the neighbouring towns in Kent. Hardly any aesthetic improvements had been made. The walls, ceiling and floors of the various establishments were predominately preserved in their natural state—enough to reveal the pier’s foregone history—though an eclectic collection of furniture and fixtures had been brought in to create a unique, progressive atmosphere. The kitchen equipment was up to spec with significant investment allocated to ensure the quality of the food was high. And it absolutely was. The pizza Paul and I shared from Follies was absolutely delicious and would rival any high ranking pizza shop in Melbourne.
Action brings clarity—I also don’t believe that Di and her team spent weeks or months creating a comprehensive strategy about what they needed to do and how and why. The way they pulled it off epitomises what we talk about when we say action brings clarity. This is a great exmaple of emergent strategy. You act, you learn, you inform your strategy and you act again.
Intuition—Di is a resident of Folkestone herself and is respected by all the various members of society. She has developed great relationships through collaborations and working closely with the people of Folkestone. This has fed her intuition about ‘who’ Folkestone actually is and so her decisions are guided by this inner knowing.
Having a deep understanding and empathy for the people and their context for which you are creating is so essential to adoption, though is often over looked.
Respect—I think any type of town regeneration is not fast work. To borrow from the slow movement, this is slow work. It is work, that if done properly and resiliently, happens little bit by little bit. Di has been working within the community in many different capacities, mostly creating events and festivals that bring multiple communities together which has earnt her the respect of the town’s people. Without this respect for her and the intiative, much resistence would have been felt to the opening of the harbour arm.
When these aspects are present the effects of word of mouth are incredible. They opened the gates to the renovated Folkestone Harbour Arm with the expectation of 500 people in attendance; instead they received a remarkable 16,000 visitors—with little to no Marketing. This is the power of pure intention and deep understanding for the context within which you are creating.