I was privileged to be asked to participate on the closing discussion panel at the RSA and British Land event on 2nd April on ‘socially productive places’. These places are ones where communities have an opportunity to shape the physical environment where they live, work and socialise; and to benefit socially and financially from the end result. It was clear from the opening speakers that community and built environment development should be intertwined and that places should be networked in more than one sense. This common thread ranged from the need to cluster like-minded businesses and for greater public, private and voluntary sector collaboration, to well-designed transport infrastructure which helps people move about and connect.
The event was comprised of a largely private and public sector audience. During the sessions we heard inspiring stories of successful private and public sector community development. Chris Grigg, Chief Executive of British Land, a property investment company, opened the day by describing his experience of the 30-year Regents Place development. The success of this project was an exception given the long timescale, but he gave a convincing description of his, and his company’s, changes to community development practice as a result of the project. His conviction that community collaboration worked for them was driven by his experience that sitting at the table with local residents and businesses led to intelligent, productive and sustainable outcomes. Which makes sense: how many new developments are delayed and local tensions stirred by a failure to communicate effectively? Or how many companies, or public bodies, pursue a new development without the input of pragmatic, locally-driven intelligence? In effect, these processes of local engagement should also be viewed as a form of commercial as well as community risk mitigation.
Of course, it isn’t always like this and there are some difficult and bloody-minded professionals, as well as difficult and bloody-minded people living in our communities. But we all have the ability to be difficult when liberated from the constraints of our professional roles. So I remain bemused at these events when ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, when sensible and intelligent people separate their lived experiences, personal desires and expectations from their views on how things should work in a community other than their own.
At the event, we also heard about difficult community ‘representatives’; but then there were the side comments that these people actually come from all walks of life, including developers and planners, who turn up to argue against local developments. There were also comments that communities aren’t consistently reliable – of course they’re not! Communities, like organisations, change; people move on, their interests evolve throughout life cycles and local political leadership shifts. But unlike organisations, communities aren’t limited by a structure to drive consistent behaviour. That’s what can make them unreliable. It was the people who deeply understood this and worked with the grain, like Ed Watson from Camden council, who remain excited about the change that can be achieved in communities.
During our 50 years’ of work in and with communities here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), we have learned that there are more common than divergent interests amongst different parties wishing to achieve ‘socially productive places’ – just as there are often more shared aspirations between people and families of different faith, race and socio-economic background than disparities. In fact, I would argue that there are usually more common goals between those pursuing new built environment developments and those living in the communities that benefit from them.
Let me describe what I mean by this. At the event, businesses and local authority planners talked about development to increase local economic prosperity, through things like increased land values, created by intelligent housing, business and transport infrastructure. For this, developers need a strong employment pool, populated by people with the right sets of skills. What’s more, public officials want to see environmental quality of place to meet health and community safety objectives.
In comparison, what do people living in communities want? Well, in my community, we want financial prosperity and wellbeing, driven by opportunity – jobs, education and training – to enable us to live in decent housing, with good schools and transport. And we want a pleasant environment so we feel healthier and safer. It seems what developers and communities want are simply both sides of the same coin.
What we know at CDF, and what those like Chris and Ed have learned, is that it takes a particular set of skills to facilitate these discussions, to be able to help prioritise goals and agree or agree to disagree on particular outcomes. New developments are about more than the spadework involved in digging the footings to a building; they are about the work behind the scenes to develop common goals and a shared understanding of what a socially productive place might feasibly look like. In other words, development that works for the wider community.
As William Blake said, ‘without contraries is no progression’, or Maroon 5 (She Will Be Loved) sing, ‘it’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along’.
This blog was first published on the RSA website