Want calmer cities? Build socially sustainable communities

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on November 23, 2011.

New government measures to kickstart building new housing developments coincide with the 30th anniversary, on 25 November, of the 1981 Scarman report into the Brixton riots of that year. The 30-year-old document causally linked dire social and economic conditions to the disorder that had swept through many places including Toxteth, Handsworth and Chapeltown, as well as Brixton. It launched an approach to social and economic regeneration of deprived and disadvantaged areas that lasted for the next 30 years.

As we reflect on our own recent riotous summer we need to ask what has been the impact of the many millions that have been spent on regenerating urban areas since 1981. If this has failed to underpin peaceful communities, what is it that needs to be done to do to make our cities safe and welcoming; to make them places that are loved and where we all feel comfortable?

“In the creation of successful new communities within the existing urban fabric … as the riots so starkly show, we have failed”, concludes Sir Peter Hall, Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration at UCL in his introduction to a new Young Foundation report: Design for social sustainability: a framework for creating thriving new communities, published this week. He continues: “This study, which might have seemed peripheral and academic, has become central and urgent. The lessons and the recommendations of this report are bound to have a salience that its authors can never have imagined.”

The report begins with a question: how can we create new communities in new housing developments that will flourish and succeed long into the future? This is not just a problem for the UK, or indeed the west. More than half of the planet’s population now lives in cities. In Europe, 32 new towns are being created in 11 countries. In China 20 new cities – dubbed “ghost cities”, as many remain unoccupied – are being built a year.

Half a century of experiments shows what does not work: from the projects in Paris suburbs, to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, to Broadwater Farm in London and Park Hill in Sheffield, ambitious new developments have, over time, become the housing of last resort for the most desperate. In all these examples, professionals from different perspectives genuinely believed that they had found the answer to building at scale, while creating lasting communities. We still find that the different professionals involved in creating places – from architects to house builders, to local government officials – are more comfortable thinking about what can be constructed than understanding the lived experience of residents.

We need to get a lot cleverer at finding ways to make places “socially sustainable”. Environmental sustainability is now well recognised (if still difficult to put into practice). Social sustainability – finding ways to make places work for people, that are inclusive and cohesive, and adaptable in the face of changing circumstances – is a new challenge.

There is strong evidence about the relationship between the quality of our local social relationships – how many people we pass time with on the street, whether we can call on neighbours for help with childcare, taking in a delivery, or shopping when we are ill – and how happy we are with where we live. The work that is needed to support this is the small scale, often unglamorous effort of community development workers and local neighbourhood groups. This work is vulnerable to cuts in public spending, it is tempting to trim that added extra even when it provides the social glue that holds communities together. Corner cutting can have a stark long-term negative impact; the financial and social costs of neighbourhood failure are high and include raised levels of crime, unemployment and mental health problems.

Agencies and professionals need to raise their game and take up the challenge of social sustainability. The design for social sustainability framework advocated by the Young Foundation is a way to make this happen; we hope it will accelerate the growth of a new profession of social designers; those with the cross-cutting skills and expertise to make communities work. Next year the Young Foundation is setting up a new independent social enterprise, Social Life, to support this ambition, to provide a new space for rethinking the practice and politics of creating and bolstering communities to meet the pressing and urgent challenges of 21st century life.

We need to do all we can to avoid another summer of riots. Arguments continue about why disorder spread in so many areas in August, but few would contest that building stable communities where people feel at home is a key element in keeping our cities calm.

Post by Nicola Bacon, Founding Director, Social Life.