“Chatham High Street definitely has that role of being at the centre of the community”
What Steven asked George Atzev, founder of Future Medway
For our Sunday interview this week, Steven sat down with George Atzev. George set up Future Chatham, a website reporting on regeneration in Chatham, when he was 12, and has recently relaunched it as Future Medway. He is a student of Urban Design and they met at the Nucelas Cafe in Chatham to discuss urban design in Medway, the difference between greenbelt and greenfield, and whether the council trying to control us through school streets.
Where were you born?
I was born here in Medway. Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham. I have always lived here, raised in Chatham.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
So, when I was very little they bounced around a few various jobs, but for most of my life my dad's work was in transport and my mum worked in hospitality and then into retail.
How did you find school and how are you finding university?
I enjoyed school. I did quite well both at GCSEs and A-levels. I got along with people. I was not a fan of exams, but I enjoyed specifically geography and business. It was a shame that sixth form had to be cut short because of covid back in 2020. That was sort of an abrupt end, but I don’t think anybody was looking forward to the exams anyway. University was also a really eye-opening experience. It started off during covid, so my first year was completely online, and that wasn't great, but then things did begin to pick up. I was able to finish last month actually and now I'm looking to do a Master’s degree in Urban Design and Planning again from September at UCL.
Normally at this stage, I’d ask, ‘what was your first full-time job’. Have you ever had a full-time job?
I haven't had a full-time job yet. I’ll be focusing on the Master’s degree and then exploring career options.
What does studying Urban Design entail?
It's very creative, but also you have to think about all the external factors and external environments that surround the profession. That's quite key, having to consider all the different viewpoints, the needs and desires of local communities, authorities, developers, landowners etc. It’s hands-on and you do have to think quite strategically, about today as well as tomorrow, around what the future might bring in terms of opportunities for communities.
With your degree what would you be looking to do as a job?
I’m quite passionate about the built environment and how to improve the human experience of urban environments. I'd be looking at opportunities with purpose-driven organisations. Those that have a particular emphasis on quality placemaking and in particular active travel, things around walking and cycling.
Is that something you can do in Medway?
Potentially. I am open for opportunities (laughs).
Do those types of organisations exist in this area, do they invest here?
Not really. As with quite a few other disciplines, it is a case of having to go elsewhere to work sometimes, like London. So it might have to be a case of having to look further afield.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
In my spare time, I run Future Chatham (now Future Medway) and that's something I started when I was 12, namely as an opportunity or an outlet to inform local people about what's changing in terms of Chatham development or regeneration. That came out of both curiosity and interest in Chatham regeneration when I was 12, but also, I suppose, discontent around the news coverage at the time. We only had one newspaper at the time, and still do. So, I think myself and you guys at Local Authority have been able to plug that gap. Alongside Future Chatham, I am also part of the Neighbourhood Planning Forum for Chatham, and I have been helping to create Chatham’s first Neighbourhood Plan.
How did you get involved?
That started off back in 2019. For me, it was an opportunity to make an impact on my immediate surroundings in Chatham, and it was in my home turf in the Luton part of Chatham. I thought it would be a good opportunity to be part of that. Since then, I've been very heavily involved in that process. It's been good to see it come together and hopefully, we'll see the plan adopted this year.
With Future Chatham, do you work for the council?
No, it is completely independent. I run it in my spare time, voluntarily, and that’s been something that has been going on now for nearly nine years. It has been growing quite drastically. It started with some tweets to now doing quite straight-to-the-point, digestible news articles, that have been reaching thousands of people a month.
What leads a 12-year-old to go online to be talking about Chatham? What's gone wrong in that kid’s life?
I don't know! Perhaps I’m a bit odd with a bit too much spare time on my hands. It was just out of curiosity, and I remember at that time, I'd be going through the newspaper and at the back pages where they would have the weekly list of planning applications. That's kind of where it began. I saw specific interest in Chatham’s regeneration. At the same time, we had the bus station being built and the ring road being remodelled, so a lot was going on at that time. I felt I needed to play some small part in being able to bring all that information together in just one place.
What would you like to see happen with Chatham from an urban design point of view?
I think the key to everything is definitely having a vision and a sort of plan that directs that future. I think over the years we’ve seen quite a few plans and strategies come and go. I've seen some from the 2000s and we've seen very little of that materialised due to all sorts of issues, whether it’s covid or the economic recession in the early 2000s. I think the biggest opportunity for Chatham is definitely its diversification of the High Street, and making sure that it offers an experience that rivals the online marketplace, Amazon and Bluewater. Even more locally Dockside and Hempstead Valley are causing quite an issue for the town centre, so we definitely need to see how we could make the most of Chatham’s quirks, qualities and lesser-known stories that make it a special place.