Walk and a Talk with Natalie Ray

  1. When did you start working/socialising in the area?

 In January 2013 I joined The Guardian as Executive Assistant to the Transformation Director. Since then I have supported the Chief Strategy Officer and most recently the CEO.

  1. How has the area changed since then?

My earliest memories of King’s Cross were as a Uni student, passing through what was a dank drippy station to catch the train up to Leeds every term. I also recall one Saturday night out, having to battle through a throng of intoxicated revelers beneath the low ceilings and sweaty confines of the arches formerly known as, The Cross.

Fast forward several years, I began working at The Guardian, I rarely ventured any further north than to King’s Cross on the Northern line and my days of nightclubbing (I think that’s a verb) were all but over. Most of what you see here now didn’t exist. The transformation has been pretty rapid; from the offices of Pancras Square to the landscaped gardens of Handyside, restaurants in Granary Square and now the retail space of Coal Drops Yard. It’s beautiful, aspirational and a great mix of old industrial architecture, green spaces, trendy hangouts, and shops. Oh, and there’s a Waitrose. You know you’ve arrived when you get a Waitrose.

  1. What’s your favourite place in the area and why?

 The quiet green spaces and Regent’s Canal… in particular the small stretch that runs down past the Granary Square steps, under the bridge, wrapping around the Rotunda and toward the Canal Museum. That’s where Words on the Water and my office are.

When I can, I’ll take my lunch or a coffee outside and sit by the canal. For the most part it’s pretty idyllic and I’m all at one with the outdoors and nature. But then I’ll catch a Coot nesting in plastic bottles and bin bags – it’s pretty traumatic. I suppose its upcycling – but not in a good way. We really do need to take better care of our waterways!

I’m pretty certain most people know Words on the Water – a converted Dutch barge and London’s only floating bookstore. It’s a mecca of wisdom selling a plethora of books and is overflowing with spirit, which its co-founder and owner Paddy Screech refers to as ‘a strange kind of juju’. Call it what you like, magic, or plain old luck of the Irish, it’s some kind of hashtag universe, hashtag good vibes alright. A super great juju that has people flocking and has seen the Bookbarge right despite facing the loss of its mooring, potential closure, and a sinking!

  1. What do you love about our neighbourhood?

The humans. Back to Paddy Screech for an example – he’s a bit of a Ledge. I met Paddy a month ago when I last bought a book and as we chatted I found out he’d been keeping a watchful eye out for a local homeless lad I know, Tom. Tom is rough sleeper who takes shelter under the bridge along the Towpath. He’s an awesome young guy who’s ridiculously wise and hilarious. He’s got bants and no shortage of charm, which helps, when asking strangers for spare change is your main source of income. So whilst Tom leaves base for the day to make money, he stows his sleeping bag and belongings with Paddy on the boat. Turns out Paddy has a background in social work and spent twenty years of his life working with people affected by homelessness. Paddy does his best to give him sage words of advice and a much needed fatherly presence. For now I think that’s all he can do. Stowing a man’s belongings for the day so they don’t get nicked or cleared away won’t change the world but it can mean the earth.

Then there is a lady who lives in a block of flats nearby – also pals with Tom. She took him out on a paddle boat last week and for a walk around The Canal Museum. I sat on the edge of the canal side eating my lunch, watching as they rowed past having an awesome time.

These are the things I love about our neighborhood – the humans, their stories and small but significant acts of kindness

  1. What’s your favourite community activity in the area?

Speak Street at the Skip Garden is a great example; bringing people together from all different backgrounds, many of whom were refugees and migrants, to learn English through cooking and gardening. If anything can unify people it’s a love of good food, oh and nature… don’t get me started on nature… hashtag National Park City (just google it)

  1. What is your favourite aspect of the work Urban Partners does?

What I like about Urban Partners is the opportunity to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Getting to know the people in the know and making the connections to help build an ecosystem for sustainable change that brings us closer to regeneration rather than gentrification. I like to think we’re helping build a more human centric neighbourhood.

  1. What’s the best community initiative you have seen in the local area?

When it comes to wellbeing I’m a big believer in the power of nature. The psychological, physical and environmental benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature cannot be understated. Getting people connected to nature is so important and, whilst Camden is one of the greenest boroughs in London, in the more densely populated and deprived pockets, for a number of reasons, that relationship and connection can be lost.

So for me, the best community initiatives has to be ones like Global Generation Skip Garden and Calthorpe Project – using nature to enhance wellbeing and education. Both are great examples of projects providing people the opportunity to learn, make connections and contribute to environmental and social change in their communities whilst improving their prospects through relationship with nature.

  1. What challenges will the area face in the future?

With three rail stations, the Eurostar terminal, the tube passing through and the arrival of HS2 over the next decade, the challenge will be ensuring King’s Cross doesn’t end up a place we just pause in, where people come and go, passing on through and no one stays long enough to take notice.

The busier it gets and the more transient its visitors, the increased the risk of disconnection from the area, disengagement and lack of responsibility for local issues.

We need to create a robust ecosystem and network within the area, to be conscious of these changes and ensure that King’s Cross remains relevant to those who already reside here.

  1. Where do you see our neighbourhood in the next ten years and what kind of image will it have?

I’d love for it to be known as a success story for the local community, where increased connectivity and investment in the area has meant access to opportunity. There’s a reason people choose to buy books from Words on the Water instead of Waterstones, and why they like to venture away from the manicured lawns of Waitrose to Cally Road for a plate of falafel from MiddleEat. We should continue to capatlise on local talent, entrepreneurs and creatives to bring the soul to the swank.

  1. What famous quote would you used to describe Urban Partners and why?

 Non sibi sed toti

‘Not for self, but for all’

Coincidentally, it’s the motto of Camden Council, which Turner prize nominee Mark Titchener turned into an inspired piece of artwork for the civic headquarters at 5 Pancras Square. If you’ve not seen it, next time you go to pick up your Leon meatball hot box or Katsu from Wasabi, place yourself somewhere by the junction where Notes turns into Nike and take a look skyward. There you’ll see it, with all the reverence of a gothic stained glass window, sandwiched between Google and Havas.

This quote for me is not about all out altruism, but more that, and at risk of sounding like Forest Gump, that… well… life is like a jigsaw puzzle. And sure, whilst the analogy parallel can continue – you never quite know what pieces you’re going to get – except of course if you read the menu card or look at the cover. I digress. The point I want to make is that we all start and progress through life with different pieces, allowing us to see only some or parts of the whole picture. And if we’re ever going to know the full picture and be able to appreciate the puzzle in all its 1000 glorious collective pieces (I like a challenge), then we need to be willing to offer up our pieces and come to know and connect with those held by others.

This to me is what Urban Partners represents – knowing that we are only equal to the sum of our parts. It’s about sharing knowledge, ideas and making connections. Rethinking assumptions so together we can reimagine what is possible, and build a community based on shared values.