Community hubs, and the cluster of services which surround them, are an important element of social infrastructure; they promote social cohesion by bringing together different social or generational groups; increase social capital and promote interaction between community members. They also have the potential to increase people’s knowledge or skills, and widen social networks. But as physical meeting spaces, community hubs have experienced huge challenges during the pandemic.
In this case study, featuring Acton Gardens Community Centre in LB Ealing, we’ll reflect on the role of community hubs in ‘typical times’, and ask how these physical meeting spaces can stay relevant and continue to support communities as we navigate the ‘new normal’.
Acton Gardens Community Centre
As part of the regeneration of Acton Gardens, the estate has a new community hub. Built by the joint venture partners leading the estate regeneration, Countryside and L&Q, and managed by the MHDT London Development Trust, the Community Centre opened in spring 2019. It’s part of a cluster of spaces and services for residents, including a dental practice, incubator workspace and youth club. There are plans to open a GP practice and a nursery here in the future; the ambition is to offer residents all the services they need on their doorstep.
The design and location of the new Community Centre are both important. It’s in the middle of the estate, so all residents from across Acton Gardens can easily access it, and the space has been designed with flexibility in mind – so residents can use it in lots of different ways. The Centre is also surrounded by open space which can be used for outdoor events.
Community hubs: critical programming in ‘normal’ times
In April 2019, when the community centre was just a few weeks old, FoL hosted a field trip to Acton Gardens and visited the new community centre. Despite being in its infancy, the centre already had enthusiastic supporters – and a long list of people waiting to use the space.
“In its first year, the main aim of the centre was to connect with existing local groups, particularly those that had been using the previous community centre, and make sure they felt welcome and at home in the new space,” said Emmanuel Wachukwu, Project Manager – Acton Gardens Community Centre.
The programme included meals for the over 60s, exercise classes, half-term activities for kids and a winter fiesta that appealed to all the different communities living on the estate.
This strengthened existing groups, such as the United Anglo Caribbean Society, who ran the over-60s meals and exercise classes, but also provided a space for new groups, including a Knit and Natter club.
The way the Community Centre is managed, and positioned within the community, is critical. “The ambition for the Centre is for it to be a platform for people to build community”, MHDT London Development Trust Chief Executive Simon Donovan explained. “A major part of that will be through local people running their own activities and clubs, with support from the Trust where needed.”
Community hub: the value of having a physical space during Covid-19
The Centre was clearly very important to the Acton Gardens’ community in ‘typical times’ – but its importance has been felt even more keenly during the pandemic. In the wake of the first national lockdown, the Acton Gardens community banded together to establish community-led groups through WhatsApp, social media, and leaflet dropping.
Having created a ‘sense of place’ for the community pre-pandemic, the community centre became the hub of this bottom-up volunteer network, empowering local people to help each other. Initially, volunteers were primarily local residents but volunteers from the wider LB Ealing communities gradually got involved too.
The flexible design of the space was of great benefit when it became, effectively, an emergency aid centre. The kitchen facilities were used by The Felix Project, Crystals Supper Club, and other partners and volunteers to cook, repackage and distribute food and supplies to residents.
At the height of the crisis, this distribution service provided a hot, healthy meal to at least 120 people twice a week. Between May and July, around 300 people received a total of 1515 meals. This ensured that the most vulnerable in Acton Gardens and South Acton were fed and receiving support from their local community, reducing hunger, food poverty and stress – particularly for families and older people.
This has all been made possible, thanks to the volunteer network, funding from MHDT London Development Trust, and funding of over £15,000 from the Countryside Communities Fund. Mike Woolliscroft, Chief Executive, Partnerships South, Countryside, said: “The response in Acton to the coronavirus pandemic has been extraordinary, and is testament to the strong community spirit of the area. The Acton Gardens Community Centre has been at the heart of this, playing a crucial role in helping local people to get through the crisis.”
Building an online community
The strain of the pandemic is, of course, not just limited to an increased number of referrals for food bags and hot meals – the emotional strain has been felt by households of all shapes and sizes. For children, the routine of school has been broken. For the elderly, those self-isolating, or those with limited access to internet and phones, loneliness has been a particular problem.
To tackle these issues, the Community Centre has delivered over 300 free art packs and educational worksheets to school pupils across the estate. The funding from Countryside also meant free tablets could be distributed, allowing for a more digitally inclusive community. This has helped children access educational resources, but also made it easier for isolated residents to stay in touch with loved ones. And more local residents can now access the Centre’s online activities, such as online dance classes and mental health support.
Post-pandemic, the Community Centre plans to run a mixed programme of physical and online events, something that would not have been considered before Covid-19. And with more people working from home and spending more time in the local area, the Centre will become even more important to the local community.
Lessons from lockdown
- A community hub is more than just a physical space where residents can meet. It’s a platform for connecting and networking existing groups and residents, and empowering them to shape and strengthen the local community. Digital infrastructure has been key to keeping Acton Gardens residents connected during the pandemic. As we look to the future, it’s important to consider the role digital connections might play in keeping physical places networked into communities.
- As the ‘new normal’ evolves, it’s critical to understand what the community needs and what the gaps are in the provision of local services. Community centres need to regularly assess and measure their impact; this includes engaging in creative ways with typically harder to reach groups, such as young people. Impact studies prove the value of developing community infrastructure, and help make the case for more external funding.
- Design of the physical hub is important. It must cater to a diverse set of needs, and it can be challenging to create this diversity of provision in a multi-purpose community space. A flexible design allows different people to use the space in lots of different ways. It’s critical that the design of surrounding public space is not overlooked either, this must also cater to a diverse range of community members. This is increasingly important as Covid-19 has moved many community interactions outside.
- Housebuilders could think more creatively and more productively about how to use the empty spaces in the developments more productively. Given the impact of Covid-19 on the retail sector, there may well be more spaces that could be used as community hubs in the coming months and years.
Join us on 1st December for our Places, Spaces and Sociality webinar, debating how architecture, planning and urban design can inspire social connection within our cities. Register here.