Developing and delivering a cohesive community
Effective engagement with residents throughout all the stages of a development will help practitioners to create neighbourhoods that meets residents' needs. It will also help to catalyse the creation of an environment where local people understand how they can get involved in community life and will feel welcome to do so.
For some, involvement will mean taking part in decision making for their area, for others this involvement may focus on leisure activities, local clubs or their children's school. Irrespective of the path residents may choose it is vital that all individuals in a community have:
- opportunities to meet other local people - through information about activities and events
- equal opportunities for involvement
- feel welcome when they do wish to take part.
Research into community cohesion in the UK found that many communities are extremely polarised. Though this rarely leads to violence it feeds a situation where prejudices and suspicions about other groups living nearby are left unchecked. This is not simply an issue of polarisation between people of different ethnic background; it also affects local populations in other ways, including suspicion between people of different housing tenure and people from different age groups.
Where new settlements are created, this already complex issue may be compounded by resentment or misunderstanding between people living in neighbouring existing communities and new residents. Many people living near areas identified for new housing have expressed very real concerns that the development might affect the value of their homes, or might lead to local infrastructure being overwhelmed. Cohesive communities will need to include people from all backgrounds in new communities and those living near them.
Cohesive communities are characterised by:
- a respect for diversity
- a common community identity and sense of belonging to the area for all residents
- similar opportunities for all residents
- positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in local schools, workplaces and across the neighbourhood.
Some of these elements will develop organically at a personal level between residents; however practitioners also have a role in facilitating this process. An effective method to achieve this will be to ensure that certain elements of infrastructure, such as schools and community centres are in place at an early stage in the life of the community to offer new residents opportunities to meet each other. Information about local facilities and events should be circulated to all new residents.
Where new communities are built alongside or near to already existing areas it is important that the two groups have an opportunity to mix. This might be because the new area has a school or different kinds of shops that the existing residents will want to make use of. Developers and their partners building new housing next to the Dings in Bristol used this approach at street level, by ensuring that the postbox for the area was included in the remodelled streetscape for the existing housing, giving new residents a reason to walk through the existing streets. Where new housing is developed in areas of high housing demand, providing local people, particularly young people, with opportunities to access their first privately-owned home will help demonstrate the value of the new development to existing residents.
As the life of the new community begins to take shape it will be important for there to be a practitioner or team of practitioners who will be able to monitor how interactions in the community are developing. This might be role for a neighbourhood manager, community development worker or a stewardship organisation. They will need to ensure that where new residents' associations and community groups are forming, their work is not becoming isolated in silos. This was a concern felt by the neighbourhood manager in Limehouse, an area with a great deal of community activity but where community groups representing social housing areas and adjacent owner-occupied areas had limited contact with each other. Designing events or activities such as festivals or school-based projects can be potentially engage residents from a variety of backgrounds to work collaboratively. Though one project will not solve the problem, this type of intervention may prove to be a turning point towards building a more cohesive community.