ULI UK Sustainability Council: Can a major event be the catalyst for a more cohesive community?

A diverse audience of 45 ULI UK members gathered in the Grosvenor office on Thursday 23rd January for a fascinating and wide-ranging debate on how to achieve event-led social cohesion and change.

Convened by Kate Brown, Group Director for Sustainability at Grosvenor, this event was the first formal activity of the new ULI UK Sustainability Council, which she will chair, and set a high bar for challenging and constructive debate. Participants shared their experience from a broad range of professional backgrounds, from social enterprise and community regeneration to development and fund management. The dynamic group discussion that followed the panel presentations reflected the value of ULI’s multidisciplinary membership, particularly when approaching such nebulous topics as sustainability and social cohesion.

Through the lens of the 2011 riots in Tottenham and the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, the experienced panel of speakers outlined their individual experiences of these events as catalysts for extensive change within communities.

Malcolm Smith, Global Masterplanning and Urban Design Leader at Arup, opened the meeting with a thought-provoking presentation about human responses to large-scale events, stating his view that: “the sense of collective created by major events, whether tragic (9/11) or joyful (London 2012) can generate real change.”

Malcolm also highlighted the narrow “political windows for action” and how too often the opportunities created by large-scale events, whether good or bad, could be missed if good systems of communication, leadership and delivery weren’t quickly established.

Sir Stuart Lipton, Deputy Chairman of Chelsfield and Co-Founder of Lipton Rogers gave a fascinating insight into his work leading the Independent Panel on Tottenham for the Mayor of London in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. Sir Stuart explained his shock at seeing a once vibrant community, so isolated and forgotten: “as though suffocated by layers and layers of sand until they had virtually disappeared.”

Sir Stuart expressed great frustration at the decades of poor governance and lack of investment that had created such a negative environment, where jobs had vanished and criminal gangs thrived on sink estates that the police had feared to enter. However, he also highlighted the inspirational work carried out by “entirely unsung local heroes”; through local churches, small charities and social enterprises, proving that even in deeply challenged places there are leaders who can deliver impactful improvements.

In fact, despite his reservations over delays in broader government responses, Sir Stuart believed that the riot had catalyzed long-overdue action and that Tottenham was undergoing a major revival. He highlighted local schools now achieving OFSTED ‘outstanding; £500million promised from the Treasury by way of guarantees for housing; and planning consents being granted again as evidence of this resurgence. Sir Stuart concluded his presentation with an ebullient sales pitch to the developers and investors in the room for Tottenham as a “great place to invest with phenomenal transport links and low land costs!”

Paul Brickell, Executive Director of Regeneration and Community Partnerships at the London Legacy Development Corporation, then spoke about the many layers of community and local government activity that had gone on for years behind the scenes East London and the Lower Lea Valley.

He cautioned against attributing too much direct impact to large events alone, stating that: “London 2012 didn’t start the regeneration of Stratford in itself but it was a critical catalyst for accelerating regeneration at a difficult time. The process and vision had been set up decades beforehand.”

He underlined the importance of this preparation so that when the Olympic bid opportunity arose, both the community and the local government was ready and willing to go for it, “knowing what power they’d have to give up – but also what long-term benefits they could get out of doing so!”

Sir Stuart endorsed this, saying: “The defining aspect (in these situations) is leadership. Those who recognized the Olympic opportunity made something of it. Those who avoided tackling difficult situations in Tottenham – and are doing so now in many other places – are creating the conditions for yet another riot through their avoidance of change.”

The panel all agreed that communities should not assume that a major event was required to achieve this kind of regenerative impact in their own places. They identified strong leadership, communication, deep community engagement and a concerted effort to generate local ambition as some of the critical factors to achieving improved social cohesion and successful change. Paul stated that: “The dreams that a community has about its future are critical – people don’t all have to agree (and rarely will) but you need that traction to generate a vision that will enable a place to have a story to tell.”

The panel highlighted Brixton, as an area once synonymous with trouble after its own extensive riot in 1981, but where the 2011 riots did not spread, proving that the community had come together and learned some difficult lessons. This prompted Malcolm to quote one Tottenham resident who said: “We don’t want to be known for the riots but for how we responded to them.”

Participants took the opportunity to ask the panel a range of challenging questions – from the feasibility of creating community consensus in Asia’s evolving mega-cities to delivering truly sustainable and community-led development in both Bristol and Hackney! There were also questions on sustainability of financing for regeneration and a spirited debate on devolution.

Malcolm Smith summed up the evening’s discussion by endorsing Sir Stuart’s earlier emphasis on the importance of a place for people to have fun: “Sustainability is achieved when you create places that people want to be and can afford to be in!” Given the passion and ideas generated in the room it is clear that the new UK Sustainability Council members will be keen to influence that positive placemaking across the UK through 2014 and beyond.

If you’re interested in joining the new UK Sustainability Council please contact the ULI UK team for more information. UK Coordinator Tara O’Mahoney E:Tara.O’Mahoney@internosglobal.com