Blog Authored by Chris Brown, igloo
Jane Jacobs was a remarkable journalist and thinker, originally living in New York in the 1950s and she wrote a brilliant book called the Death and Life of Great American Cities. She fought against the idea of the omnipotent, old, white, male, planner who would shape the city as he thought it should be (in particular New York’s destructive chief planner, Robert Moses).
The ever quotable Jacobs said – “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Through my career as a developer I have become convinced that this is a basic truth. And the lessons from recent top down, failed, council estate regeneration projects in London have emphasised this for me.
It’s a sadly familiar story. A local authority fails to maintain a 1960s estate. Manages it badly. It starts costing them lots of money. So they want to knock it down. And sell the land for as much as they can get. The people who live there try to fight but in the end, often many years later, the council gets its way, the homes are demolished, the community is dispersed, huge riches of social capital are destroyed and a private, profit-driven developer redevelops luxury flats sold in the Far East to absentee landlords.
This is a global issue. The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for housing, Leilana Farha, particularly identifies the financialisation of housing and its detrimental impact on the human right to housing. “From mass forced evictions to make way for luxury developments, to nameless corporations purchasing real estate from remote boardrooms, to empty homes and people pushed out of their communities because they simply could not afford to live there, the repercussions have been felt across the globe.”
Sounds familiar. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
The Special Rapporteur has started The Shift, a campaign that includes as an objective – “housing as a vehicle for equality, dignity and inclusive community, rather than for inequality and the concentration of wealth”. It could be the definition of community led housing.
Here is the potted history of one of our recent experiences of community led housing on a 1960s inner London council estate that does exactly that. igloo had developed a mixed-use scheme, Bermondsey Square, to a community brief about ten years ago. Jane Jacobs might even have liked it.
Through that I got to know some of the great people who live in this community where I now live. They were already managing the council-owned estates where they lived through what has become one of the country’s leading tenant management organisations, Leathermarket JMB.
They knew they needed to build more social rented homes to solve their housing problems, so they asked us to help. igloo are a development manager, a benefit corporation, and our purpose is to make the world better for People, Place and Planet so we were delighted to be asked.
The community set up a community land trust, Leathermarket CBS, to be the decision-making body and igloo provided the development expertise with a number of local professionals.
The starting point for the community wasn’t comprehensive demolition. The estate comprised 1960s and 70s towers and walk up blocks, and they had managed them well and they were in good condition.
Instead the starting point was to identify infill sites. And the first one was a block of single-story garages. This would have been a challenge for a council to redevelop because it was right next to two existing blocks and would cut off the view of the park for a third.
But these were to be Local Homes, FOR Local People, BY Local People.
Everyone worked together. The people who would live in the homes were identified (by knocking on every door and understanding each family’s housing need). They were a combination of older people, for whom the walk-up blocks were becoming prisons, and who were now living on their own in three or four-bed flats, and families who were overcrowded in two-bed flats.
And they worked out that, by people moving around on the estate, the 27 new homes they proposed to build could sort the housing needs of 100 families and free up more habitable rooms that were being built for people on the council’s housing waiting list.
The group and the neighbours worked together on the design and when we put it in for planning permission there were no objections. Unheard of in dense inner-city London.
At this point, the council, the London Borough of Southwark, came in with a great offer to provide all the funding and the building was built quickly. It’s now won loads of awards, it’s transformed lives, and rightly everyone is very proud of it.
And Leathermarket CBS now has a pipeline of 600 social rented homes that it is delivering in partnership with the council.
The reason for this success is simple, as Jane Jacobs observed – “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”