How placemakers can spur social integration, by Chris Brown

Gentrification and social integration are big challenges for placemakers.

Earlier this year, the charity-backed Social Integration Commission showed how, even as society is becoming more diverse, people are mixing with fewer people who are different from them in age, ethnicity, income and background. This matters. Social segregation harms employment, health and wellbeing. Having more friends increases the chances of an unemployed person finding a job, because 40 per cent of jobs are found by word of mouth.

This segregation works in two main ways. Most of us tend to choose to live in ghettos with other people like us. Even in cities, where different people live close together, we inhabit different worlds. We might pass in the street, but we eat and work in different places, and our friendship groups are made up of other people like us from outside our neighbourhood.

As organised groups decline in number and membership, our opportunities to meet people from our neighbourhoods who are different from us decline.

So what can placemakers do? The standard starting point is to create mixed-tenure places. This is meant to be a proxy for building mixed-income communities, and therefore the potential for mixed age, ethnicity and background. If this is done well, and there are appropriate school admissions policies, substantial integration will occur. In high-value areas, though, it leads to the rich and poor being segregated by poor doors, and state and private schools do the rest.

In the rest of the country, mixed tenure can be hard to achieve, as the subsidy system for social rented housing tends to ghettoise by its tendency to pursue the lowest possible grant rates through developing on low-value land in low-income areas. But we can pepperpot tenures, even create high streets and neighbourhoods that we as landlords curate to give facilities that serve all sections of the population and provide places for meeting.

All of this is necessary but not sufficient. To secure the benefits of community integration, we have to deliver the software as well as the hardware. Approaches like this are often disparaged as social engineering, but it is clear that markets fail badly to create social value. Yet government regulation fails too, so intervention needs to be minimal and carefully designed.

The core of the software is community-based groups. Whether prenatal classes, mother and toddler groups, sports clubs, friends of the park, residents' associations, neighbourhood forums or whatever, they provide the integration. These groups create relationships and help to connect people to people with the power to change things in the neighbourhood.

As placemakers, we can provide the conditions for these to form and grow. We can provide the spaces and facilities, recruit the founders, fund the set-up costs and provide ongoing resources through community funds.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of developer Igloo Regeneration.


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