Today we publish Developing Socially Productive Places, which explores the relationship between the physical and social aspects of community-building and place-making. We want to challenge and support local authorities, developers, communities and businesses to deepen their understanding of what makes places good for people in the long term. (Social productivity is defined as the additional social value that can be created through better relationships between citizens, society, business and public services.)
During a period when property values are rising in most parts of the UK and development activity is picking up, a key concern of local authorities and other accountable bodies is that economic growth must benefit residents while improving public finances. Many areas face population pressures and ageing infrastructure, and new development is a key driver of change.
Development is one of the most powerful drivers of local political engagement, and therefore the planning process represents a significant gateway to stronger community relations and dialogue on a range of issues.
In the report, the RSA draws on the keynote address made to April’s conference by former housing minister Mark Prisk MP. Mark Prisk outlined the challenge to provide dense development while balancing the need for long-term flexibility and public and private interests. Several examples in the report illustrate how progressive approaches can support socially and economically valuable outcomes at different stages of the development process – from engaging communities in planning to evaluating impact on well-being.
The financial crisis of 2008 led to a stalling of many development projects across the UK and highlighted the fragility of relying on corporate financing to change the physical assets in a place. From a tumultuous period of recent economic history, new approaches to placemaking are beginning to emerge, often led or catalysed by community groups, and based on a clear expression of values and outcomes.
Creativity, appropriation, and a rediscovery of the ability of citizens to shape their everyday spaces are highlighting the benefits of emergent and adaptive approaches – with ‘pop-up’ and ‘meanwhile’ temporary uses becoming more common in the mainstream landscape.
We argue transition should be considered a structural feature of the way places will be built, with a new set of tools that deal with this uncertainty.
The report highlights that developing places involves initiatives big and small, temporary and long-lasting. Development does not always have to come from developers. A plurality of approaches is needed. While community-led development approaches can be nimble, large corporate developers can bring significant value, leveraging money, resources and expertise beyond that available locally, and having the ability to operate at speed and scale. This means all types of developers will require a wide range of new competencies: successful place-making requires an understanding of how people, households and community networks respond to and use the opportunities afforded by the built environment.
Socially productive places are neighbourhoods and districts where people are enabled individually and collectively to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them.
Policymakers need to do more to develop frameworks in which communities, developers and councils can sustain long term partnerships. Long-term property value is driven by the long-term economic relevance of an asset. Remaining relevant in the long-term requires places to be adaptable. Managing the forces and harnessing the potential of development through planning requires resources, capacity and coordination. Local authorities therefore have a crucial role in using planning and development to reinforce wider social and economic objectives.
Ultimately the success of a development should be judged by its impact on those who use it, and its ability to contribute to a broader set of social and economic outcomes. Planning is a frontline public service, which doesn’t exist in isolation from other public sector roles which influence how a place functions. Investing in planning can bring value to other public sector objectives, and pro-actively strengthen relationships between developers, incoming people and businesses and existing communities.
Progress will only be made if both public and private sectors, individuals and community groups, collaborate in new ways. We want today’s report to stimulate conversations up and down the UK about how we can best develop socially productive places.
This is the second in a series of blogs exploring the work of Fellows across the world and is a guest blog by Alain Ruche, RSA Connector for Belgium.
With the Fellowship present in nearly 100 countries, and new ideas regularly springing up, we are in exciting times for the international impact of the RSA. If you would like to find out more or have ideas of your own, please contact Laura Southerland of the International team who will be happy to assist you.
As the European capital and a vibrant city, Brussels has great potential for growing a dynamic RSA Fellowship network. Since I joined the Society three years ago and became the RSA Connector for Belgium, I have been gathering Fellows at the wonderful Garage Culturel which my wife Olga, now a Fellow as well, is running at our place. With Olaf, the latest newcomer to the group, we have been stubbornly meeting on the first Friday of every month between 18.00 and 20.30 for about 8 months now.
Growing a community of Fellows outside of the UK is not without its challenges – we recently opted for organising a social event mixing Fellows with non-Fellows whom we believe might be interested in joining, or share the same values and interests as Fellows of the RSA. Among the attendees, were several accomplished artists (dancers, actors and a pianist); representatives of international organisations (British Council, Club of Rome), diplomats, academics, NGO professionals, social activists and EU officials – in total, 35 people representing 15 nationalities from four continents. The evening was lively and entertaining as we were able to hire a jazz band comprised of a number of talented young musicians.
We are now thinking of testing another approach with our network in order to invite discussion around important social issues. A member of the group will introduce a topic and initiate a meaningful conversation, followed by socialising for those who would like to stay on. We will adopt the ‘etiquette’ of the world’s cafes: connect, listen carefully, ask focused questions, look for new insights, allow for disagreement but avoid pushing individual agendas. Such a meeting would end with a concrete action that all involved can endeavor to undertake in the short term. We will be starting this new format in September and as RSA Connector, I will be introducing the first topic – ‘the role of culture in international relations.’
Then in late September we will welcome Michael Bauwens FRSA at the Garage to lead a conversation on the emerging collaborative paradigm of which he is himself a world-known actor, as founder of the P2P Foundation.
We remain persistent in our mission to raise the profile of the RSA in Brussels. We believe that we can have fun and meaningful conversations. The Garage is a great place to meet people and connect. I happen also to be a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar and of the Club of Rome EU Chapter, and a global ambassador of Kosmos Journal, but every one of us has useful connections to bring to the table. Recent research shows that connections within local neighbourhoods provide a more powerful means of relating to the world than long distance contacts.
Let’s build on this social capital together and see what emerges from it!
If you are a Fellow based in Brussels and would like to join the emerging Brussels network then get in touch with Alain, at email@example.com. Information about the next meeting at the Garage Culturel is detailed below:
When? Thursday 25 September 2014, 7-10pm
Where? www.garageculturel.com, 79 rue D’Albanie, B-1060
Who? Michael Bauwens FRSA
About? The emerging P2P paradigm
Jobs for an intern: make tea, edit references, keep your head down and do the grunt work. Perhaps, but not at the RSA – here they encourage you to speak up, to blog and to generally make your voice heard. It is both refreshing and a little intimidating. So when I got invited to attend a meeting at the start of this week I managed to do what I perhaps should not have done: I took a lot of notes and kept my mouth shut, but my ears open. There is much to condemn this strategy but I tell you something, you tend to learn a lot that way. As one might expect from a meeting between think tanks, there was some general confusion as to who was meant to be facilitating who but if anything this seemed to lead to a very productive meeting. The subject of the meeting: How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK – especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
How can local government help communities be more resilient despite devastating flooding in the UK – especially since the climate change models seem to suggest this is is going to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
A week into my Research Intern post at the RSA and amongst the swarm of buzz words, project titles TLAs, people’s names and lunch recommendations there is already a glimmer of the range and impact of the RSA projects.
I find myself in the privileged position of ‘straddling’ two separate yet, as it appears, deeply connected projects. The projects come underneath the RSA’s Action and Research Centre; one is a new project, with a London Borough Council, that is part of the Connected Communities (ConCom) team and the other is part of the City Growth Commission (CGC).
Initially the obvious difference in scales of the subject areas delineates the projects very clearly, yet in reality they are looking very similar processes.
“Tell me how you play,” wrote the South American writer Eduardo Galeano, “and I’ll tell you who you are.”
The FIFA World Cup starts today in Brazil, with 32 teams each pitting their national football culture against the others and hoping that their own sporting identity emerges triumphant.
And yet from a certain angle, it has been difficult to tell who, or what, football really ‘is’ lately. The sport has been obscured by corruption at the top of the game’s governing body, as well as the misdirection of public funds and widespread evictions sparking huge protests against FIFA in Brazil. Recent racism and sexism scandals have given the game a sour taste, as have the pathetic soap operas concerning pampered millionaire players. Most deplorably, stories are emerging of the deadly conditions experienced by indentured migrant labourers building stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
It’s sometimes difficult to remember why I love this game. But a story that took place far away from the razzmatazz of the World Cup has served as a timely reminder for me of what football can and should be about; the joy and creativity of play, the determination to compete, and the thrill of the unexpected. The story is about a group of Guatemalan sex workers who grasped their power to create, formed a football team and played to show who they really are: human beings. Read more
“I was always seeking to affect the lives of millions of people – not through politics or entertainment but through design. I strive to raise the bar, taking the common place and improving it”.
This is a network:
It’s not a very interconnected network yet, but it’s a snapshot of the 100 remarkable people who we will be working with over the next year, and the relationships that connected them at the start of the Diaspora ChangeMakers programme. [Read more below]. Read more
Chatting to the neighbours: makes us happier, saves lives, comes to the rescue when we lose our keys
At about 7.30am last Thursday I heard a tentative knock on my front door.
Standing on my doorstep, shivering in pyjamas and with a look of acute embarrassment on her face, was my new neighbour Carolina* from the studio flat downstairs. Her bathroom is across the hall from her flat, and she’d managed to lock herself out after going to the toilet without her keys. Critically, she had also managed to lock her keys and phone inside her flat, and was stranded in the stairwell.
I gave her my phone so she could call her office to explain that she’d be late. We have the same landlord so I called him to explain the situation, and invited her inside to wait while he drove a spare key over from Essex. I had to leave for work, but my girlfriend had a day off and so sat with Carolina for the next couple of hours and made her breakfast and tea. They chatted. They got along quite well.
The situation had initially felt all the more bizarre and awkward given that I’d only moved into the building that weekend, and had met her before this only once, as I was carrying furniture up the stairs on my moving day. I’ve lived in buildings before where I never spoke to – or even saw – my neighbours, but given that I now work on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme I thought I’d make an effort to practice what we preach, and made sure I chatted her when I spotted her. We didn’t speak about anything hugely exciting on that occasion – essentially we told each other our names and said hello – and it didn’t feel particularly important at the time. But how long would she have sat helplessly panicking in the hallway on Thursday if we had not bumped into each other and exchanged small talk earlier that week? Would she have knocked on my front door when she did, or would it have seemed too difficult to inconvenience somebody she had never met before in such an embarrassing situation?
This is partly what the founder of the Big Lunch, Tim Smit, means when he says that ‘Small talk is in fact ‘big talk’ – it’s the code or tool which enables us to overcome our shyness’. The Big Lunch have published research this month that they say shows that ‘the chattiest streets are the happiest streets’, with seven in ten people surveyed saying that simple conversations with their neighbours make them feel more in touch with their community – but with one in twenty reporting that they have never spoken to their neighbours at all. This is worrying because not having these kind of local connections might not just make us less happy – or leave us caught short when we forget our keys – but it can be highly damaging to our health as well.
Last week, the writer Will Storr wrote in the Guardian about his own reluctance to talk to the people around him, and about how he is trying to change this. Contrary to the popular image of British villagers coming together at times of adversity, he recounts being rude to an environment officer and having an argument with a neighbour who wanted to borrow sandbags during the recent flooding in Somerset where he lives. Prompted by these negative interactions he decides to learn more about loneliness and is told by a genome biologist that isolation has a similar mortality risk to smoking , and so he decides to make a conscious attempt at being friendlier to his neighbours:
‘That evening, the man fails to return my sandbags. I wonder if he might have done had I responded to him differently. Worried about the flood, which is now just steps from my door, I walk around the corner to find them being used to corral a stream of water into a bubbling drain. Under the irritated gaze of the affected homeowner, I lug them back, one by one. Then I stop and return. With a smile and an apology, I explain who I am and why I need them. We have a chat. As it turns out, he’s quite nice.’
This friendly small talk between people who live near each other are the kind of interactions that Talk To Me London, a new campaign group in the capital, want to see more of. It’s a simple aim, but we think it’s an important one and that’s why we worked with them to pilot their approach in south east London, and why we’ll be supporting them to raise funds for a city-wide launch on the RSA-curated section on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website. Watch out for that and get updates by following @talktomelondon on Twitter.
When I went back to my flat after work a few evenings ago, Carolina had left a little box of chocolates for my girlfriend and me as a thank you. Where in other places I have lived my neighbours have been strangers, now I have some form of connection with Carolina. We’ll look out for each other now and, who knows, maybe become friends. We might support each other in any future tenancy disputes about the building or the landlord. We might hit some bars to explore our new neighbourhood together. Or we might just keep a spare key for her in case she gets locked out again.
*Not her real name.
When you see a police officer do you feel safer, or less safe?
This is the half-serious test that the anthropologist and activist Prof. David Graeber uses as a metric of whether somebody has a middleclass ‘mind-set’ or not. It is also a distinction that threatened to expose some social divisions in Brixton, where I live, yesterday.
‘Brixton Unite’ was, depending on which side of this social divide one situates oneself, a community-outreach day coordinated by a coalition of Lambeth Council, the police, and Job Centre plus to ‘reduce the harm caused by gangs’ to the community, or a huge display of force by the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police to intimidate, harass and inconvenience as many residents as possible.
As I got off the Tube at Brixton station on my way home from work, a man was shouting a warning to everybody as they approached the escalators, ‘Loads of police upstairs! Watch out! Undercover police, filth everywhere!’
Commuters chuckled dismissively over their smartphones, shaking their heads at this noisy man who was making a scene with his paranoid ranting. One man tutted and made eye-contact with me, a white man in office clothes and – so he seemed to think – a natural ally with whom to share his amusement. But my personal experience of the police has not always been pleasant, and as I reached the top of the escalator and saw scores of officers in hi-vis jackets, a man being searched by the ticket machines, black-clad plain clothes police scanning the crowds, and sirens screeching up and down the road outside, I felt uncomfortable at seeing a place that looked under siege.
Outside the station a small group of activists waved placards protesting the heavy police presence, and tried to direct people’s attention to the front page of the Evening Standard, which coincidentally carried new allegations of police misconduct in the Stephen Lawrence case. There were raised voices and mini-clashes as accusations of disrupting or supporting police activity were traded. Elsewhere in Brixton people made their displeasure at seeing such numbers of active police officers known in various ways, as detailed in reports by Channel 4 and Vice online.
For some, Brixton Unite was conceived to intimidate and unsettle people, the latest stage in what they view as a deliberate ‘gentrification’ of Brixton amid a context of rocketing private property rates, evictions, the proposed sale of a community college and an influx of symbolically high-end business such as Champagne & Fromage and Foxtons estate agents. The perspective of those commuters I saw who seemed unconcerned by the police presence – the ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to worry about’ mentality – doesn’t wash with everybody, as the political commentator Stephen Bush (who is black) illustrates vividly:
“When I think of the police, I think of being stopped-and-searched, aged 15, on the Embankment in broad daylight with everyone looking at me, an experience as humiliating as if I had been stripped naked right there on the Strand. That’s the part of me that gets nervous when I see police officers at Highbury and Islington Station of an evening, or quickens my pace around the Palace of Westminster.”
If we take Lambeth Council at their word and accept that Brixton Unite was a well-intentioned attempt to engage with the community and reassure residents that problems with gang violence are being tackled, then the episode demonstrates some of the difficulties faced by public services when they attempt to engage with their communities proactively. Communities, perhaps especially urban communities, are not made up of people who think and experience the same things, as my colleague Jonathan Schifferes blogged yesterday. Some people are reassured by the sight of police officers proactively keeping the peace; others see an invasion of authorities attempting to ruin their day. In a place like Brixton where there is an ongoing debate about gentrification and, for some, a perceived divide between working class long-term residents and well-heeled newcomers attracted by the city transport links and trendy market, then tensions can arise such as those I observed at Brixton underground station yesterday.
‘Relational’ public services that productively engage with communities are difficult to achieve – as recent work by the IPPR has discussed and the RSA’s public services and communities action and research strand continues to explore. Yesterday’s events in Brixton demonstrated this further; the same actions by public services can alienate some and reassure others. It is a conundrum that the authorities in Lambeth will have to work out, but on yesterday’s showing it seems unlikely that the mass appearance of ‘bobbies on the beat’ is really the thing that will see Brixton unite.
The RSA’s Social Mirror project was featured on BBC points west yesterday. Footage will be available online until 7pm tonight, and our slot starts around the 18 minute and 50 sec mark.
Social Mirror is a way of operationalising network analysis and wellbeing science to make tangible differences to peoples’ lives. In the Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions project, people waiting to see GPs in Knowle West, Bristol, are asked to complete a short questionnaire via an app on a tablet computer and are then given a ‘social prescription’. This directs them to community activities or groups such as coffee mornings, sports classes or local history clubs – instead of being prescribed drugs or other health interventions. It’s essentially a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, Social Mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interest: from a walking group to a photography class.
In the BBC Points West video I explain why Social Mirror is important, and why our human and community-based approach to health and social care demand management is so necessary and timely.
“We know that social isolation can be as bad for you as smoking, with effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease. It’s often very small changes that make big differences in our lives; and Social Mirror is that first step from being alone or feeling that you are not doing great things in your life, to feeling part of your community”
From small acorns, great oaks. What has been described by Radio 4’s Giles Fraser as a ‘small local project’ is one participants have claimed has made their ‘life is worth living’. One participant who was given a prescription for a walking group has never looked back. He says:
“It has changed my life. I would recommend it to anyone. I wasn’t doing anything; I’d been a recluse and for three days a week I wouldn’t go out of the flat and the weight was piling on. I’ve now lost a stone and I can talk to people quite freely which I couldn’t before.”
The benefits are also being felt by local activities. Mary Hall runs a lip-reading group at Knowle West Health Park for those with hearing loss. She has had referrals from Social Mirror and says her group really benefits those who attend. She explains:
“They come and meet other people like themselves and compare notes to their heart’s content – it’s much less isolating for them. I reckon I keep people out of doctors’ surgeries because of depression. They come once a week and we are like a family here.”
As I have said elsewhere, my hope is that one day Social Mirror and other community approaches that change social relations to transform economic and community potential will be available for all. For now, fingers crossed!