What makes them? What breaks them? As developers, we have a huge responsibility to the people whose lives we are changing. Matthew Weiner, Chief Executive of U+I reflects on ways to strengthen community.
As a Jew living in North West London, my life is wrapped up in my community. I’ve lived in the area all my life, it’s part of what grounds me and I wouldn’t dream of moving elsewhere.
Our community was largely forged out of the Holocaust. The shared sorrow of having lost loved ones or of having relatives unaccounted for to this day is not atypical of the families in my local area. So I grew up in a community that pulled together to overcome that loss and that tragedy.
My closest friends are part of that community, my son’s football team is part of that community and the support networks that surround my family are based in that community.
It is incredibly important to me. It is the place where I belong, it gives me roots and it has a huge influence on my life. Because it’s understanding what community means to my family and to me which makes me determined to do my best in the work that U+I does with communities in London and elsewhere.
Looking around parts of the capital, community ties are breaking down. People aren’t looking out for each other and that leads to a disconnect, as we are seeing all too often on the streets and online.
In the past, most communities had a public space – the common – where people would go and argue out their differences face to face. Now we have social media. It’s anonymous and that’s dangerous because it’s power without responsibility or accountability.
People can say what they want without fear of retribution, and that allows networks to grow based on hatred or prejudice. Contrast that with the bonds and accountability of close-knit families or friends, where people talk to each other and try to resolve disagreements rather than magnify them.
That’s why communities can play an important role in fostering harmony, or at least in addressing difference. And that’s why developers should try to strengthen and deepen communities by engaging with them and, ideally, connecting with them.
Regeneration should mean changing an area for the better. Too often, that is not the case. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why most people are resistant to change. To have even a chance of bringing local people onside as you change an area, you have to be genuine about community engagement. You have to be open, not just in what you say but in what you do – opening sites out, bringing diverse individuals and groups into the design process and taking their comments on board.
The bar has been set very low by the development industry but to me, thoughtless development is not just unkind and potentially harmful, it is also bad business.
That means involving local communities from an early stage, showing them the broad parameters of what you’re thinking; asking what works and what doesn’t. And there is no point in just listening; you have to try and respond. And you have to try and be fair. Otherwise, the local community, which has often been there for decades, centuries even, is going to push back. Making enemies of the people you are working with will do no one any good.
You have to be able to look yourself in the eye every day and say ‘I tried to help, I tried not to land a spaceship from Mars, I tried to be respectful.’
I think you have to try really hard to find the piece of the jigsaw that’s missing, or that will really enhance a local community and that might help to anchor it or breathe new life into it. That could be sport or leisure facilities, a swimming pool, a doctors’ surgery, properly curated outside space or even a decent library.
And meanwhile use is really vital, too. Curating creative spaces before a development gets underway can be a real bridge between old and new. They can help developers to find out more about what matters in a given community, they show that we are listening and we are serious about making an area better.
Regeneration is not easy. There are tensions between old and new, people who have been in a place for generations and people who have only just arrived. Sometimes friction centres on concerns about gentrification. Sometimes it’s just about difference. But whatever the situation, you can’t just march in with your size 10 boots and your great big diggers and expect to be greeted with open arms. You have to be respectful, you have to care.
The bar has been set very low by the development industry. But to me, thoughtless development is not just unkind and potentially harmful, it is also bad business. Whereas doing your job properly and caring about the local community delivers positive change and makes sound commercial sense.
I know what a sense of community feels like. I know how important it is to feel that you belong somewhere. That feeling can come from simple things like having shops nearby which cater to your needs; it can come from being surrounded by people you know or people who share your values and, fundamentally, it can come from believing that people actually care about the area you live in.
As developers, we have a huge responsibility to the people whose lives we are changing. So you have to be able to look yourself in the eye every day and say ‘I tried to help, I tried not to land a spaceship from Mars, I tried to be respectful.’
Ultimately, strength of community is part of what makes us human. And if you don’t respect that, what hope is there?