Park life: David Taylor catches up with Max Farrell to find out about the Park Power initiative he’s backing, and life after Farrells with the London Collective – a cupboard of all the right ingredien…

DT: Hi Max, how are you?

MF: Hi David! Good, yeah – fine, thanks, all things considered…

DT: Could we talk about your Park Power initiative, but perhaps start with the London Collective, and how that came about?

MF: Sure. We set up the London Collective about six months ago now, and at the time we described it as a virtual network of built environment experts. Little did we know then that the whole industry would soon be moving that way!

It was about a different way of approaching built environment projects, learning a lot from the creative industries who tend to have these collectives. They have people with different specialisms who then convene and disband. I often use the analogy of a film with cast and crew. It’s just a more flexible and agile way of working, essentially, and I felt like the built environment needed that more so because there are so many different specialisms. But also, every place has its own particularity.

Having worked for a big firm of architects for several years, I knew that there had only really been a loose collaboration between people or bigger multi-disciplinaries and they have bigger overheads and need to cross-sell services. So I wanted to create a more structured network for people, and particularly the specialists who do things like social impact, modern methods of construction, zero carbon and so on, working alongside architects and engineers, graphic designers and others…

DT: …Max, can I interrupt you there just to ask about how that process was in terms of leaving Farrells, because obviously, your Dad, Terry Farrell, founded the firm. How was it? How difficult was it for you?

MF: Well, it wasn’t easy, but it felt like the right thing to do. I suppose when Terry stepped down – and that was maybe about 18 months ago – there were three of us leading the practice, and we had a difference of opinion about the direction it should go in.

DT: Right…

MF: I thought the best thing to do was to leave and to set up the London Collective and feel very glad that I did, and am very excited about the future now.

DT: Yeah. How has it been in setting it up? What sort of support have you had?

MF: It’s been great, actually. I had a quite good network to begin with to tap into, and then increasingly as the word spread and we’ve also got involved in projects where we have needed people with certain specialisms, we’ve been able to start to build the group and the different skillsets that we need. So that’s been exciting.

I thought of a really good analogy recently that I might run by you (laughs). I don’t know if you have ever… well I had never decided to make a curry from scratch with every single ingredient involved. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that before, but I haven’t. I counted something like 23 different ingredients. And I thought: that is a really good analogy for the London Collective, but also the built environment industry generally, and the way they do things.

I suppose at the other end of the spectrum, going back to my student days, you have a microwave ready-meal and that’s the most sophisticated approach available… It’s very formulaic; it’s cheap, and I though that’s a bit like a housebuilder going straight to a contractor with no architects involved, for example. That’s the other end of the spectrum. And then somewhere along the middle of that spectrum is what we’re more familiar with, where you go to a multidisciplinary firm or a signature architect, and each of them has different skillsets in-house and they have their own approach and methodology. So I thought to myself: that’s a bit like when you buy a jar of curry paste, example, which is pre-prepared but you can add the fresh meat and vegetables depending on the type of curry you make. The London Collective I thought is like having all these different ingredients in your cupboard – even the more obscure ones – and then you can make any curry you want, entirely from scratch.

But the key to that is following the recipe and being very organised. We are a diverse and eclectic group, but we are getting much more familiar with working together and we have really strong project management too within the group. So, the end result I think is very special, and also it doesn’t cost any more. In fact, it can cost less. I think that was my moment of epiphany.

DT: So following this logically, is the Park Power idea your accompanying poppadoms, paneer or Naan? Tell me about it!

MF: (laughs) Okay, so one of our members is Commonplace, and they are the UK’s leading community engagement platform, increasingly now becoming a critical part of how we go about doing things, rather than a ‘nice to have’. I’ve been talking to the chief exec, Mike Saunders, about how to really demonstrate the power of this tool in a broader way and thinking about cities and issues rather than a particular project by a particular developer or turning to the planning process.

We thought the London Festival of Architecture would be a great platform to do that with, because it often galvanises people to do things that they wouldn’t do in the normal course of course of events. Initially we actually went to the Heart of London district that was one of the four hubs for the London Festival of Architecture. We were thinking about crowdsourcing ideas about the built environment and turning that into a script for a piece of community theatre. But that proved quite difficult to do, and actually, with the onset of Covid 19, we wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway.

We then started thinking about public realm and how we could find out what people love about their parks and their green spaces in order to help create a vision for what parks could be like in the future. That actually predated, in many ways, the current crisis. But what’s happened since is that there’s a lot more pressure on parks but people have also recognised that they are critical pieces of infrastructure. There was some research recently that showed they make something like a £34 billion contribution to the economy in terms of wellbeing, but also save the NHS a huge amount of money – £111million, or something along those lines.

We felt like it would be good to really understand better how we can solve some of the problems that parks are facing in the moment in terms of densities of people wanting to use them in different ways, but also come up with creative ideas around planning and design. So for example I went to Regent’s Park just recently and they will soon be opening a children’s playground, which is also a landscape nature trail. It’s fantastic. And then on the Commonplace website that we launched, people have been talking about things like Frisbee golf in Croydon, which I didn’t know existed but it looks like a great idea. One of my bugbears is about golf courses in London and how they take up a huge amount of London’s green space but they’re only accessible to a very small demographic of people who can afford to play golf basically. Personally, I think they should all become public parks.

But this is a way of finding out ideas for how to use parks in different ways, not just for exercise or connection to nature but also for culture and leisure. There’s lots of different activities and experiences that you can start to design in, like public art, or performances, but also yoga classes or dance classes, for example. Siemens is one of our partners, and they’re looking at how digital technology can help; so things like smart bins that tell the staff when they are full, or self-cleaning toilets, or intelligent lighting that responds to when people use the park. The City of London is one of our partners, too, and they are an incredible steward of green spaces throughout London. Not many people know that, but they own Hampstead Heath and Queens Park as well as parks in east London and south London too.

DT: So what’s the end result likely to be? What will bear fruit from this period, three months down the line?

MF: Well, we’re working with DAR Group, which is actually London’s biggest urban design team and landscape team as well as the urban designers and landscape designers within the London Collective. We’re going to bring all of these of ideas together, and layer them on top of each other and create a vision with illustrations and CGIs for what the park of the future might look like. I think that can be quite a powerful thing in encouraging people to think positively and proactively about their parks and help get more investment into parks too.

DT: …And they’ve become that much more important in this period. I presume you hope that that sense of love for the park will prevail beyond, as we enter into a more ‘normal’ period.

MF: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean I think London is incredible in the amount of green space we have, and that’s partly why it has now become the world’s first National Park city. Almost half of it is green space, and I think it’s what makes London very special. It’s got these green lungs and this tapestry – different types of green spaces. I think everyone loves parks – they are universally loved. But they are also underinvested-in. So hopefully that will be one of the outcomes.

DT: Brilliant. Thanks, Max.