Community Issue 3

Root cause

Words By: Richard Upton, U+I's Deputy Chief Executive
Richard Upton

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Regeneration, done well, helps to build new communities and strengthen existing ones. U+I Deputy Chief Executive Richard Upton assesses the potential benefits of good regeneration and the obstacles that constrain it.

I am a Londoner, born in Mile End, Stepney and raised in Eltham, South East London.

My school was a harsh comprehensive, often violent, with fiercely segregated communities and considerable racism. A failed experiment in mass education, it was a huge concrete monster with lots of dark corners to fear or hide away in. A place that divided rather than created community. A place where Stephen Lawrence’s killers were educated. It is demolished now. Replaced by something better.

I believe that is our role as developers – to make things better. That doesn’t necessarily mean demolishing what’s already there – often quite the reverse, in fact. Wherever possible we should add layers in pursuit of great development – looking carefully at history, at what worked well, at what delivered great community.

You might ask how a developer can even talk about community. You might say that we don’t build communities: we destroy them. And all too often, you’d be right. Most developers don’t much care about the communities whose interests they are supposed to be protecting. The vast majority pay lip service to local engagement, just to get their schemes approved.

But that’s not only morally wrong. It’s also foolish. You only need to look around the country to understand that strong communities don’t just make people happier, they make them more productive members of society too.

And you don’t need to look far to see what happens when communities break down – when people feel abandoned and uncared-for. And as we explore in The City Stirs Within, communities can all too often lash out when they feel that everything is being turned into a transaction and they are at the wrong end of the deal.

I saw that first-hand growing up, and those ugly, early experiences contributed to my passion for architecture and design for good purpose.

As developers, I believe we have to be respectful to those whose communities we are changing. We have to listen to their concerns and the concerns of their neighbours. We have to look at the inequalities that exist and all the little details that make a place distinctive. Then, we have to synthesise all this information and try as hard as we possibly can to deliver an overall improvement that goes beyond bricks and mortar.

It’s not just a responsibility. It’s logical. Because anything that a developer can do to improve a community on a sustainable basis is likely to be more successful over the longer term. It’s incredibly complicated to get it right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

In fact, we should be trying even harder now. Ten years of austerity have taken their toll on communities across the UK and today society is more divided than in living memory, as we discuss in State of the Nation. Shoddy developments are getting through the system and the results are there for all to see – recently built, ugly sites in our cities that are more likely to lead to isolation and disengagement than harmony and wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be like that.

Fortunately, there are instances that foster hope rather than despair – examples where developers, planners and local stakeholders have worked together for the common good, as the fantastic Ron Arad highlights in his earlier contribution.

And, as the impact of globalisation comes under increasing scrutiny, a counter-story is taking root, a realisation that we can all benefit by focusing more on the local – because that helps to foster a deeper connection both with the place where we live and the people that live round us.

That has a particular resonance for me, because a few years ago, I helped to restore a local pub. The Bell in Ticehurst, East Sussex has been a coaching inn since 1540 and was under offer to a developer who wanted it to be converted into housing. Two private places rather than one public house. So we restored it. From the start, we wanted it to be a place where the entire local community would feel welcome. In other words, a real ‘public’ house, where everyone can stand shoulder to shoulder, regardless of wealth, status, race, creed or anything else.

We were also determined to use local suppliers so we sourced as much as possible from the surrounding area. Keeping that connection with the local can be extremely hard work but ultimately, it benefits everyone in the community by building bridges, creating connections and giving the neighbourhood a genuinely inclusive space.

The point is, whether we are talking about thinking local or thinking laterally, developers can make communities better. It needs imagination. It needs audacity and it needs cooperation. But it can be done.

As Tom Clark says in Community Unravelled, human beings need to belong. As developers, we have an obligation to help that process.

This article appeared in Issue 3 - Community

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