Ground-up London

A vista of community-led development and activism

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”
David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’ New Left Review 53, September-October 2008

A hub of the national and international economy, London is a crucible of development. Its economic geography is constantly shifting and its built environment being remade as capital responds to changing opportunities in the urban economy. Increasing development pressure and the private profit imperatives of land and property markets often conflict with needs and demand of the city’s communities — whether defined geographically or by common interests — and their demands for social justice and access to resources. Through varying approaches, some of these communities are seeking to reassert their rights- either to maintain maintain valued assets or to shape an alternative form of development focused on their own needs.

The Right to the City, as conceptualised above by Harvey (following Lefebvre), is a collective right. So the expression of this right, through various forms of community-led development and grassroots activism, is also a collective process: one which brings people together. For me this form of citizen participation is so important and fundamental because interventions at this scale offer the possibility of genuine democracy: the chance for people to actively and collectively contribute to shaping the world around them. And they are even the more impressive and inspirational given the challenges community groups face. These challenges focus mainly on the lack of resources — human, financial and legal (in terms of access to land and influence in the planning system). In a city like London another key challenge is maintaining involvement in a city where people are increasingly rootless and disconnected to their neighbours, as well as lacking in time and motivation for community endeavours.

Through a series of posts Ground-Up London will explore a few of these issues London faces and look inside some of the grassroots (or ground-up) responses of its citizens.

Housing is without doubt the biggest issue facing the capital. A number of localised housing campaigns have developed in communities affected by eviction and displacement. Focus E15 and Lambeth Housing Activists are two prominent examples. These campaigns, along with a few renters and tenants groups like Hackney Renters, have coalesced into the Radical Housing Network and at the national level the Axe the Housing Act campaign.

At the same time there is a growing recognition of the importance of land in discussions of housing supply and affordability. The ‘Land for what?’ movement, launched towards the end of last year, brings together a variety of land-based campaigns and organisations — rural and urban, from London and beyond — to start developing a joint platform for land rights and reform.

At the local level, a number of community land trusts have become established in the capital. Perhaps the best known of these are East London Community Land Trust and the St Ann’s Regeneration Trust (StART) here on my doorstep in Haringey. These community owned co-operative groups are working to acquire and develop land in their community according to a vision backed by local people.

Community-land trusts are just one of a growing number of community-led housing initiatives, including co-operative housing schemes (with a heritage going back to the Coin Street Community Builders on the South Bank).

Alongside those groups engaging with the development process, there are some inspiring examples of social enterprises taking control of community assets and using them to support and promote social sustainability and diversity. The Bromley by Bow Centre is a classic example, providing a range of local services to the local community. Hackney Co-operative Developments is another good example, maintaining a mix of affordable local employment space and cultural assets around the public space provided by Gillett Square.

Gillett Square, Dalston (Flickr)

The growing neighbourhood planning movement has also seen the number of communities across all areas of London becoming neighbourhood planning groups. The London Neighbourhood Planning network was set up last year as a forum for these groups and as a platform to promote and represent neighbourhood planning in the capital.

The concept of placemaking also emphasises not only for community-centred design but for participatory design processes involving communities. Organisations like Glass-House and Clear Village have taken on the that the design of public spaces begins with communities themselves.

Finally, the potential of technology to empower communities is being explored and realised through the civic technology (or ‘civic tech’) movement. Organisations like mySociety and Nesta are developing digital tools for citizen participation and democracy at the local level and Newspeak House in Bethnal Green provides a forum for London’s civic tech community.

Through these varied initiatives and movements are demanding to participate in the development and management of the built environment in a way that ensures it meets the needs of communities. They reflect a momentum towards an alternative, locally grounded form of development that promotes social equality, cohesion and sustainability. What motivates people to participate in these initiatives? what challenges do these community groups face? What do they need to be successful?

These are many more examples of grassroots, community-led development initiatives in London than those mentioned in this brief illustrative survey. I hope the blog will be collaborative, so If you have suggestions for topics to cover, or if you want to write something, get in touch. Any feedback or comments on posts welcome too.

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