Since January, Social Life has been working in Brixton in South London, convening conversations about the future of narrow strip of land on Somerleyton Road. The road is close to the centre of the town, but feels markedly cut off by three railway lines, and by the design and layout of streets and buildings. Earlier this year, Lambeth Council made a commitment to work with the local community to develop new plans for the site. Since then, the council have been meeting regularly with Brixton Green, a mutual organisation set up to campaign for a better way of developing Somerleyton Road, and Ovalhouse , a well regarded and long established community-based theatre, which plans to move to the top end of the road, where it joins Coldharbour Lane.
We wanted to find ways of involving the many different communities in Brixton in our discussions, and build on the strengths that already exist in the neighbourhood. This is an easy thing to say in theory, but difficult to do. The aspiration was echoed by the people we spoke to. One person spoke of their wish to "bring life at a curiously dead strip of Brixton. There is so much vibrancy in the area - however currently Somerleyton Road is a wasteland."
We wanted to focus on safety, belonging, neighbourliness, wellbeing and resilience, as well as generating ideas about housing and community facilities. We know that neighbourhoods will not thrive as a result of building or infrastructure alone, and that it is important to explore the way people feel about where they live, and talk about how new relationships between neighbours can develop.
We ran two open events and a series of 12 deliberative workshops, involving 79 residents altogether, which we called "Action Planning Workshops". Deliberative workshops allow a relatively small number of people to explore an issue in depth. Our Action Planning Workshops were structured around four themes (housing, long term stewardship, jobs and heath, education and culture), with three meetings on each theme. The conversations were productive, creative, and intense. For many they were linked to broader questions about Brixton's future. "Great ideas but what is the reality of it all? Would it push out local people? Or add to gentrification currently happening?"
We set up Social Life last year with the strapline "putting people at the heart of placemaking". We believed - and still do - that too often, the experience, wants and needs of the people already living in communities is ignored when institutions make plans to change local neighbourhoods either when they try and improve what's already there (through regeneration programmes) or build new developments. Our starting point is that our relationships with the places we live in and use affect our quality of life; and that intangibles like "belonging", "wellbeing", and "neighbourliness" can be affected and improved (or damaged) by the actions of agencies.
When places change - because of new development or regeneration - there is an opportunity to intervene, to improve how they function, change who lives there, how they get on and get by. Local government's sphere of influence has been greatly limited by funding constraints, but in areas where the housing market is still buoyant, new developments can still be brokered.
However, for communities under stress, the prospect of changes to the local area can also trigger questions about identity. In our workshops underlying questions ran through the discussions: who the new development should be for? whose interests should be paramount? who should benefit?
In the last few years, Brixton, like many inner city London neighbourhoods, has experienced rapidly rising property prices and new economic activity, exemplified by Brixton Village, a revival of the Granville Arcade running between Railton Road and Coldharbour Lane. In our workshops, opinions varied about whether Brixton Village had bought new wealth and opportunity for local residents, or whether its main benefit had been for others, for people from outside Brixton and newcomers to the area. At the same time many residents from longer standing communities struggle. Coldharbour ward, which includes Somerleyton Road, is one of the most deprived in London; our work has found that wellbeing and resilience are low; a soup kitchen has been set up to feed people struggling with welfare cuts and the impact of public sector austerity. Somerleyton Road is one of the only remaining sites in Brixton that is not has the capacity to be radically redeveloped. Lambeth Council own most of the site that is currently mainly used for depots and temporary buildings.
Somerleyton Road is the immediate home to two communities, the Carlton Mansions Housing Coop at the top of the street and Moorlands estate on the east side of the road. Carlton Mansions is a small long standing coop, who have created their home and community the hard way, proving resilient and surviving for decades, but now under threat of eviction. The Moorlands estate's low rise brick housing nestling behind the modernist barrier block, Southwyck House, feeling much more separate from central Brixton than its physical location would suggest.
Brixton in many ways has thrived through change over past decades. Famous as the home for the "Windrush generation", the first migrants from the Caribbean in search of a better life, since then new groups have arrived and found their home in the area, inspired by the area's energy and drawn in former years by relatively available housing. Brixton's squats and short life coops in the 1970s and '80s contributed to the arts and cultural heritage of the area - both Vincent Van Gogh and Damien Hirst lived in Brixton in their time.
Brixton now has strong community media, in the brixtonblog and Bugle; a feisty and sometimes oppositional tradition of local activism; pride in its heritage, a new Black Heritage Centre is being completed on the renovated Windrush Square. But there are also visible signs of the pressure Brixton's communities are facing. On Railton Road, Dexter's Adventure Playground (named after a well known local activist) lies un-used in spite of being rebuilt a year ago. The longer standing creative community, linked to the squatting movement created the edge, and dynamism, that people now buy into - literally - but is now less visible than in former years. Some people have left as the housing prices rose; some squats and short life coops have been evicted, and the homes renovated and sold.
Brixton's communities are made up of layers of newcomers; the gentrifiers of 20 years ago are now at the forefront of concern about local people being priced out of the area. In urban areas change is inevitable, but the nature of change, and who it should benefit, have become hotly contested.
Involving Brixton's many communities in planning new developments means listening to a multitude of different voices, which sometimes agree and which sometimes radically deviate. In such a multi-faceted community, it is inevitable that consultation activities - online and offline - will tend to be dominated by confident people who have the energy to take part in community life. Older established communities - black and white - now compete for space for their voices with many new comers.
Our workshops unearthed predictable tensions about income, class, relative advantage and disadvantage, and we saw how these are compounded by anxieties about income and employment, and about the impact of government policy on housing and welfare. "It could be positive but I think that it's important not to have any unintended consequences that push local people out of the area".
We were struck in our conversations about the level of anxiety about future housing security and affordability. People with secure tenancies spoke of their concerns for their future, feeling that social housing was becoming so stigmatised that they could not predict what the future would bring.
The people who came to our Action Planning Workshops bought their experience of the area and their personal skills and knowledge. "I think the project can breathe new life into Brixton's communities and make things better for visitors and people living in the area". We are incredibly grateful to the cross section of Brixton's population who gave up their evenings to attend, with only some rather soggy pizza to keep them going.
People told us that they wanted to find a way of developing Somerleyton Road in a way that benefitted the people who live in Brixton now, maximising the amount of affordable housing, and keeping as jobs, training and economic opportunities within the local area. One person told us "I would like Brixton to maintain its current diverse aspect - as that is what drew me here in the first place. I would like everyone to be able to live here, without it becoming not affordable. I'd like the sense of community to be strong".
Our work culminated in a series of proposals for housing (200 to 250 new homes, some to be self built and others "shell built", homes that can be completed by the person who moves in), a new community development trust, a community kitchen, a local labour scheme to boost local employment, a chef's school, and growing both food and activities along the road to make it feel safer and to increase the sense of belonging for everyone in the area.
Lambeth Council has been meeting regularly with Ovalhouse and Brixton Green to work through plans for Somerleyton Road. In July Lambeth's cabinet will decide the future of the site.
This article was written by Nicola Bacon, Social Life.