Friday, 8 August 2014

Placemaking, Community Projects and Citizen Participation


Maija Bergström blogs about redevelopment of the King's Cross area. This is the second part of a series of posts about King’s Cross, the new home base of the Finnish Institute in London.


In my previous blog post, I wrote about the role of history and culture in the development of places, drawing examples from King’s Cross. This post will look into a more communal way of developing places, especially the so-called placemaking approach I referred to earlier.


Regeneration in London can not be examined without acknowledging gentrification. As I explained in my previous post, it refers to the changes where inner city working-class areas start attracting middle-class people. This is followed by rising rents, which eventually force former inhabitants to move out. Gentrification takes different forms in different areas. It is connected to a certain type of aesthetics and the presence of the so-called creative class, and an altered use of old buildings. (1)

Gentrification also threatens the established communities that have formed to an area if it leads to the displacement of lower income households. Gentrification can also happen in a state-led manner, following the so-called social mixing policy that most of the European cities - including London - practice. Gentrification can be seen as a positive phenomenon, as it could mean more diverse services to the area, better public services that benefit the existing population as well. These arguments are often combined with the notion that richer mix of people would mean more contacts between them, which would eventually lead to a harmonious but lively neighbourhood. There is quite strong evidence that this is not always the case, unfortunately (2).

The so-called contact hypothesis assumes that living side by side with people from different ethnic groups or socio-economic groups leads automatically to communication between these people. However, quite the opposite might happen; the boundaries between groups can also become stronger. (3)

If we want to support the formation of communities that include different people, it is important to provide them with means to participate in decision making. Gentrification researcher Loretta Lees writes: “My feeling is that if people prefer to live with people like themselves we should not be forcing them to mix, because ultimately this will fail; rather, we should be keeping the possibility for mixing open to them. This means a refocus on urban design, disallowing fortress-style architecture and gated communities and rethinking the architecture of insecurity and fear.” (2)

The need for including people is becoming more and more important in city planning and decision making, and we need to find new tools for that. Community development refers to an approach where public authorities give communities more power over their area, and provide support and training for that.

Skip Garden
Community projects are collaborative practices where the responsibility of the main coordination is on a public authority, charity, or an organised group of citizens. They can also collaborate with businesses and other organisations. Britain has a long history of community projects, and it offers good examples that could be adapted to Finland as well.

Placemaking and community projects can be fitted together. Linda Rutherford wrote a blog post in Project for Public Spaces about placemaking: “I like to think of it as crowdsourcing meets urban and community planning”(4) and I find this comparison a very good one. Community projects could be a good way for crowdsourcing the information and know-how needed for building interesting and diverse public spaces.
There are several community projects at King’s Cross. One of the most interesting of them is the Skip Garden, a moveable organic garden built in old skips and placed next to York Way (and the Finnish Institute’s new office as well). The project is run by charity Global Generations (5) who work with young people, training them and supporting them in running ecological micro-businesses.  Their cafe provides a meeting place for local inhabitants and people working in the area. They also host several events in the garden and offer sustainability training for businesses.


Skip Garden

King’s Cross environment is a local news media that provides citizen perspectives  for emerging issues (6). A very interesting entry (7) was made recently, where they claimed that “The King’s Cross Wikipedia entry has long been controversial with authors of this site having had references deleted as they did not fit with the ‘new’ view of King’s Cross. ” There is also a concern for the name King’s Cross used only for the new area, King’s Cross Central, and thus excluding the older residential areas to periphery. This could be seen as a battle for the ownership of the area and the call for a more diverse view to the area.

There are several cultural institutions and interesting businesses located in King’s Cross that could spread their know-how wider at the area, such as the British Library, Guardian newspaper headquarters and King’s Cross impact hub that promotes social entrepreneurship. Google is also building their new office to King’s Cross. There is a really dense and diverse knowledge capital in the area, which takes the form of organisations and companies of very different scale and forms a so-called “knowledge quarter”(8).

King’s Cross has a prime opportunity to make use of the innovative organisations, businesses and local community that exists and is developing in the area. The area’s developer, Argent,  is paying attention to this and supporting local projects in many ways, which I find very encouraging. Finding ways to engage the local community to participate in the development of the area is of the utmost importance, and finding the right tools for this is essential. Community projects like local media and gardens can bring diverse groups together and make them pay attention to their neighbourhood.

Laura Sillanpää wrote a report on participatory budgeting in the UK.  “The clearest benefits include improved service delivery through contributing to the variety of service delivery and especially receiving information about communities and its needs.” (9)  Participatory budgeting could offer another tool for the local people to have an impact on the development of King’s Cross.

Other community projects can have similar benefits for the community too, as those listed by Sillanpää. In my next blog post, I’ll be looking at the benefits perceived by the people involved in the community projects at King’s Cross.


(1) TC Chang. ‘New uses need old buildings’: Gentrification aesthetics and the arts in Singapore Urban Studies 0042098014527482, first published on March 18, 2014 doi:10.1177/0042098014527482

(2) Loretta Lees. Gentrification and Social Mixing: Towards an Inclusive Urban Renaissance? Urban Studies November 2008 45: 2449-2470, doi:10.1177/0042098008097099

(3) Valentine, G. (2008) Living with difference: reflections on geographic of encounter, Progress in Human Geography, 32(3), pp. 323-337.

(4) Linda Rutherford in Project for Public Spaces. Why public places are the key to transforming our communities. http://www.pps.org/blog/why-public-places-are-the-key-to-transforming-our-communities/

(5) Global Generations
http://www.globalgeneration.org.uk/

(6) King’s Cross environment

(7) King’s Cross environment blog post:

(8) Ian Burrell wrote about Googles UK headquarters 3 November 2013. Unfortunately not much information about Knowledge quarter is to be found online  yet. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/media-studies-google-hopes-to-wow-us-with-a-new-hq-but-it-may-take-more-than-that-8919820.html

(9) Laura Sillanpää 2013, Deliberating Service Delivery. Survey on the outcomes and challenges of
participatory budgeting in the UK.