Place: who belongs here? A round-up of our 2016 London Debate

In the final debate of our Series A Place for Everyone?, we set out to explore the theme of belonging and connectedness to place. Our setting was Stratford Circus Arts Centre in East London, which sits in a neighbourhood that has seen immense changes to its physical environment, with development for the 2012 Olympic Games and continued ‘regeneration’ and expansion. Our three speakers (two of whom were Newham residents) started a wide-ranging conversation into which lots of people in the audience shared their experiences of living, learning and belonging in places.

“Benches are a crucial valve”

Radhika Bynon, Director of the U at the Young Foundation, shared insights from her Benches for everyone research that explored the use of public benches in public spaces in Woolwich and Sutton. Radhika highlighted what people value about this humble piece of furniture: it represents invitation, freedom and an opportunity to be part of a community, for a little while. Benches often provide a haven or place of comfort to those on the margins of society or, frequently, a place to gather for cultural celebrations or for different groups (such as teenagers or elderly men), which can’t be found in the spaces of our homes.

Reacting to moves by many local authorities to banish public benches because of their use by ‘undesirables’, Radhika challenged us to think about how we feel about them in our own communities. Can we design or provide benches to overcome some of these fears we have (e.g. in clusters)? Responding to this, a Kentish Town resident and member of a local neighbourhood forum shared his experience of engaging local people in the provision of benches for a public space, which revealed a preference for lots of individual chairs instead. Also from the audience, landscape specialist, Tom Lonsdale, shared his joy at seeing how the large steps leading up to the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford have become such an important gathering and meeting space for local people.

“I have the difficult task of being the villain in the piece”

This was how speaker Des Bourne, Strategic Development Director with global construction and development company, Skanska, introduced himself to talk about the role of development and developers in shaping places, Des cited the Roman invasion of Britain and the philanthropic housebuilding of Bournville village, as development from our past that has improved people’s lives. But while city building can lead to change for the better, Des conceded that it can also blight people’s lives (holding up the day’s Evening Standard front page which featured a story about a row over right to light in the city).

“London is the most unequal it’s ever been”

For Amina Gichinga, our third speaker, an activist with the ‘Take Back the City’ movement, London’s housing crisis and its impact on people’s sense of belonging was the focus. With a decline in housing provision and staggering increases in evictions and displacement, and a reliance on billionaire’s wealth and property speculation, Amina called for innovative policies that will truly enable a London where everyone can belong, with more support for creative businesses and reuse of empty properties across the London boroughs.

One audience member raised the recent Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act (2015) as an opportunity for communities to challenge this status quo: every local authority must now keep a register of individuals or groups who would like to undertake a self-build or custom build project and must make provision for those interests in developing local housing and plans. To Stephen Hill, who labelled himself ‘a solid and sensible surveyor’, the register is an important way to redemocratise society.

“Place is already there”

What creates a sense of belonging is often the ties we have with places, through our families, friendships or our careers. Walking past the hoarding for a new development in her neighbourhood announcing ‘The Silvertown’ – Amina shared an experience, now familiar to many, that sees new developments appropriating the identity of a place, often overlooking the rich, existing fabric; its history, culture and character. This was followed by a cautionary note to developers from the audience, about their use of the term ‘placemaking’ to describe their work. Why not ‘place nurture’ instead? These developments do not create places anew, but add another episode or layer to the history of the place. Speaker Des Bourne supported the view that schemes that take no account of the local history generally fail and that “you must know history, to understand the future.”

“The act of participating gives you a sense of belonging”

There was much talk about how people can best engage, participate in or lead initiatives to improve local spaces and places and the pace at which these processes happen.

While there were stories of successful initiatives to save places of community value and investment, a couple of audience members from Peckham in south east London shared the frustrations of collaborating with the local authority who rushed through a process of ‘co-design’ with the community, resulting in the loss of a sense of ownership in the process. Another person reminded us how time poor many sections of the population are, with people working 60+ hours a week to provide for themselves and their families – how can these people engage in development and planning, when, for example, planning legislation allows for only 21 days for consultation on proposed plans?

These processes take time and involve many people who are volunteering their time and resources, but can create real value for people and places. We need to create more time, provide more opportunities to engage and make the systems of governance more democratic and transparent.

“They need to listen”

While it was felt that community is now a tradable commodity, we were reminded that each place, each community, has its own (and multiple) identities, and the often desired transferability is not necessarily there. A member of an Edible Bus Stop project told us, “what’s good for the goose, is not always good for the gander”.

In drawing to a close, Melissa Lacide, a housing association officer, drew on her experience of working with ‘hidden’ communities, those on the fringes of society and asked us: where does empathy come into it?

We need a more inclusive approach to all of our activities was Radhika’s answer, while Des shared Skanska’s values of pride and collaboration. Amina wished for a London where “every voice has equal weighting”, and, in order to address that, pleaded to those with power and voice to listen.

A podcast of the Debate will be available soon.

This was the final debate in our 2015/16 Debate Series A Place for Everyone? which featured debates in Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham and London.