Stratford: How Westfield Stratford City puts community and sustainability at its heart

URW head of shopping centre management talks passion and outreach at the east London mall

Katie Wyle of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield – image Matt Grayson

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Katie Wyle never intended to go into retail.

Growing up, she worked in the village shop her parents ran and swore off the sector when she went to university to study English and drama.

“But what do you do as a student? You work in shops,” she said.

“I worked for Tesco, Jigsaw, Disney and more.

“I did a wonderful ski season after university, but then realised I had a loan to pay off so I went to work at Marks And Spencer, initially in the men’s pants and socks department as a Christmas temp.”

It was the start of a journey that would see her rise to deputy manager of the brand’s Bluewater store.

A stint at Fortnum And Mason followed and then Selfridges as assistant store director before she became assistant general manager of Westfield Stratford City in 2014.

Now head of shopping centre management for the whole of the UK at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) – the company that runs the massive malls – her responsibilities include overseeing its east London operation, the busiest in Europe by footfall.

And, despite the pressures of catering for more than 51million visitors each year, she’s smiling.

“It’s just so varied,” she said. “You can come in, have a conversation about toilets, fire safety, Christmas, the community, capital investment or how we’re planning our budget processes for the next five years.

“You have to change your thought processes completely from one meeting to the next and the people we work with are all so genuinely passionate about this business. 

“I think everybody should work in retail and hospitality at some point because they give you experience of so many areas.”

The passion of her colleagues is one reason Katie continues to smile throughout our interview.

“Westfield naturally faces problems and challenges, as any business does – especially on a site welcoming millions and employing thousands.

Westfield Stratford City is the busiest shopping centre in Europe

But there’s an underlying pride in the mission, which is about much more than providing retail units to big brands.

“We take being part of the community very seriously,” said Katie.

“That’s not just the managers in the centre, but everyone in the team – we are all focused on the social impact of our roles.

“The company set itself objectives when it first came into the UK from Australia – to create jobs and value locally around each of our centres.

“We have a community manager and her job is to work at grass roots level with individuals, organisations, local employment support groups and schools.

“We are so focused on improving our social value every year – what we can do to keep it going and build on that.

“We assess what’s going on in the community and where investment and support is needed.

“She then works up a community resilience action plan for each centre that is bespoke to its needs.

“That’s in partnership with the London Borough Of Newham here and Hammersmith And Fulham over at Westfield London.

“Then we measure that impact. That’s not just URW, that’s our contractors as well.

“If you talk to anyone here, community and sustainability are our biggest themes, as they affect everybody.”

On the community front, Westfield Stratford City is a founding partner and official sponsor of the Foundation For Future London – a charity founded in 2015 to connect the various cultural institutions that are coming to East Bank with local people.

“The team here has done this huge project with the East Bank Creative Futures Fund – £10million of investment – which is now in its fourth year,” said Katie.

“It’s phenomenal, with 155 community organisations funded and more than 23,000 participants.

URW has invested £10million in the East Bank Creative Futures Fund

“Each year the applications for funding are open for small, medium and large projects, ranging from £3,000 to £50,000.

“So far they’ve awarded more than £2.5million for a wide spectrum of organisations including community facilities for cycling and skateboarding, local creative businesses and talent development programmes.

“We know our customers want to feel more holistic and joined-up when they come here and the regeneration of both Shepherds Bush and Newham has been a testament to the success of the Westfield centres.”

On the sustainability front, URW is pressing forward with its Better Places 2030 strategy, which aims to reduce its centres’ environmental impact.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Katie. “It’s not just about reducing the energy we use, but making sure we’re only getting it from green, renewable sources.

“We already operate with zero waste to landfill – all of our food waste, for example goes into a digester which processes it down into pellet form and now we’re working on how we can transform that into compost so customers can come and take a bag for their gardens.

“We want to create a complete cycle.

“There are so many initiatives – we already have rainwater harvesting and we’re looking to install ethically sourced solar panels on both Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush this year.

“It’s vital we know where they are coming from and that there’s no involvement with modern slavery.”

It’s this attention to detail that indirectly should also prove  attractive to future residents of Coppermaker Square – URW’s residential venture in Stratford.

“This is somewhere you can now live, work and play,” said Katie.

“They are fabulous buildings and the scheme will be finished next year.

“There are nine blocks and it’s the first time we’ve done build-to-rent in the UK so it’s really exciting for us.

“Why would you not live somewhere like this? The facilities will blow you away.

“There’s a co-working space, a fitness centre, lounge, roof garden, outdoor terrace, concierge service – it’s what people expect now.

Westfield is set to host a Future You event at Stratford in October for young people

“The surrounding area is so beautiful with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and all the other attractions of east London.

“It’s incredible and has transport connections to Essex, Kent and all across London including the Elizabeth Line from east to west, which is amazing.

“Our centres continue to have major brands invest in them, showing their trust and faith in what we’re doing.

“For example, Sephora is set to open its second UK store at Stratford in November and we’ve already seen the halo effect with other beauty brands doing well around it after it opened in Shepherd’s Bush.

“Westfeld Stratford City is a beautiful shopping environment and, while retail is having a tough time at the moment, that means we need diversity. 

“Young people don’t necessarily just want to come and spend money on buying things – they want experiences and we need to cater for that too.”  

Younger shoppers are very much on Westfield’s radar, with another of its Future You events set to take place from October 19-22 aimed at engaging with 12-to-18-year-olds. 

Katie said: “We’ll be putting on loads of free activities. Last year there was a really popular one with Finfluencers and FinTokkers, although I’m not really cool enough to know about that.”

As a measure of the success of Olympic legacy and regeneration, it all makes for an impressive achievement.

  • Prices for homes at Coppermaker Square start at £2,480pcm.

Follow this link for more information about Westfield Stratford City

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Hackney Wick: How Women Of The Wick creates places for women to be heard

Discover Sara Kärpänen’s platform for marginalised voices via podcasts, workshops and events

Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen
Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen – image Matt Grayson

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I believe we all have a story to tell and the voice to tell it,” said Women Of The Wick founder Sara Kärpänen.

“Sometimes we need other people to provide a safe space to share our stories. Social media isn’t always the best platform to show our vulnerabilities or experiences.”

Women Of The Wick (WoW) provides that space for marginalised voices to be heard through podcasts, workshops and events.

This autumn, Sara will be bringing many of those stories together in a new magazine that will go out across the Wick.

It will be the culmination of a storytelling programme funded by Foundation For Future London.

“It came about from the need to offer alternatives to the current media platforms or institutions that exist within the area and beyond,” said Sara.

“I want to help give creative entrepreneurs storytelling tools so they can use their voices and more unconventional business methods.

“The parts of ourselves we hide are often like superpowers.

“Those are the stories that connect us with other people, and potentially help someone who’s struggling with the same thing. 

“I have realised that many professional writers still either lack the confidence or find that they need more peer-to-peer support and a safe space to share their stories, or are just generally interested in gaining insight into their writing.”

Before she moved to London, Sara had her own successful career as a cultural journalist back home in Finland.

But it left her feeling “burned out and uninspired”. It was a visit to Hackney Wick that brought her back to life.

“I walked into this warehouse space in 2013 and shouted out ‘I’ve come home’,” said the 35-year-old.

“I had such a strong feeling of belonging, from the first instant I looked around. 

“There was this sense of freedom and access to different types of spaces and support from the community.”

Sara says she has a strong attraction to Hackney Wick
Sara says she has a strong attraction to Hackney Wick – image Matt Grayson

She was only meant to be visiting London as part of an internship with The Finnish Institute.

But after wrapping up her master’s in visual culture back home, she left Finland for good and moved to her own live-work space in Hackney Wick.

At first, she worked as a freelance artist doing public works commissions with a local architects’ practice and then began writing again for an online publication, where she realised the need for more feminist spaces and media.

“I have always been someone who’s fought for equal rights and I feel very strongly about gender inequality,” she said.

“I think it is my duty to tackle the inequalities that exist in the creative industry.

“It took me quite a while to gain the type of networks that I currently have and I wanted to offer some of the skills and networks I have gained along the way to other people whose first language isn’t English or who have moved to London.

“Also, I find elevating other women’s voices and visibility helps me overcome the feeling that other women take away from what I have got.

“It’s a counterwork to that societal pressure that we should be enemies instead of sisters supporting one another.”

WoW was born in 2019 from a residency at creative space Grow Hackney during which Sara started a podcast.

“I wanted to capture, document and share beautiful stories from the women that had somehow contributed to making the creative communities that Hackney Wick and Fish Island are known for,” she said.

“I wanted to facilitate a space where individual stories could be heard but also create a strong sense of community and belonging – the kind I once felt when I moved to the area.

“Quite quickly I was commissioned by the Foundation For Future London to capture more stories from women within east London.

“I realised this work was needed – not just a podcast.

“I wanted to create other ways to facilitate spaces for women to come together, be vulnerable and talk about everything from sex to social media and the highs and lows of being an artist, mother and woman today.”

Sara runs monthly workshops with WoW
Sara runs monthly workshops with WoW – image Matt Grayson

In the first year, that mission led to a panel discussion on Art, Sex and Gender, raising money for LGBTQIA+ charity Galop UK, a queer poetry night and the two-day festival Heal Her, focused on storytelling and eco-feminism.

“I feel very strongly that feminist issues are also trans and gay rights – we’re all on the same front line against the patriarchy,” said Sara.

When lockdown hit, she began a series on Instagram Live with local artists from their studios explaining their work processes and collaborated with organisations like Grow Hackney to do a book club and talks.

Today, WoW facilitates monthly workshops for freelancers at Hackney Bridge and works with partners across London, including Foundation For Future London, Economy Of Hours (Echo), Stour Trust, BMW Foundation, and Creative Land Trust. 

The podcast How To Occupy Space continues, and sees Sara interview artists, activists and architects such as Juliet Can, founder of Stour Trust and Arab artist Tamara Al-Mashouk.

Last year Sara launched a second podcast, Girl Get A Real Job, to talk about how we can reduce the current pay gap in the creative industries and normalise conversations about money and financial resilience. 

Guests have included Selina Flavius, author of Black Girl Finance and Kaiya Shang, editor at Scribner.

In the autumn she will be launching a new programme focused on the topics discussed.

Sara also works as programme coordinator at Echo

Sara also works as programme coordinator at Echo – image Matt Grayson

“Hosting a space where experiences can be shared and people can be authentically themselves is incredibly powerful,” said Sara, whose day job is programme coordinator at Echo, where members trade the skills they have for those they need.

“The reason I find podcasting so accessible is that it’s another way to share our stories and journeys with others, as well as writing and public speaking. 

“All these things are really under the big umbrella of storytelling, which keeps coming up as a central theme for everything that we do.

“It is a key component in branding and more businesses are becoming aware that storytelling is at the core of their practice and they need to communicate that effectively to others.

“That’s led me to do workshops for businesses or entrepreneurs who want to expand their vision of what they can do with purpose-led storytelling strategies.

“Since MeToo and the so-called third wave of feminism, there has been more importance placed on personal storytelling and women’s experiences.

“But there’s still so much to do. It’s great there is interest there, but it needs to be more than just ticking a box. 

“If a voice is given to people or representative groups, then we are on the right track.”

Sara said the key to good storytelling was realising there was no wrong way to do it.

“Write as you would speak to your best friend, is the best advice to anyone who wants to have their voice heard,” she said.

“We all have a story within us and are powerful beyond belief.

“You need to trust in that voice. It doesn’t have to be polished.”

To give people the confidence to speak out, Sara has everyone who attends a WoW workshop or programme agree to a safe space commitment.

“Everyone agrees that there’s a non-judgmental space and we have zero tolerance of racism or misogyny,” she said.

“We are here to cheer each other on and this is a space where we can share those vulnerabilities – the highs and lows of being an artist.”

Read more: How The Shipwright offers a communal, collaborative approach to theatre

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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