Uncover>Action: Reflections on the edges of community
By Billy Holt, Housing Intern, HACT
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Local Trust’s Uncover>Action Conference. With a focus on community research, the agenda delved into many important issues relevant to community investment. This blog raises some questions which emerged from the sessions.
The last workshop of the day, ‘Widening the Circles: Who gets to be involved in place-based community development?’ raised the important question of who is, and where is, community? Too often the term ‘community’ is used without critical reflection around who is included and excluded in that group. We cannot take the definition of community to be uniform or objective. We must recognise that place is not static, and community is perpetually changing.
One of the speakers discussed the general trend of increasingly transient communities. At the edges are those living in insecure housing. In London, the number of households in temporary accommodation has grown by 50% over 5 years. In the context of the growing placemaking agenda, it is essential that our understanding of community is not restricted to long-term, permanent residents. Already marginalised, those living more transient and rootless lives need to be valued as valid voices in the placemaking agenda.
What does this mean for community research, and community investment? The session highlighted the importance, but also the difficulty of including transient voices in community research. When conducting research, do we capture the perspectives of those who have left- and if so, how do we begin to do this? At the tail end of the decade, the Centre for Excellence in Community Investment has been reflecting on the future of community investment as we enter the 2020s, and this is the sort of question which requires reflection and action moving forward.
The importance of language
When we are talking about community and place, language is important and has the power to shape perceptions both internally and externally. It was an issue raised by Linden West in the opening talk, and throughout the day’s sessions. ‘Problem area’ and ‘sink estate’ are phrases that have become too familiar in the media narrative around social housing, which has been brought to the fore post-Grenfell.
Words have power. These phrases have shaped public perception and policy towards residents in so called ‘problem areas’. Even for residents, this language makes it harder to feel pride in their community. Two researchers spoke of how everyday acts of community kindness were hidden beneath a ‘problem area’ narrative in one North East town. Two researchers used a group exercise to highlight the fact that there was lots for residents of the town to be proud of- from chatting to a neighbour to lending money to someone in need.
This is part of the challenge for community investment: to increase inward investment but also to champion the value of existing community. Feelings of pride and belonging have a social value for residents, and language informs the way we identify with our everyday spaces and interactions.
Placemaking is very much on the agenda, which has pushed the power of the physical landscape firmly up the agenda. While ambitious developments and digital innovation may grab the headlines, common and sometimes forgotten elements in the built landscape act as a crux point in our daily routines. The humble park bench, as an intersection between flows of people and a natural stopping point, is one such ‘bumping space’.
A key learning from the final session of the day is that we need to understand where these bumping spaces are, an insight only those with a lived experience of a community can give. Protecting and promoting these pockets of public space keeps communities close through everyday interaction, no matter how small. As we enter the next decade, there is a need to ensure the placemaking agenda continues to reflect the patterns of life and shared spaces in our communities.
Uncover>Action was a thought-provoking conference which raised important questions about the way communities are brought into the research and decision-making process. The Centre for Excellence in Community Investment is all about creating a space for these critical conversations, and we are keen to hear more about the challenges and opportunities faced by practitioners.
Sign up to our newsletter to find out more about your next geographic network meeting and get involved in the conversation.