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  • Aba Amihyia

The Importance of Prioritising Social Connection in the Design of Built Environments


An abandoned pub car park, located off the busy South Circular in South London, became an unexpected community meeting point during lockdown. When the pub burnt down in 2012, the site remained empty and the car park beside it became overgrown and a popular local fly tipping spot, but in lockdown the community reclaimed the space. Now an extensive skatepark exists there, built entirely by residents and skaters, using donations and their own money to buy concrete, to turn into obstacles for everyone to enjoy. There is even a community run garden within the site, from which they produced their own jam, with the profits going towards even more concrete. 


The Grove’, showcases the resilience of a community that took matters into its own hands to meet local need. During a time when all skateparks were shut due to lockdown measures, this  novel environment was built by a desire to meet, mix, and build social connections.  

 

The power of the built environment for social connection

At Neighbourly Lab, we are fascinated by the relationship between the built environment and social connection, and how one can be harnessed to propel the other. When we say built environment, we simply refer to aspects of our surroundings that are built by humans  like , office blocks, housing, parks and general supporting infrastructure. These physical structures that surround our day-to-day dictate the ways we live our lives, where we come together and where we don’t.  There are countless, inspiring examples of how spaces and buildings have been specifically designed to enhance our connections. At Neighbourly Lab, we believe that nearly every part of our built environment can impact social connection - they just need to be unlocked. This is the question that drives our work and research in this space; How can the entirety of our built environment be designed, built, and regenerated with social connection and community strength at the core of its purpose?  


Of course, what this would actually look like depends on the desires and needs of the communities involved, as they will be the people using and interacting within the space. That’s why Neighbourly Lab’s focus is towards participatory research with local VCS and residents themselves to co-produce solutions that work for the people involved.  We support councils, housing associations, and developers to involve themselves in this process and to build environments that fulfil people's needs and desires. After all, actively thinking about how social connection will occur within these spaces is crucial to their longevity and use frequency.


Some examples of how the built environment is encouraging connection

There are examples from across the world that demonstrates the power of the built environment in encouraging connection in communities: 

1)Tinggaarden, a residential area that was built in 1978 in Denmark, with the aim of using ‘architecture as a vehicle for reinstating the residents’ democracy in the local community’. With 78 houses and inviting communal spaces, like shared dining areas, Tinggaarden is a model of communal living. The walls of the houses are designed to be moved, allowing families to expand seamlessly. If one family grows, they can acquire their neighbours' spare room, ensuring that living spaces adapt to evolving needs. For every 6 family groups there is a designated building for meetings and parties, to foster neighbourliness between residents. Tinggaarden demonstrates how it is possible to have community and social connection at the forefront of architectural design. 


2) In the UK there are similar community housing projects with 87,000 members of community-led housing groups across the country. These projects all have one thing in common, normal people championing local issues, to deliver affordable sustainable housing. A study funded by The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), aimed to understand the impact of community-led housing on loneliness. The evidence gathered demonstrated that  ‘community-led housing presents wellbeing benefits in terms of reducing loneliness for the individuals involved, but also may have beneficial effects for wider neighbourhoods.’ This innovative research is itself a call for greater funding and policy support into increasing the provision of housing which is community-led. 

 

The power of community voice in developing the built environment

When communities are not consulted in the development process, local needs, unique culture and heritage can be missed, resulting in pushback and sometimes outrage from communities. A recent example of this is in Brixton, London when property developers wanted to build a 20 story office building in the heart of the area. In their plans, the developers  attempted to appease locals by including community space for slam poetry events, aiming to encourage local participation. The promised poetry space did not outweigh the concerns of the community, particularly the fear that the office block would trigger substantial rent hikes, potentially displacing nearby local businesses and residents. 


A campaign called ‘Save Nour’ built from the community outrage of the attempted removal of a local business, managed to campaign against the new development. The mounting pressure from local residents resulted in the withdrawal of the building plans in 2023, highlighting the significance of understanding and respecting the unique culture and heritage of a community in the development of new built environments. Lack of effective community consultation is likely to result in the new development being unpopular among the local residents, who are crucial allies and the future users of the space. 


However, when community consultation is at the heart of development, effective area regeneration can profoundly benefit local communities. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a great example, being the largest new park developed across Europe in the last 150 years. This transformative operation successfully converted a polluted industrial wasteland into an inviting environment that prioritises social connection throughout its design. The park's central landmark is the River Lea. By pulling back the river banks, communal spaces were created, providing inviting areas for people to gather. This deliberate merge of nature into the urban landscape enhances the park's appeal and fosters a sense of community. This demonstrates how well thought out regeneration projects can positively impact both the environment and the local people. 


Regeneration projects, unfortunately, don't always mirror the success of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and can instead displace established local communities. An example is the ongoing Elephant and Castle regeneration project, where the South American community, deeply rooted in the area for many years, is facing displacement due to rising costs and the lack of affordable new housing. The iconic shopping centre in the centre of the community has been demolished, resulting in the closure of numerous South American businesses. Many of the community have been forced to relocate, severing long standing connections and relationships. This shows how regeneration must prioritise community engagement to avoid pushing out those who have contributed to creating the area's cultural richness.


Citu, a sustainable development company specialising in regeneration, serves as a positive example of property developers who prioritise responsible practices. They exclusively construct on brownfield sites, demonstrating a commitment to environmental sustainability. They also prioritise community voices and want residents to be part of how the area is shaped. When you buy a house or apartment in their development in Little Kelham in Sheffield, you’ll own more than just your home. To keep the residents in control of the area they have set up a Community Interest Company which is a non-profit organisation that owns and controls the development. Residents have a stake in the future of the whole place, allowing them to shape how the area around evolves, by giving all households a vote on any future investment decision within the local area.


 

In conclusion, the initiatives highlighted in this article demonstrate the power of collective community in a grassroots response to local needs not being met by local councils, developers and other community partners.


When local interest goes unheard there can be negative fall out and some individuals even take matters into their own hands, quite literally pouring concrete to construct what they need. This argues for the desire of communities to be heard in the shaping and development of their communities. Without this consultation, our cities might have an abundance of slam poetry spaces but no affordable housing or units for local businesses. 


We would argue further that social connection must be a priority in the architectural design of housing and redevelopment to ensure that the built environment aligns with the genuine needs and desires of the people it serves - going beyond the functional use of the space to something much more meaningful. At Neighbourly Lab, we will continue to advocate for the importance of prioritising community voices and promoting social connection in the design of built environments.  We are open to collaboration with anyone who shares our mission and would love to hear from you. Please contact Nick if interested in learning more nick@neighbourlylab.com


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