Community, connection and Covid-19: Building community resilience to a crisis

Empowering residents and increasing equality and inclusion can boost community cohesion – as well as keep communities resilient in tough times. In this case study of Grahame Park in Barnet, we explore the benefits of investment in community development programmes, and how they’ve flexed during the pandemic.

This case study is part of FoL’s People, Place and Community project. Join us on Tuesday 23 February for the end-of-project report launch here.

Grahame Park estate regeneration: the importance of community development

Grahame Park in LB Barnet is a housing estate built in the 1970s on Hendon aerodrome site. The original estate was typified by brick terraced houses and low-rise flats, but in the last 50 years Grahame Park has undergone two regeneration programmes; the first took place in the late 1980s, the second started in 2007 – and is still ongoing today.

The current regeneration programme is managed by Choices For Grahame Park (CfGP), a subsidiary of Notting Hill Genesis (NHG). So far, CfGP have delivered stage A, which includes 685 new homes, a new College, new library buildings and new council offices. Stage B has now been approved for planning; this masterplan includes 2,088 new homes (of which 50% are affordable tenures) and a new community centre, nursery and housing office.

But Grahame Park remains one of the most deprived estates in London, with 40% of children living in poverty and 75% of residents living in socially rented accommodation. There are high levels of unemployment and youth unemployment is double the national average. So the regeneration of the estate is as much about community development and social and economic regeneration, as it is about new homes and buildings. To achieve this, in 2017 CfGP launched a programme called ‘Neighbourhood Change’.

Grahame Park, LB Barnet. Image courtesy of Notting Hill Genesis.

“What does community mean to us as a group? ‘Community’ means being inclusive: everyone living and working on the estate, participating, meeting and socialising. It helps against isolation and depression. And it gives us an opportunity to give back to society.”  – Mary Pearce, Chairperson of Grahame Park Independent Living

Neighbourhood Change: ‘An increased sense of pride in the community’

The purpose of the ‘Neighbourhood Change’ programme is to work with local partners and residents to coordinate and communicate what shared priorities and outcomes the community would like to see in Grahame Park. It’s a long-term process which aims to boost empowerment and feelings of ownership within the community, and increase resident experiences of equality and inclusion. The ambition is to create a resilient, engaged, innovative and prosperous community.

Organisations working across Grahame Park – including local grassroots groups and larger strategic bodies – have been encouraged to implement the programme. The Colindale Communities Trust (CCT) has played a key role in supporting local groups and residents to engage with and benefit from Neighbourhood Change. CCT is a local charity which supports people’s economic and social wellbeing through a network of local service providers, such as The Loop.

The Loop is a reuse hub that collects, stores, repairs and resells furniture to the local community. By engaging with the Neighbourhood Change programme, they’ve seen a higher turnout at activities (such as pot-plant painting), more residents getting involved as volunteers and an increased sense of pride in the community.

Carol Johnson outside The Loop Grahame Park, Groundwork’s furniture reuse and community hub in Colindale. A resident volunteer, Carol is the Upholstery and Crafts expert at The Loop, giving old chairs a new lease of life, and passing on her knowledge to local residents. Image courtesy of Notting Hill Gensis.

Evaluating community development

While it’s still in the early stages of delivery, an independent evaluation of the programme’s impact between September 2017 and December 218 found that Neighbourhood Change in Grahame Park had:

  • improved partnership working between local organisations and stakeholders
  • increased the number of activities on offer for residents, particularly health and wellbeing programmes
  • boosted community engagement with the activities on offer.

These findings are supported by a 2018 What Works Wellbeing report, which concludes that taking this type of approach to community development can:

  • increase opportunities for social interaction between different ethnic and age groups
  • increase social capital in the community
  • lead to increased civic participation
  • lead to improved individual behaviour in terms of physical activity and healthy eating
  • lead to improved knowledge and skills among community members.

The impact of Covid-19 on ‘community spirit’

In the short video below, made by NHG on behalf of FoL, Bina Omare, CEO of Colindale Communities Trust, Andrea Neaf, Co-ordinator at The Loop, Carol Johnson a NHG resident and volunteer at The Loop, Harriet Boamah, founding director of the FUSE youth project, and Mary Pearce, Chairperson of Grahame Park Independent Living, all share their thoughts on what community means to Grahame Park residents and organisations – particularly as it has come under strain in 2020.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly put a strain on the community. High levels of poverty and deprivation across the estate were exacerbated by lockdown. Elderly and vulnerable residents who have had to shield have felt fed up and disconnected. Some residents have been excluded from online community spaces and services because of a lack of internet access. And the closure of community spaces has made it harder for people to feel the ‘community spirit’.

 

Video courtesy of Notting Hill Genesis.

Community development: building resilience

Despite the challenges brought on by Covid-19, the community has remained resilient. Grahame Park’s network of committed community service providers continued to deliver services during Covid-19. Organisations like The Loop and the Colindale Food Bank got together to help provide and deliver food, and collect medicine. This not only resulted in people getting fed; it also made people feel cared for and looked after. One resident even sang on his balcony, which was greatly appreciated by his neighbours.

“During lockdown we saw a resilient, engaged, and innovative community. There’s still some way to go, but we feel confident that the Neighbourhood Change approach has laid the foundations for the Grahame Park community to have initiated their own community-led approaches to supporting one another’s wellbeing, and we have seen positive collaboration with organisations, such as The Loop, to ensure wider community safety during the pandemic” – Sherine McFarlane, Head of Social and Economic Regeneration, Notting Hill Genesis.

Harriet Boamah, founding director of the FUSE youth project, outside the Grahame Park Community Centre. Image courtesy of Notting Hill Genesis.

Lessons for community development post-Covid

How the pandemic will impact on the Neighbourhood Change programme going forward remains to be seen. But our interviewees shared some useful insight into how community development programmes and, in a broader sense, estate regeneration schemes, might adapt post-pandemic.

  • Local organisations need crisis teams who can meet and decide how to adapt, so that support services can continue to run even in challenging times.
  • Residents need easily accessible spaces that foster a sense of community and make people feel safe – and these need to be both physical and online.
  • In areas of high deprivation, like Grahame Park, digital inclusion is a critical issue. Local organisations need to address this, but so too do developers. Building free Wi-Fi into an estate regeneration scheme could be one solution. That will have a significant impact on both younger and older people.

Catch-up on our Places, Spaces and Sociality webinar, which debated how architecture, planning and urban design can inspire social connection within our cities here and on our People, Place and Community project here.