Building community in unprecedented times

community is strength poster, people, place and community report

People, Place and Community report launch

Responding to concerns that half of Londoner’s feel lonely and the serious threat this poses to health, Future of London’s People, Place and Community project has been seeking to understand the role of the built environment sector in creating a sense of belonging. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted this issue and an urgent response is required – with 4.5 million people in the UK reporting ‘acute loneliness’ in November of 2020.

To mark the launch of the final report we held a webinar on 23 February, chaired by Hannah Gibbs, Head of Knowledge at Future of London and featuring some key players working in this area. The event introduced the key themes in the report and gave a flavour for the practical recommendations and inspirational case studies, highlighting approaches which adapted fantastically to the challenges dealt by the pandemic.

Watch the event below

 

Quality of life

Community connections – solid, meaningful social interactions – are great for our health. People with strong social relationships have a 50% increased likelihood of survival compared to those with weaker ones. A study of 66 cities across Europe found that diverse neighbourhoods which offer good quality open space, equal access to a range of facilities, and decent homes make people happier.

“What people want or need from their city varies moment to moment, day to day, life stage to life stage. If a city is varied enough to offer people what they need, when they need it, it is likely to support a higher quality of life.” Professor Rich Mitchell

The community perspective

Harriet Boamah, Director of F.U.S.E. Youth Project started us off by telling us about the realities of maintaining connections with young people over the past year. The organisation is well trusted by the people it supports meaning they were quickly able to adapt and continue to offer practical and mental health support. They have a constructive partnership with Notting Hill Genesis which came about during the Grahame Park Neighbourhood Change programme (featured in our report). Her advice to urban practitioners was:

  • Identify community groups working on the ground and get honest insight from them about local need
  • Quickly support the start-up of essential services when issues emerge in a community – don’t wait for them to become embedded
  • Housing associations should fund local projects and people who want to start businesses locally

The building blocks of community

Hannah set out a practical framework, the ‘Building blocks of community’ featured in the report for creating or changing places that puts social connections at the forefront. Speakers from our project partners illustrated the three themes:

  • Good quality design – Kaye Stout, Partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards
  • Neighbourhood ecosystems – Davinia Venton, Director of Partnerships, Countryside
  • Digital connectivity – Claire Fram, Senior Product Manager, Arup

The panel were joined by Fabrizio Matillana, Principal Urban Designer, LB Enfield and Dr Phil Askew, Director of Landscape and Placemaking, Peabody who offered insights from large-scale regeneration projects they are working on. A lively Q&A followed with some great questions from our audience.

Flexibility and adaptability

Kaye shared a rural case study – Woodstock in West Oxfordshire. She reflected on how planned flexible ‘third places’ (somewhere other than home and work where residents can spend time) allow the community to get together in ways to suit them and argued this could be transferable to cities. She called for communal spaces that are more ambitious than a room for children’s parties – perhaps offering facilities for home workers.

Fabrizio told us that in leading the regeneration at Meridian Water, LB Enfield has been nimble in the way it is responding to the impacts of the pandemic. For example, reacting to local people’s renewed sense of the importance of green and blue spaces and adapting designs and polices as a result.

Stewardship

The discussion touched on how people have become more invested in their area through lockdowns, the change of pace that the pandemic has forced and the impact these might have on community engagement. Phil said “thinking about how places are managed and looked after for the long term is all about getting the people who live and work there into that process”. And this linked to Harriet’s earlier presentation where she suggested taking services to people where it suits them.

“Councils are the best examples of long-term stewardship – they could and should be the beacons that everybody is looking up to.” Kaye Stout

Rethinking our approach

Davinia focused on neighbourhood ecosystems and the need for regenerators to listen to and work with groups that already exist. Drawing on the example of Beam Park, she talked about how the pandemic has increased our dependency on our locality and the potential this has to realise the concept of the 15-minute city – providing everything we need, in easy reach of home.

Claire gave some examples of how data and digital can help inform our designs – for example by revealing when parking spaces are most often occupied, and when they are quieter and how use can be temporarily switched to a social purpose.


The session helped bring to life the key themes of our report and brought out the importance of listening, adaptability, trusting local experts and collaboration. Take a look at the report to get more information on the building blocks and to see the practical recommendations we make to each discipline in the built environment sector to incorporate these principals into future projects.

This session was part of Future of London’s People, Place and Community Programme, kindly supported by Arup, Countryside and Pollard Thomas Edwards