How do we cultivate social sustainability during times of change?

As an organisation, Dot Dot Dot aims to have a positive social impact on the communities in which we exist. Next week, our Founder and Director Katharine Hibbert will be participating at a HACT round table discussion on the social sustainability of housing. Here, she outlines her view that building sustainable communities is particularly important during regeneration projects:

kath1Communities across the country are having to deal with the changes involved in estate regeneration, to replace poor-quality housing and to increase density to meet growing housing need. Even if all agree that the end result is worth it, the regeneration process is always disruptive. But while the changes to physical infrastructure are visible, the disruption to communities can be less obvious – but just as powerful.

Focusing on social sustainability through the regeneration process can make it less painful for residents, and maintain their commitment to the overall project. Even if they have to put up with building work and house moves, at least they can continue to live in a place where they feel at home, where they know their neighbours and feel proud of their community. And a focus on social sustainability can improve eventual regeneration outcomes, ensuring that new homes are provided in an area which has a sense of identity, and with an existing sense of community, rather than having to build up these things from scratch – making the new homes more attractive for new and old residents alike.

So how can social housing providers maintain social sustainability through change? At Dot Dot Dot, we’ve seen the value of Meanwhile Use for achieving this. Times of change create problems, but they also create opportunities – and where spaces have come to the end of their previous use, they can sometimes be used temporarily for new ones, such as pop-up shops, temporary gardens and homes for property guardians. All of these uses can support social sustainability during estate regeneration projects by contributing to the five elements of social sustainability identified by HACT’s white paper, as follows:

1. Safety and security

Above all, Meanwhile Use contributes to security – and does so far more effectively than heavy-handed security guards. Because an area continues to look and feel lived in and appreciated by residents, it is far less likely to be targeted for antisocial behaviour and crime, and any problems that do occur can be quickly identified and dealt with.

2. Social equity

HACT blogIf homes are decanted or businesses move out of commercial units in advance of regeneration, empty buildings can form ‘psychogeographical’ barriers to accessing services – even if services are geographically close, residents will be less likely to access them if they have to run the gauntlet of threatening, deserted areas of housing. Placing property guardians or facilitating pop-up uses of commercial spaces can prevent this, making areas feel fresh and welcoming even when the long-term residents are absent. East London housing association Poplar HARCA has worked hard to achieve this, allowing a community garden to be set up on a disused tennis court in a regeneration area, for example, which has created vibrancy and footfall in what would otherwise have been a building site, as well as ensuring that as many of their voids as possible are occupied by guardians.

3. Social capital

Simply having more people in a neighbourhood creates opportunities to build social capital – for people to form ‘sidewalk contacts’ (Jacobs, 1961), the ‘spaces of transit’ (Amin, 2002) need to be populated. Placing property guardians or facilitating Meanwhile projects brings more people to an area and gives remaining residents a reason to come out of their homes and get involved. And on top of this, Meanwhile uses often attract incomers who are motivated to get involved and get to know their neighbours even if they’re only there temporarily – and this can create new bonds and relationships which are advantageous for all. Placing property guardians in decanted units rather than boarding them up means that footfall is maintained in local streets and shops, so chance encounters between new and old residents can occur, allowing everyone to feel that they live in a place where there are people to say ‘hello’ to on the way in and out – especially important for isolated, vulnerable residents, for whom these kinds of brief conversations can be their main interaction of the day.

4. Community stability

A core of long-term residents who are committed to active involvement in the community are crucial for social sustainability, and Meanwhile Use is no substitute for that. However, creating contexts where it’s possible for remaining residents to get involved during a period of flux allows those who have long-standing relationships with an area to continue to participate in the community rather than retreating into their homes and private lives. For example, where Dot Dot Dot was placing property guardians on a large east London housing estate owned by Poplar HARCA that was being decanted, guardians got together to clear and revitalise old raised beds, which were then reallocated to remaining residents. This meant that long-standing community members began to leave their houses and get involved in the public space again.

5. Sense of place

skip gardenPeriods of change are a perfect opportunity to experiment with new uses for old spaces, and to imagine how new spaces could be used differently. When the originally intended use of a place comes to an end, it’s a chance for communities to come together to create something new. This can mean murals, or turning commercial spaces into community venues, or holding events on sites where previous buildings have been demolished. This is a potential source of pride, and gives people a chance to put their stamp on a place. The Kings Cross skip garden has offered a way to experiment with new ways to get local young people involved with growing and building projects, and encouraged them to feel involved in the change that’s happening in the area.

In short, Meanwhile Use is not just a nice-to-have during estate regeneration projects. It can make a concrete contribution to smoothing the process and improving eventual outcomes by supporting social sustainability through times of change.

Want to join the conversation? 

Katharine Hibbert will be part of a HACT dicsussion exploring the role of social sustainability and its relevance within the housing sector further on Wednesday 11th May. You can find out more about the event here.