The built environment sector is grappling with how to use the pandemic recovery as an opportunity to create fairer urban environments. Our Building Recovery Insights paper published in September set out the challenges we’re facing, and our Building Recovery Conference responded directly to those challenges. The day provided inspiration and practical recommendations for participants to make sure that we can all play our role in reducing inequalities through recovery.
We were delighted to be able to hold the conference in person this year, welcoming around 160 delegates from across the public, private and not for profit sectors on 11 November. We were also joined by academics, students and community representatives. You can view the full programme here.
It was an opportunity for those passionate about promoting equality in the built environment to come together, share stories and speak openly about how to overcome the challenges we face.
A strong theme throughout the day was the need to meaningfully work with residents and communities who would benefit most from fairer cities. Practical ideas and suggestions for how this can be achieved included:
- When measuring the impact schemes have on inequalities, train and hire community representatives to support this. Work with grassroots organisations that already serve the area and use their local expertise.
- People with disabilities have been significantly erased from the conversation – especially when it comes to transport planning and streets. Work with disabled people to look at communications and local environments from their perspective. The only way to avoid excluding people with disabilities is to include them in the conversation from the outset.
- Through a workshop session featuring work Yoo Capital are doing in Shepherds Bush and Olympia, we discussed letting the community define the agenda – bringing local reps onto project teams, paying them as team members and reframing the process.
- In our international housing panel, we heard some truly inspirational stories from across Europe where organisations are taking a proactive approach to engaging with at-risk communities to develop affordable housing. Perhaps the key message on engagement from this session was “remain curious” – advice from Stephanie Zeulevoet at Inbo: it is important that we don’t take anything for granted when working with residents and continue to be creative, listen and prepare to be surprised.
The built environment industry needs to represents society. To do this, all sectors need to ensure they are appealing to a broader range of individuals. In our skills session, it was suggested that we need to start earlier and work harder with schools and the education sector to do this.
In our culture session we heard about No Bass Like Home – a project within LB Brent’s London Borough of Culture programme that sought to “reclaim and reframe” the heritage of reggae music in Brent. The project promoted community engagement and the opening up of potential barriers in creative industries to young people in the borough, through the lens of black cultural heritage. Such programmes demonstrate how culture reflecting our diverse communities can act as a catalyst for inclusive recovery
We also heard from LHC about their approach to an architecture and design services framework in partnership with LB Southwark. This framework sought to go beyond the norm to reach BAME-led, smaller and emerging architecture practices. As part of their process, they changed the application and assessment process to make it more accessible. They questioned practices on their EDI approach, asking about how they monitor their diversity pay gap, whether they seek out disadvantaged communities for outreach or placements and how they engage with minority networks through mentoring or advocacy. These are all very practical things we could be doing to improve the diversity of our sector.
As much as possible, we also tried to reflect diversity in the speakers, case studies and audience at the conference. We wanted to respond to a key theme from our findings to date: we need to do more to increase the diversity of those we employ and engage with. We know there is more to do – particularly so that at an event like this we are promoting diversity in its broadest sense – not just focusing on gender, race, age and ability.
Using recovery to change our thinking
It is clear that we currently have an opportunity to radically change our approaches and thinking to many aspects of how our cities work. There is appetite and excitement about this, as demonstrated by LB Newham’s presentation covering their fair and inclusive recovery approach – one that uses health and happiness of residents as a measure of success.
Keynote speaker Caroline Macfarland from Common Vision encouraged us to focus on what we’ve learned from the pandemic to rethink how we achieve equality and inclusion. In particular, she talked about community power and the challenges of tapping into and measuring this.
“We need to think differently and need more creativity and imagination as a society. Doing the same thing is not inclusion.” Caroline Macfarland, Common Vision
She encouraged us to think about energy: what is the fuel people need to develop social capital and social infrastructure? What is that gives people the confidence and sense of trust to get involved and be powerful? Caroline challenged us to stop thinking about everyone having an equal seat at the table and instead, rethink the table completely.
The theme of shifting our thinking also came up during the various themed sessions throughout the day, with highlights including:
- Transport – Arup and TfL are changing the way they model and plan future initiatives, taking a greater focus on how changes might affect ethnic minorities and not assuming that patterns from today will look the same tomorrow.
- Skills – organisations like Countryside are rethinking their approach to upskilling for net zero, looking through the lens of their tenants and homeowners. Councils like LB Camden are upskilling staff and contractors in their supply chain to ensure they’re fit to deliver programmes that realise net zero ambitions.
- Public space – LB Hackney have been adopting a child-friendly planning approach which they argue will help build a city that will thrive for everyone. They recognise that young people aren’t necessarily hard to reach but we in the sector don’t necessarily always speak the right language.
- Housing – key to changing our approach to creating genuinely affordable housing that meets the needs of our diverse communities is being willing to take risks and try new things. Our international panel called for better evaluation and sharing globally of knowledge and understanding. Tricia Patel from PTE reminded us that “the easy thing [to do] is not always the best thing.”
The deep-rooted issues we all want to tackle require strategic partnership working in the long run – building continuous engagement with communities, not just when change is happening.
In our session on measuring and monitoring impact, it was encouraging to see new methods from the likes of Argent and L&Q which are going beyond standard approaches to social value. L&Q are carrying out longitudinal research in partnership with their residents, and Argent are examining what makes an area undergoing change flourish. It’s crucial though that we look beyond the data and bolster it by speaking to residents to get a sense of whether people feel they are benefiting from any given scheme.
“We need to develop ways to maintain our energy and engagement” Robert Evans, Argent
Thank you to all of our speakers and sponsors who made the event such a success. Our aim for the conference was to give delegates inspiration and practical ideas to take away and embed in their own practice to make a difference on inequalities.
“It gave me inspiration and motivation to think about my own projects and what the legacy could be for the future.” Delegate feedback
Judging by the energy in the room and the feedback we received, we managed this. For those still looking for advice and guidance on how to ensure you play your role in addressing our urban inequalities, look out for our forthcoming report (due February 2022) which will bring together case studies and recommendations from the entirety of the Building Recovery Programme.