Putting ‘Community-focused’ into practice

“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not prepared to do yourself.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

It is easy to preach the many benefits of a community-focused place.  But facilitating them requires hard work and a transparent process involving thousands of conversations and meetings.  Their outcomes will, inevitably, require adaptability and agility on our part.

A great example is taking place in Stamford, where, from our very first conversations, the landowners were clear that they only wanted to work with partners who were prepared to work around the very real and pressing needs of local people.

This was music to our ears.  Our approach to any new place is that our initial drawings only have one fixed feature – the thick red line setting-out the site’s boundary.  Everything within it is simply a starting point for a rigorous consultation process.

That first design at Stamford North incorporated many of the elements that we hoped would appeal to the local community.  We were aware of the need for more accessible open spaces, affordable housing and a new health centre.  These were included within a design using the contours of the valley, the natural flow of water and existing transport links.

But for all the hard-work and precision involved, that design was just a stepping stone.  Because it’s one thing to create something that draws upon all that insight and imagination and quite another to assume that it will be received with unanimous approval by residents and community groups.

And that’s a good thing.

Community-led projects need to be responsive to feedback throughout the design phase.  Perspectives change as the blank page is filled with everything involved in a future place.

Take the numerous groups who requested new sports facilities.  They sound great in theory, but less so for the residents who fear that the floodlights will be visible from their bedroom.  Or the hundreds of people who were delighted with the promise of a new cycle path, some of whom are less delighted that it would run within shouting distance of their garden.

These are all perfectly good reasons for concern.  Because the best laid plans will create many practical implications for many residents, clubs and businesses.

This is why we champion the art of listening:  openly, objectively, and constructively.  It’s why we keep chatting and consulting, doing all we can to make the changes that ensure everyone involved in the site has played its part in the final design.

The community in Stamford has asked us to adapt our plans and, wherever possible, we’ve done just that. Here are some examples:

We were asked to include more shops and amenities in the community centre we are creating as the beating heart of the new community.
We listened and adapted our plans by moving the ‘hub’ to a site bordering the existing Borderville Sports Centre.  It can now integrate a wide range of shops, amenities and sports facilities into a connected community hub.

We were asked to build on our plans for communal gardens, orchards, parks, play areas, exercise routes and an amphitheatre to create even more useable open spaces for children.
We listened and have added more, including more play spaces suitable for children and teens of all ages and needs.

We were asked to include an area specifically for allotments.
We listened and have created a dedicated space of 6,300 sqm alongside orchards and community gardens.

We were asked to invest even further in local sport.
We listened and are creating new grass pitches away from the valley (where there are few large, suitable flat services), investing in the Borderville Sports Centre and making financial contributions that the council can grant to specific groups and clubs.

This list is by no mean comprehensive.  We are currently adapting our transport plans on the back of Lincolnshire County Council’s latest traffic modelling.  We have added a number of Almshouses that we expect to be held in trust by Lord Burghley’s Hospital Charity. And we have made a number of guarantees on net gains in bio-diversity.

For many developers this would have been a step-too-far.  For us, it is just the start.  When we (hopefully) receive planning consent, we will continue to consult and listen.

This is what we believe is needed in a community-focused project. And it’s a benchmark for every place we develop.


What is a community?

.r thousands of years, communities were built around agriculture.  People settled on the land and stayed there, for generations and – in some cases – for centuries and millennia.  They worked together, worshipped together, married one another and had children who would grow up together in the same place, to do it all over again.

Villages grew into market towns; the larger towns into cities.  Industrialization brought migration, from the countryside to the pit villages and factory towns.  But in essence, the pit village was not so different from the farming or fishing village: people drank together in the pub, bought groceries in the same village shop, prayed in the same chapel, played rugby on the village pitch or cricket on the village green.  These were close communities, where the ties that bind were tight and interwoven.  Even in larger factory towns, there was soon a strong sense of place: people worked side by side, supported the same football club and took pride in their shared identity.  That strength of community could be found even in some of the suburbs of the larger cities, where villages had been subsumed by metropolitan sprawl.

And then, in a relatively short space of time, everything changed.  The primary reason for a place’s existence – farming, fishing, mining, manufacturing – ceased to exist.  Ever-greater global trade made it cheaper to import than make.  Service industries flourished.  Mass transit brought easy mobility for everyone.  Commuters increased in number and the distances they travelled grew longer.  And while people didn’t stop shopping or drinking or eating or exercising together, they did so near their workplace, which could be many miles from where they lived.  Children began to be driven to school and even to sports clubs, that were further from home than ever before.  Local shops and cinemas were usurped by out-of-town malls, leisure centres and multiplexes.

Communications technology – telephones and the internet – have, bizarrely, sealed our lives still more.  We have reached a point where many of us don’t just live at home but work there too; we socialize online, with groceries and books delivered to the door, often spending days without the need to step outside.

Within a few generations we have seen a settled pattern of community living, established over tens of thousands of years, disrupted and pulled apart.

Some read this as the death of community.  We feel that is the wrong conclusion to draw.  Our human need to feel part of a larger group remains.  It is remarkable how in so many instances we are attempting in a dispersed and virtual world to replicate the physical and real communities that seem to have been taken away.  Is it a coincidence that the average number of friends on Facebook is the same as the average size of a medieval European village?  We still value the warmth of a neighbourly chat, the sight of a friendly face in the corner of the local pub, and the support of someone who drops round supplies when we are unwell.

Although so many city-dwellers may feel disconnected, isolated and lonely, people living in established country villages and older small towns remain very much part of the community.  The local primary school, the cricket or football club, the pub, the church, the dog-friendly paths, the village store, the independent coffee shop, the craft circles and litter-picking days: these still bring people together, of all ages.  These remain places of which residents remain proud – and conscious of what they have retained.

We have spent countless hours looking for the community ‘magic’ in these places.  What is it that makes them so special, retaining their sense of place in this modern world?  We believe the answer lies in their ‘rootedness’: the sense in these places that they are so much more than a collection of houses.  These places have grown around communal spaces.  They have locally-owned shops and pubs, take pride in the state of their parks and sports facilities and create a sense of togetherness and have developed in ways that draw people together.  In fact, what is so noticeable when you look out for it, is how cities are full of houses built to maximise privacy, while villages are more open to visibility.

Ultimately, communities are about feelings, particularly a sense of belonging.  Any one of us may belong to a number of different communities, from our wider family to a political party or the fellow-supporters of the team we support.  But when it comes to feeling part of a place, there tend to be a number of common physical features that, collectively, lend themselves to that sense of belonging:

  1. they are at ease with their surroundings;
  2. they are completely connected, with homes and communal spaces easy to move between and navigate;
  3. there a number of places where people can gather – from the pub to the church, the tennis club to the coffee shop, the village hall, the seat round the tree and bench overlooking a view;
  4. from buying a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or going to the doctor – the essentials are close by; and
  5. it is easier to walk or cycle than just jump in the car.

This is not a definitive list.  However, we believe that these features are key to thriving places that people are proud to call home.  ‘Rootedness’ is, by definition, not something that can be engineered.  But by carefully preparing the ground and getting the conditions just right, we know that happy, thriving communities can establish themselves.  They simply require skill, care and love.