What makes up a neighbourhood?

We’ve been working in a new area of Camberwell for the last six weeks. It’s not a natural community but rather a place set between two villages: Walworth to the north and Camberwell to the south. On the road that runs between the two, our ‘patch’ is somewhere most people pass through rather than come to. It does not really follow anyone’s lines on a map. It crosses political wards, it has no centre or focus and it is varied in style and population. Roads and railway lines cut it up and make it disjointed and apparently unconnected.

clip_image002Common factors

The fact is however that the whole area shares some common factors. First is that it is set in the midst of a huge conurbation, the city of London spreads out seemingly endlessly in all directions. The urban character of the environment is unmissable. And this has big consequences. People can travel away to work and others can travel here to work. People are able to draw on specialist services that would not survive in less highly populated settings. People with money pay extreme prices for the nicer properties and the rest see their homes slide into disrepair due to lack of investment from their landlords. Neighbours are easily strangers and have no common bond except their proximity.

Second this area is subject to huge global pressures. The food served at the cafes and the two restaurants comes from all continents; the people are from five continents and speak a vast diversity of different tongues. The customs and cultures overlap and intermingle bringing extraordinary juxtapositions into being. For example, the local mosque has occupied an island site that was previously a prominent public house. The jobs on offer are shaped by the location: car mechanics, shop keepers, office workers, nothing aspirational or inspiring here. Those jobs are found in the centres – Walworth and more so Camberwell and in the Centre of the city.

clip_image002[4]An organising strategy?

Our task is to stimulate collective action in this community of disparate elements. The initial survey we have undertaken gives us a flavour of the context that surrounds our base. Now we aim to fill out our understanding by meeting the people who make up the community. We have a long list of local businesses and of local voluntary and community organisations. We have collected the contact details of key people in the agencies that work locally – the police, the schools, the churches, the council. We have walked the area and hung around to get a feel for the atmosphere and the style of interactions.

The survey has been structured around themes such as crime and community safety, education, housing and business. The history of the area in recent years has been dominated by the creation of two conservation areas and the slow but steady decline of council housing elsewhere. The intense mobility of temporary individuals and families in the rented sector has undermined efforts to create any sense of place or pride in belonging. Now a significant presence is students from many different institutions who find cheaper rents in multi-occupancy homes here. Good transport and convenience to central London makes Camberwell very attractive to the socially agile, those with three part-time jobs or who work nights. It all drains energy from this neighbourhood.

New investment has brought some fresh elements to the area. Six million (or twice as much, it is rumoured) has been spent (squandered?) remodelling Burgess Park. The local comprehensive school has been raised to the ground and a new Church of England Academy is currently rising from it’s ashes. And of course our own hosts Cambridge House have just had their building completely refashioned to deliver modern standards and a diversity of spaces. So we have some assets around which the community’s identity might be shaped. The question that remains is how far these are of, for and by this community and how far are they another people’s vision.

clip_image002[6]Listening to anyone

We are going out listening at doorsteps, talking to a huge diversity of people about their relationship to this neighbourhood. We explore their key passions – be that for the tranquillity of their area or the fury at the parking regulations – and try to open them up to the possibilities of becoming more a part of the neighbourhood. The views of long-term residents are set against the confident but superficial opinions of newly-arrived undergraduates. West African mums are too busy cooking to chat at the door but an elderly man from SE Asia stands in the sunshine (yes, we had one morning this week) and considers my questions carefully. An entrenched and angry locally-born man complains to me of the foreigners and shouts about the way things have got worse since he moved here. A Dominican teenager speaks warmly about the street and its inhabitants in a gentle American accent whilst across the street is an Italian au pair (living out she tell me) who complains her boy-friend can’t park nearby. A disabled elderly Caribbean woman welcomes me into her house for our chat since she can’t stand for long. A young South African  sits me at his kitchen table and offers his support to bring a few neighbours together. And I’ve not visited more than 20 households in this street!

clip_image002[8]Waking up the potential

But the next stage is for us to find neighbours who know each other enough to invite their friends for tea and a chat about the community. We are finding interest but turning interest at the door into a trusting relationship that can support such a move is quite a challenge. By focusing on a few doorways and so helping people work with neighbours they often see out on their own street, people are more likely to feel confident. It’s a big move though for many in these fragile communities and we organisers have to be adept at building relationships and respecting the speed at which individuals can move. So linking people up who may be willing to be introduced to some neighbours is sometime needed. People who feel passionately about their concerns are few and far between; many just get on with their lives and leave outsiders to determine how they live. We want to change that!

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5 Responses to What makes up a neighbourhood?

  1. Mark Jagdev says:

    A catalyst for this work could be the launch of a community sharing hub. Events like this on the weekend perhaps when more people are free could nourish relationships tremendously. It would be interesting to hear your feedback. Do you know if any of your key contacts are connected to an association similar to the one in this post?: http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-launch-of-a-community-sharing-hub

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks Mark – a useful example of ways to stimulate community participation. Of course for centuries we have all known that food and children also bind communities together and in our experience so far, activities that involve sharing food and working together with children have both proved both popular and helpful in supporting new trusting relationships to develop. Our ethos is to allow the ideas and initiatives to develop from the community members themselves and we would not want to import even the best ideas as that would undermine the capacity of citizens to make their own way. We work to nurture their innate collective ability to conceive of the ideal solution to their community’s challenges and then fan the flame of initiative and innovation to develop projects and actions that are sustainable and rooted locally.

      • Mark Jagdev says:

        That is great Mark, I agree that allowing the ideas and initiatives to develop from the community members themselves is the only way. I do see idea sharing as one of the first steps for citizens to gain a fuller picture of the range of potential pathways open to them in nurturing their communities. Clearly imposition of such ideas could be very negative! Self-organizing is foundational.

  2. right, i said i was going to expand on our experiences, so here goes (will try and be brief-ish) – i got involved with our tra (on wyndham & comber estate) in 2009, got to be a secretary. the first thing i did was put together a small booklet (8-10 a5 pages) to tell residents who the tra committee are, what we do, what we hope to do, contact details for us, encouraging people to come forward with their hopes, ideas itc. it was photocopied & distributed to every single household on the estate and, for the first time in the history of the tra, 40 people turned up at the meeting (there are some 1,200 flats on the estate). we briefly managed to open the tra committee to both the people who live on the estate but also the world outside (this can be a struggle) by bringing in the cycling person from southwark council who was happy to collaborate/set up bike workshops, food growing activists etc. 5-6 people interested in food growing, for example, used to meet and work on the plans to establish food growing on patches of unused/poorly used platforms. we set up a website so that people can keep track of what’s happening. i ran a couple of workshops (not terribly well attended at all) where people could draw/write their personal histories – this was all perhaps too knew, and the ‘bingo brigade’ eventually won (a bit conservative, old-fashioned bunch, who preferred to do things not too publicly and keep it/tra amongst their friends really, claiming stuff like ‘nobody on the estate has internet’ although blatantly untrue, etc, too long a story) so i eventually left. a few months later, when we (as peoples republic of southwark) wanted to host a local elections hustings event, the committee alerted the council/councillors? who in turn tried to stop us from having the event and/or dictate how it should be run (got a formal apology a year after the event!)
    so that’s a bit of a historic background. i’ve not been to a recent meeting, and i’ve no way of knowing what’s going on, how to contact the tra committee, nothing really, which is bad.
    but it needn’t be, as i’ve seen/experienced it myself. and it needs more than 1 person driving the project(s)

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks Lili for the briefing on your experience of the Wyndham and Comber TRA. It is always sad when the energy of people becomes sapped by their feeling inertia all around. Your experience is however not unusual and the dominance of a few in running TRAs has been a theme of previous posts on this blog. I sympathise with your frustrations and hope that the current TRA leadership on the estate will be able to work with us to stimulate and sustain new citizen-led action.

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