How Leith took on property developers – and won

When development plans in the Edinburgh district of Leith threatened to displace locals, the community successfully mobilised. Eve Livingston reports

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Campaigners at 2018’s Leith Gala Day: Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

When you ask residents of Leith, the waterfront neighbourhood to the north of Edinburgh, to describe their community, there are a few words which come up again and again: family, creativity, diversity, close-knit community. ‘I’ve lived in a few different places in Edinburgh and never felt at home until I came to Leith,’ says 26-year-old charity worker Clara Boeker, originally from Germany.

The neighbourhood might be best known to outsiders as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and The Proclaimers’ hit song-turned-musical Sunshine on Leith, but it has undergone something of a transformation since the early 90s, and its depiction in these cultural milestones. Today, Leith boasts Michelin-starred restaurants and an array of fashionable bars and local businesses – but crucially, it has also managed to retain the working-class community spirit and artistic tradition which have always defined it.

Leith residents have protected their community for years, enjoying the benefits of development while resisting the creep of gentrification. But in early 2018, its delicate balance came under threat when Drum Property Group proposed a £50 million redevelopment project on the iconic Leith Walk, the central road which links the area to central Edinburgh.

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106–154 Leith Walk

Mirroring the contentious expansion of university buildings across Edinburgh itself, the proposal included plans to demolish 106–154 Leith Walk – a 1930s terrace of red sandstone buildings housing a range of local shops and businesses, community hubs and social enterprises – to make way for student accommodation for 532 students and a 56-room hotel, both operated by the University of Edinburgh. The shops and businesses were invited to take the new development’s retail units but at higher rents than they are paying, meaning most would be displaced.

“There were a group of us who had already worked on a right-to-buy community campaign nearby,” says 27-year-old local Frances Hoole. “We were tipped off to a community council meeting where [the redevelopment plan] was being discussed and when we got there, there were just far too many people to fit in – obviously because they all wanted to discuss this particular issue. So a meeting was set up and everything went from there”.

The ‘everything’ to which Hoole refers is the almost year-long community campaign Save Leith Walk, of which she and Boeker are both members. The group’s tactics involved a central petition to stop the demolition; encouraging and equipping community members to lodge planning objections; several community workshops and even a guerilla light projection to raise awareness of the issue.

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A packed-out community meeting. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

While the campaign focused on retaining the spirit of Leith and the local importance of the businesses housed in the threatened buildings – the food shop Punjabi Junction, for example, also trains up Sikh and BAME women to help with employability and social exclusion – it has also sought to articulate concerns about a planning system rigged in favour of developers.

“It’s in a conservation area,” points out Hoole. “You have to test what that means at a planning level and in a committee vote. This development would have begun changing the face of Leith Walk. When buildings are maintained by private developers you get rent increases for new businesses. It would have changed who it was for – no more small, local businesses or young musicians renting practice space.”

59-year-old musician Ray Neal became involved in Save Leith Walk because his partner’s business – much-loved local beauty salon Lovella – sits directly opposite the development. Having moved from New Haven, Connecticut, he could immediately spot danger when it emerged the University of Edinburgh would be the development’s single biggest tenant: “Yale University bought the whole city [of New Haven] and threw out all the local shops – it’s like a Disneyland for students,” he says. It’s a view which is supported by research showing that Yale has become New Haven’s largest commercial landlord. “Leith has a certain energy and character, a creative vibe. I was worried about that being lost.”

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Campaigners in front of the community-led vision for Leith Walk. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I didn’t know a single other person when I turned up,” says Boeker says of her participation in Save Leith Walk, which she describes as her first taste of activism. “A lot of people didn’t. But the meeting was full of all different people – different nationalities, ages, people who’ve lived there forever and people who’d moved in. We always say in the campaign: ‘We’re all Leithers – it doesn’t matter when you arrived or where you came from, we’re all Leith’”.

This diversity and energy set the tone for a community organising campaign which saw artists provide artwork and merchandise, local businesses donate products for auctions, and venues host workshops free of charge; there were at least five musical benefits held in support. Community support even included an anonymous “yarn bomber” whose crocheted protest signs persistently popped up around the area. The campaign also attracted support from Leith heroes Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers as well as political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Edinburgh-based Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers. Ultimately, the community group collected 12,500 signatures on its petition and over 3,000 official online objections to Drum’s plans, totalling 15,800 objections.

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‘Still want to know why is Edinburgh University developing properties instead of minds?’ Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

In January of this year, the group won. Drum’s planning application was rejected unanimously. “The day of the council meeting was incredible,” says Neal. “Councillors even laid into the arrogance and entitlement of the developers. We were stunned and elated.”

Hoole puts the success of the campaign down to the diversity of tactics utilised, with activists deploying their skills in artwork, street stalls, drafting planning objections and facilitating workshops. “And it was a symbol of a much bigger problem,” she adds. “So many people have felt a lack of agency in their community – they were excited that a group had managed to make their voice heard.”

Campaigners are quick to point out that the fight is still on: the developers still own the property and have a chance to appeal the decision (when approached for a response, Drum said it was considering its options and had no comment). Save Leith Walk’s original petition had the clear – and now, realised – ambition of stopping the demolition and retaining the businesses, but it continues to advocate for any development to be put to community use, and campaigns more broadly for better provision of social housing. But for the activists, everything has changed.

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Staff from local business RS Coachworks in front of a campaign sign. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I’ve got a family now that I didn’t have a year ago,” says Neal of his fellow campaigners. “And it’s shown the community that their faith in their voice has won out.”

“I think everyone agrees the world sometimes feels messed up,” Boeker agrees. “It’s been great to channel all that energy in a way that feels productive locally and shows people what is possible.”

 

Eve Livingston is a Scotland-based journalist specialising in social affairs, activism and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter or her website 

From struggling football club to vital community hub: the story of CS Lebowski

Just outside Florence, the first fan-owned football club in Italy is working to support local communities and promote inclusivity. Chloe Beresford reports

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A recent victorious match at CS Lebowski’s home ground, Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze in the town of Impruneta

When is a football club more than just a football club? This is a question posed by an amateur Italian team, CS Lebowski, based in the small town of Impruneta just outside Florence. Their supporters could find top-tier football just down the road at ACF Fiorentina, the Serie A powerhouse located in the city. Instead, they have invested everything in a project that benefits the entire community.

Centro Storico Lebowski was named after the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, in honour of the main character, The Dude. The image of a slacker like him was consistent with a team that were the bottom of the lowest league in Italian football, a side that would lose every week by large scorelines. 

In 2004, a group of local disenchanted teenagers named Marco, Fosco and Duccio discussed their exasperation with the corporate world of modern football. They decided to become ‘ultras’ – an organised group of ultra-fanatical support – for CS Lebowski, a team that was, at the time, somewhat of a joke. What started as typical teenage anti-establishment sentiment soon grew into an unexpected initiative, and a far cry from the hooliganism that ultras are often associated with.

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Celebrating a win in ‘ultras’ style

Six years later, those teenagers had become young adults and had slowly attracted others to support the team. They had an ambitious vision to take over CS Lebowski and create a community-based and fully inclusive club that welcomed anyone who wanted to watch the matches or even play for the side – no matter their faith, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Despite some progress, football in Italy remains a white, male-dominated environment; in some places, incidents of racism are not unusual. By actively promoting its inclusivity, CS Lebowski made it easy for minorities to feel welcome.

No-one stood in the way of the Lebowski Ultras when they came together to take over the struggling club, and form the first fan-owned, community-focused club in Italy. The idea of not having a powerful owner in charge was unheard of, even in the minor leagues, but among them these supporters could now boast qualified football coaches, doctors and lawyers, all of whom could contribute their skills towards the team. ‘Our club is not dependent on the fortunes and whims of a single owner, but is the expression of a collective project, economically and politically,’ explains David Ginsborg, a former volunteer for CS Lebowski and doctor of social anthropology.

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A community meal organised by the football club. ‘Ultimi rimasti’ means ‘the last ones left’, and refers to original Florentine residents

After establishing the team in its new form, these fan-founders drew in players from the local area to bolster the squad and improve the quality of those already in place. Even people in Florence and further afield, when they heard about what was happening, wanted to join in. This new and idealistic idea of pooling skills and creating a range of teams has seen the group of friends grow from three fans to thousands of supporters all over the world who identify with the unique community spirit of this project. 

However, the people who have really made a difference are those based nearby. A group of local volunteers give their time to CS Lebowski in order to make it into a welcoming social space to those in the area who feel excluded or displaced from society. On match days an army of people prepare the Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze — the home of the team — and cook huge meals for the players and their supporters to share dinner together. Away from the pitch, the club hosts communal dinners and social events to unify the community. It has become known as ‘la famiglia Lebowski’ (the Lebowski family).

Where most minor league clubs are an escape for young, adult males, here nobody is pushed aside; women, children and elderly relatives are all actively encouraged to participate by contributing what they can in terms of practical help to keep the club running. ‘Being founded on the collaboration of many individuals means by definition we are open to involving as many people as possible,’ Ginsborg continues. ‘Indeed, the club is reliant upon this involvement in order to continue to exist.’

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CS Lebowski’s free football school in San Frediano, Florence

The work of the club is particularly important for the residents of the San Frediano district of Florence, a neighbourhood on the southern banks of the river Arno within the city centre. This is one of the only communities in the heart of the city still predominantly inhabited by locals, the others having seen Florentines forced out by the demand for tourist accommodation. Indeed, according to the Italian tenants’ association, Florence has the highest proportion of Airbnbs of any Italian city, and around 1000 residents of the city are forced to leave their homes each year as landlords turn their properties into profitable holiday rentals for tourists. Many residents of Impruneta were themselves residents of Florence before tourist-driven higher rents and housing scarcity pushed them out. 

In 2015, CS Lebowski decided to support the community of San Frediano by opening a football school, giving local children coaching free of charge. While Florence is a global attraction, the school is a purely local attraction, a part of town that is exclusively for local residents. The school is one of CS Lebowski’s efforts to retain and restore the ‘community soul’ of Florence, which they have seen disappear over the decades.

The project allows the members of CS Lebowski to build a bond with the area, a hub of remaining Florentines, as they work to protect it from large companies looking to construct yet more lucrative developments in the city. The club is also active in organising and participating in protests in Florence against the evictions of local residents.

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Children play football in a San Frediano piazza in the 1950s. CS Lebowski shared this photo as an example of the community spirit in Florence that has been lost with the decline of residents

Pulling together in such an inclusive manner is what CS Lebowski is all about, using football as a vehicle for community cohesion – both within the club’s town and within an urban area under threat of tourism. It also allows young people and their families to see the positivity that can be brought about by a game that so often draws negative headlines. 

Most of all though, it harnesses the power of the collective, the idea that so much can be achieved if many people give a little towards a common goal. And speaking of goals – CS Lebowski is no longer bottom of the barrel; last year the team finally achieved promotion. 

All images courtesy of Centro Storico Lebowski

The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore

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A typical void deck

The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.

It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.

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Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.

Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.

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The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.

Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.

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Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.

It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.

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Void decks perform many roles for residents

However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?

Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.

Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.

From Athens to Anfield: the successes of community-led regeneration

In extracts from a new book, Fiona Shipwright looks at two inspiring projects where people power has positively transformed city neighbourhoods

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NAVARINOU PARK, ATHENS, GREECE

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell once sang. Located in the somewhat typecast “anarchist” Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia, Navarinou Park exemplifies something of a reverse scenario. The initiators and users of Navarinou are not working with something so static or “complete” a state as paradise though; rather, they are attempting to sustain this rare patch of open space amidst the density of the Greek capital via an ongoing process of autonomy and self-management that is not without its challenges.

The site has had a variety of former lives since a clinic was built there in 1907; at one point intended to host a new public building, then a new city square, it instead became a car park in limbo. Its most recent metamorphosis as a piece of urban commons was set in motion following the riots of 2008 that took place in a number of Greek cities, which amplified the feelings of many regarding the country’s precarious economic situation and government corruption. As authorities attempted to curtail tensions, those seeking modes of resistance that didn’t entail rioting were compelled to consider what Italian anthropologist and activist Anna Giulia de la Puppa describes as “new ways of using public space, new experiments [regarding the] occupation of space.”

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On March 7, 2009, the Exarcheia Residents’ Initiative, who had been working on ideas for the site for 18 months, and the collective Us, Here and Now and for All of Us initiated this particular experiment. Alongside local residents and supporters, they arrived at the car park armed with tools and began breaking into the cement and planting. Maintaining this commons ever since has highlighted that despite external misperceptions about Exarcheia, the principle conflict associated with the park is not about street fights but the perception of city space.

Hosting urban gardening schemes, community events (both political and cultural), as well as sport and leisure activities, Navarinou’s status lies somewhere between park and occupation – meaning that the dynamics of the responsibility that apply are distinct. Open, collective meetings take place every Wednesday evening at 7pm, in which no expressed idea is declined without discussion but with consensual decisions binding for all. Autonomy remains a process, not an end result here; a continuing practice of urban communing that fosters connectedness, centred around a space produced by people and used according to their needs and preferred forms of control.

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HOMEBAKED, LIVERPOOL, UK

In recent years, the words “urban” and “intervention” have increasingly been coupled together alongside that most ubiquitous of phrases: “pop up”. Whilst short-term tactics can be effective in their own right, it is the employment of intervention as a long-term – and evolving – strategy that really results in the effective, sustained involvement of residents in city making. Homebaked, in the Anfield district of Liverpool in the UK, is one such example of intervention taking place at a large scale, in terms of both duration and vision.

When Mitchell’s Bakery opened on a residential street corner in the neighbourhood (home to Liverpool FC’s stadium) in 1901, it was at the centre of a vibrant community. By 2010, thanks to multiple failures associated with wider regeneration plans for the city, the family-owned business had sold up and the empty bakery found itself marooned within a landscape of boarded up houses in the cross hairs of demolition trucks. That same year, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, working with Manchester-based architects URBED, initiated the 2Up2Down project as part of a Liverpool Biennial commission, putting the notion of community autonomy centre stage.

Whilst the Biennial itself ran between September to November 2010, the 2Up2Down project ran for two a half years, during which time around 60 young people worked with the artist and architects and made use of the empty bakery space to devise a scheme of re-use for the premises and two adjoining terraced houses. In contrast to the top-down, birds’ eye view of the city’s regeneration plan, this model allowed for the completion of manageable, tangible achievements, demonstrating to participants the power of their own instrumentality whilst lending a sense of momentum for scaling up such efforts.

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In 2012, the project found a new durational trajectory, when participants established the Homebaked Community Land Trust, a membership organisation that allows local people to collectively buy, develop and manage land and buildings (and which exists alongside the community-owned Homebaked Bakery Cooperative). The CLT then set its sights on extending the community-led intervention further into the wider cityscape.

In 2015, when the houses directly next door could not be saved, the group set in motion a project called “Build your own High Street”, underpinned by an extensive community-led design process. The community chose the architects, Architectural Emporium, and the resulting proposal is a scheme that includes 26 flats situated above shops on a community-led and owned high street development. The “brick by brick, loaf by loaf” approach will begin with the flat above the bakery. Once ready for occupancy in early 2018, this first step will allow the group to secure the council support and loans needed to build the scheme.

Homebaked is testament to the fact that whilst long-term interventions are undoubtedly complicated, it is precisely this quality that can bypass the reflex reactions of speculation-driven development, bestowing a value that goes beyond the purely financial.

These are excerpts from the book Explorations in Urban Practice – Urban School Ruhr Series, published by dpr-barcelona    

Urban School Ruhr is a learning platform and pedagogical experiment investigating participative and artistic practices in urban space. An initiative of Open Raumlabor University developed in cooperation with Urbane Künste Ruhr  – find out more here

How to regenerate inclusively

by Francesca Perry

Reading the spot-on article by Loretta Lees about the damaging effect of regeneration in London got me thinking. Regeneration has become a dirty word. But good regeneration is not about ‘bringing back to life’ – life is always there – it is about supporting and enabling, making positive change to benefit everyone.

Listen to the community

As a developer, this may not come naturally! Those practitioners involved in change should be aware of multiple narratives and needs and if necessary, bring someone on board who can responsively engage with the community, understanding how they feel and what they want. The local and existing community in a place should be involved at every step of a development or change to help shape it. Crowdsource ideas from the people that know and use the area – they are the experts!

Support services

A lot of the time, a place doesn’t need an injection of luxury landscaping to ‘improve’. Look closer and you’ll realise that vital community services – whether it’s running a family centre or maintaining a local park – may be in need of support, time and money. This sort of support is often the section 106 ‘afterthought’ of a pricey development – but developers tend to put money towards their own version of what’s beneficial, rather than the community’s.

Integrate housing

It sounds so obvious – but it rarely happens. There are so many excuses for separating social housing from private housing, but there is no excuse for creating a segregated city. Rent and sale prices in London are becoming increasingly exclusive – and ridiculous. We urgently need to decelerate something that is spiralling out of control – as Lees articulates, this property-led regeneration – leading to a city dominated by unaffordable luxury housing.

What’s appalling is that even if social housing is built in the same development as private, often the quality of the buildings is so markedly different as to be offensive. Additionally, developers and local authorities should ensure new housing is not only integrated within itself, but also with the surrounding existing communities and spaces. Create communal spaces for all to use, including community centres, family facilities and open green spaces where collaborative activities like sports and social groups can take place. Nurture place, don’t displace.

Help build pride and community

I’d like to think that community is not, contrary to popular belief, built through ‘place branding’ tactics! Real collaborative and productive local projects can achieve great connections and improvements. From communal gardening and urban agriculture to public art projects and youth initiatives, it is important to help enable people to both get involved and run activities themselves. Public space plays a crucial role in these processes, and really it is accessible public space that needs to be nurtured to achieve inclusive regeneration.

Target additions

Sometimes additions are needed. By this I don’t necessarily mean another Tesco Metro or a cafe that charges £4 for a coffee. Is it possible to contribute a community space, healthcare facility, or a skills training centre? Respond to existing and very real needs that, if catered for, will greatly improve the wellbeing of the people and their place.

Enhance training and employment opportunities

Ensure existing and any new businesses provide opportunities to local people for apprenticeships, training and employment, working with local schools and colleges to achieve this. Places like Free 2 Learn are crucial too. In London especially, when I talk to young people about what they want to see in their local area, I hear this again and again: more training, more work experience, more jobs.

I want more than anything to believe there is a better way; we can grow and support our city without being exclusionary and divisive. More holistic and sensitive regeneration is the bigger win in the long term. Listen to the multitude of diverse voices: this city belongs to all of us.

School’s out: from registration to regeneration

by Francesca Perry

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Adaptive reuse in cities is nothing new. ‘Saved’ historical buildings find new purposes all the time, often as long as there is commercial gain involved. Former school buildings tend to be converted into contemporary art galleries or luxury accommodation. But what about those newer sites? City schools that have had to shut down or move due to financial or practical pressures, leaving behind whole complexes at once poignant and unusable.

One place that sets an admirable standard is the former Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth, London. The school moved to a new site in 2005, deserting a complex of 1960s buildings. But instead of another case of luxury redevelopment, the local community ensured that it was transformed in to a sports hub, offering enhanced services to people living on the local estates and surrounding areas. Starting as a summer programme, four sports halls were opened and became a new centre for sports, health and community locally. The summer programme gained support and grew in to sustained activity run by Sport Action Zone, later renamed Community Action Zone.

Now re-launched as the Black Prince Community Hub with improved facilities and a neighbourhood cafe, the place is undeniably a crucial local asset for youth provision, health and community cohesion in the middle of London. The old classrooms have been opened up and host an array of social, educational and cultural activities. Classes are run by the local Albanian, Eritrean and Somalian communities. Organisations that use arts to encourage community cohesion and empowerment have made the hub their home, including Creative Sparkworks and Fotosynthesis. The true community value of what is offered here far, far outweighs the potential commerical value of the site (developers take note).

Elsewhere, it’s comforting to know former schools are being used as crucial community hubs. The One Love Community Centre in Newham, a converted school building, provides training, childcare, and seeks to enhance employment and education opportunities for ethnic minorities locally. The St Werburghs Community Centre in Bristol, another former school complex, provides spaces and facilities for community groups and organisations, building local partnerships through events and projects.

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A closed-down school in San Antonio, Texas, was recently ‘reborn’ as a Girl Scouts Leadership Center. Having been closed due to state funding cuts, the school is now a safe and vital hub for girls, Scout leaders and families. What’s also great is to see the process reversed: a disused community centre in Newport, Wales, could soon be converted to provide a nursery for an adjacent school.

While it’s great that in cities today, disused spaces become pop-up places in wait of development, and newly vacant properties can be part of residential guardianship schemes, it takes something else entirely to galvanise an unused and empty space into a real community hub – a real asset.

This is regeneration as it should be, without the increasing affiliation of gentrification: it is about supporting and providing for the existing urban community.

Brewing positive change

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Working in community engagement in urban planning myself, I will be the first person to promote the benefits of dialogue in making positive change in neighbourhoods and urban areas. In fact, the organisation that sparked my love of taking what the local community says to the heart of collaboratively moving things forward is make:good, who work to achieve socially-engaged design solutions.

What I love about make:good’s work is the central role of creative engagement and consultation, using tools and methods which both put people at ease and get them excited to share their views and ideas. The process then empowers people to make change and make good.

One of the inspired things make:good has done is to set up a sister project, What’s Brewin’?, which harnesses the role of dialogue in enabling change and drawing people together. Within a structure of monthly get-togethers over cups of tea, the project provides a collaborative space and platform to bring together ideas for positive changemaking in important social issues.

One micro-campaign is #KnowYoureSkilled, which aims to get people thinking about what their unique skills are in order to counteract low confidence, especially in jobseekers in our suffering economic climate. City living is complex; it can often be confusing and intimidating. The #KnowYoureSkilled campaign uses dialogue as the first step in engaging people to think more positively about their role in their society, neighbourhood or family. Building confidence helps build community.

Last week the lovely people at make:good and What’s Brewin’ published a guest blog post from me, all about the City’s Clock – how the urban landscape transforms between day and night and the impact time has on our urban experience. I really enjoyed writing the blog so I hope you will check it out, and contribute your thoughts and images on Twitter with the hashtag #MyCitysClock… and say hi to @thinkingcity, @_whatsbrewin and @wemakegood too!

Can we improve wellbeing in cities?

by Francesca Perry

Though it’s clear living in cities can have both negative and positive impacts on physical health – with the overcrowding, pollution, and lack of green space yet comes the maximised access to healthcare and proliferation of support networks – I am interested, as last year’s ‘Cities, health and wellbeing’ conference was, to look beyond this simplistic notion of wellness and consider the emotional wellbeing tied to happiness and satisfaction and how this may be affected by city living. We lack an understanding, as academic Philip Morrison has outlined, of the ‘geography of happiness’.

Some think that cities provide the variety needed to stimulate and animate us, others believe it is a case of overstimulation, causing stress or emotional detachment. There is – unsurprisingly – evidence to support that depression tends to be more prevalent in cities; complaints are lodged at the door of unhealthy work-life balances, high-rise living, limited open green space and apparent lack of community.

I have noted noted before the need to engage with nature on a regular basis – and there is indeed a widely supported link between green space and positive mental health. This is not to say we should all move to the countryside, though. It’s about something far subtler and more workable than even the ‘Garden Cities’ of the early 20th century, designed from scratch specifically for wellbeing by limiting population and maximising open space. Le Corbusier also tried to build cities designed for healthier living, but his plans meant whitewashing what was already there. Such stringent rules can work against what they are trying to achieve. I’m a strong believer that the right kind of support for green spaces, waterways and green infrastructure in the city allows the best of both worlds: to engage with the calming influence of nature as well as enjoy the activity of the city.

Recently, the New Economics Foundation (nef) produced a report on wellbeing patterns in the UK, showing that people who live in rural areas have a higher rate of wellbeing (happiness, satisfaction with their life) than those in urban areas. Specifically, the highest levels of wellbeing (41%) are found on the small islands off the British Isles as well as the northern/southern coastal extremities of country, whilst the lowest levels of wellbeing (20%) are found in London, Luton and Reading.

So do we need the space, the quiet, the sea to be content? Those may be things I dream of whilst at my desk, but I believe living the rest of my life on the Shetland Islands may not ensure permanent satisfaction. Still, different people adapt to different places, and then the familiarity becomes comforting and satisfying in itself – and hard to leave.

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A sense of community is promoted as one of the keys to social wellbeing – but is this too stifling in a village, or too disparate in a city? New types of living in the city – such as high-rise, high-density apartment blocks – may affect the type of community interaction that occurs; but community dynamics rely on far more factors, including the social structures set in place like resident associations or neighbourhood centres. There is no reason why a strong feeling of community is unlikely to emerge in a large metropolis.

Peter Marcuse recently recently praised the ‘Occupy Sandy’ initiative in New York, noting the way that people helped one another was: ‘an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked… we are all parts of one whole.’ Though this unity may have emerged in a time of crisis, it shows that cities are not incapable of a powerful sense of togetherness.

Occupy Sandy

Another social activity strongly tied to the idea of wellbeing is the participation in decision-making in environmental and local affairs. This is certainly not automatically more feasible in small rural communities than cities. At least in the UK, there are numerous structures in place to enable this civic empowerment, but we must always ensure – wherever the community – that this participation is meaningful and not tokenistic.

Rural and urban life I think is too different to be compared; as the percentage of the world population living in cities continues to rise, the question now is more likely what kind of city encourages wellbeing? I would like to see an investigation in to the varying levels of wellbeing between different cities, to understand places that enhance and maximise the opportunities and benefits of urban living. The recent trend for ranking ‘liveable cities’, however, often glosses over many key aspects, complexities and subjectivities.

Moving beyond vital infrastructure for physical health often taken for granted in developed cities, including accessibility to basic services (what we might term ‘objective wellbeing’), we can think of more subtle – but still crucial – ways to support holistic wellbeing in the contemporary city.

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As I recently discussed, pedestrian-friendly cities – those places which boast ‘walkability’ – encourage greater use of the public realm and result in more social interaction and enjoyment of civic space. Equally, supporting and enhancing access to greenery and nature is crucial to overcoming the challenges to wellbeing presented by a large urban centre.

Furthermore, if urban wellbeing is to be enhanced, it is crucial that the clear benefits of city living – including access to a rich variety of culture – should be fully supported and nurtured rather than forgotten or diminished. Cities also need to maximise on their community initiatives and support networks, as well as opportunities for empowerment and participation; London, though its size may present challenges, benefits from a concentration of wonderful organisations working with the city’s communities to improve lives and places.

Many have claimed that wellbeing is increased by a strong place identity. I believe this notion of place identity has at times been exploited and created by top-down branding efforts for economic benefit; an identity of place which is created collaboratively with the local community, however, holds far more resonance. As more people become involved in civic decision-making, participatory planning and creative interaction, so the ownership of place and space will engender a lasting sense of local pride.

Happiness and satisfaction will always be personal and subjective, as well as vary from day to day – so it is of course difficult to measure wellbeing. What’s more, we cannot anchor wellbeing to place alone – place itself is shaped by the people in it. I do believe, however, and have tried to highlight here, that there are ways in which the people designing and managing cities can support fuller, more active, democratic and creative lives of citizens.  Of course the rest of the work is down to us.

The ‘Cities, health and wellbeing’ conference put forward the power of wellbeing as a point around which to rethink city development and identify more sensitive and intuitive ways of intervening in cities. My only addition to this would be to stress that, more than ‘intervention’, truly sustainable and beneficial efforts will be collaborative and work with citizens to better understand what makes a happier and healthier place.