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Does architecture care for communities?

By Nadine Patel

On Friday 25th June, tp bennett and Impact Dance hosted a discussion to explore the London Festival of Architecture’s 2021 theme of ‘care’ and the impact architecture has on communities.

Rather than taking the format of a webinar or panel discussion where “experts” speak to passive audience members, a temporary WhatsApp group was set up to encourage all participants to engage either through text, images, and voice notes. This democratic WhatsApp group provided a forum for a multitude of voices, to share diverse perspectives and points of view on the theme and resulted in an absorbing hour with participants passionately going back and forth exploring certain topics.

The conversation was kicked off with Impact Dance sharing the issues that the young people they work with had expressed to them, which included the frustrations they have regarding the lack of free spaces available to them and how overlooked and neglected they feel when it comes to the politics of accessing public spaces. This led to an engaging session where gentrification and the perceived lack of sensitivity from developers regarding local community needs becoming a strong, recognisable issue recognised by all the WhatsApp participants, who turned out to be very international, with people texting in from London, Italy, Malaysia, and Tunisia.

There was a resounding sense amongst the participants that architects and developers are the ‘bad guys’ in this debate, and that they are more focused on profit than providing a local ‘service’. It was welcomed therefore, to hear from some of the architects in the group who acknowledged the need for them to “ensure ongoing access and control of the public realm” and that it is their responsibility to actively right this growing problematic trend.

Screenshot from WhatsApp group

The discussion also touched upon the lack of safe spaces for young people following the UK’s disastrous cuts to youth services and youth centres. Impact Dance shared their own experience of recently opening a studio space and the consideration they took in ensuring it was ‘postcode neutral’ i.e. based in Bloomsbury where young people don’t have to feel anxious about their safety when walking to and from the building. They also spoke about the attention they had given to ensuring the space was not perceived as just being a place to dance but a welcoming environment where young people can feel comfortable to just drop in and spend time.

The discussion also honed down on how creatives, and those specifically working in Hip-Hop are particularly targeted as their culture often ‘scares’ authorities who align it to criminality. We have seen evidence of this from New York to Milan, where Hip-Hop dancers, rappers etc are no longer allowed to congregate in public spaces, which is incredibly problematic since performing in the street, in public spaces is so fundamental to the culture’s spirit.

Screenshot from WhatsApp group

The group didn’t just focus on the negatives though – there was a clear, collective desire to take ownership and control of the situation, for communities and architects alike to feel empowered and to explore further opportunities, where private businesses can partner with local enterprises and positively ‘give back’……as one participant suggested “for architects to be more conscious of the places they design and to be honest about how welcoming it is by showing some humility and flexibility in the design of public spaces and allowing people to just be people and behave as they are!”

Screenshot from WhatsApp group

With the Covid pandemic inadvertently providing an opportunity to fix some of the issues raised, with working patterns and locations fundamentally being altered as an increasing number of people want the flexibility of home working, participants wondered what will happen to all those office spaces? And can we collectively re-think and reclaim these spaces and who has access to them?