Connecting the Disconnected

Healing communities through a mindful approach to regeneration

Discussing how our future depends on getting city design right, Peter Calthorpe explains during his TED Talk Seven Principles for Designing Better Cities that, “the shape of our cities really do reflect the state of humanity.” At present, however, those that are at the forefront of area redevelopment in the UK are failing to link redevelopment and regional growth strategies to schemes that alleviate the poverty and inequality felt by so many. Often people who have a lot to offer to society, are being held back, in many cases starting with the area they grow up and live in.

Sprawling, a term used by Peter Calthorpe, “can happen anywhere at any density. The key attribute of sprawling is that it isolates people, segregating them into economic and land-use enclaves, often separating them from nature and doesn’t allow for the cross fertilisation that makes societies thrive”. A study from 2016 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, discovered that large scale redevelopment projects in cities across the UK have so far failed to significantly improve general social mobility and economic opportunities for broader, diverse demographics.

In order to build the cities of the future, we need to focus on human-centred design, that much we know. For this, we have to actively investigate patterns of neighbourhood deprivation and disconnection from a human level through our regeneration schemes.

However, this may not be due to an unwillingness to change that, but due to a lack of having practical ways to approach this challenge. In order to build the cities of the future, we need to focus on human-centred design, that much we know. For this, we have to actively investigate patterns of neighbourhood deprivation and disconnection from a human level through our regeneration schemes. We want to help solve this problem. For this, we believe it’s essential to change the way people understand the social wealth and potential that exists within local communities, particularly ones with high levels of deprivation. The way forward is by realigning consistently missed regeneration opportunities that could help reconnect disconnected communities to their wider labour markets and their wider housing markets. Placemaking has the potential to enhance and enrich local people’s lives, rather than segregate and disconnect them further.

Man looking at model of a city in the Church Street Urban Room, Westminster, London
The pop up Urban Room in Church Street, 2015

We wanted to tell different stories about local communities, particularly the communities that seemed to be the most misunderstood.

Our own interest in examining the social fabric that sews people together began years ago when we were working as photojournalists. Originally, we started out as a creative agency that worked on socially focused campaigns. At the heart of most of our assignments was the aim to capture people and the intricacies of their connections, to their inner circles and their wider communities. We explored what brings people together and what can pull them apart, which is essentially what led us into the world of regeneration. We wanted to tell different stories about local communities, particularly the communities that seemed to be the most misunderstood. So we switched from telling stories with photographs, to telling stories with data. Back in 2014 we embarked on this mission, starting in Church Street, Westminster. Originally named the Mapify project, we worked closely with the Westminster City Council, the Cockpit Theatre, Neighbourhood Forum, Paddington Development Trust and members of the Church Street community for over two years. Together we began to map out and measure how social and cultural capital affects micro-economies within a community, using our digital tools.

Church Street Market sign on road
The City of Westminster ward, Church Street, is undergoing a 20 year regeneration programme.

Our Mapify project in Church Street lead us to more amazing regeneration projects, where we learned that the best place to start linking regional growth strategies to local level poverty alleviation is by examining more closely the social and economical impact of local hubs and unique local spaces. These spaces help to bridge the gap between social groups, classes, races and ages. These are often untapped, underused and underestimated sources that can signpost the way towards solutions – innovative solutions that could alleviate the devastating disconnection from employment, adequate housing, mobility, resilience and sustainability that many communities face in the UK.

Richard Upton, Deputy Chief Executive of property developer and regeneration specialist U+I believes that, “we can regenerate our industry and, by doing so, regenerate our country. If we face up to it – all of us involved in this business, politician and developer alike – if we step up to the mark, we can change things for the better and do it quickly.”

We want to see what happens if the right opportunities, tools and support are offered at all levels during major redevelopment projects.

Ultimately, local residents already influence, mould and inform their area’s culture. Often the richest of local activities happens with little resource. It happens successfully from a grassroots level despite a lack of commercial or top-down support. We want to see what happens if the right opportunities, tools and support are offered at all levels during major redevelopment projects. The AKOU approach aims to empower communities to direct local change and development by giving them the tools to report and support themselves. Having ownership over their data and information not only improves the level of trust, but can also determine spending decisions that affect the places they live and work in. By making invisible data visible, understandable and accessible, we are able to improve regeneration schemes and create places that enhance and enrich people’s lives. Ultimately helping to build spaces where diverse communities can finally thrive.