Can Social Enterprise Create Better Cities?

During this year’s Ecobuild event in London, a panel of professionals were tasked with discussing ‘the potential of social enterprise and community leadership to enhance the design, delivery and management of better places’. Chaired by Diane Hartley of the social enterprise Mend, and featuring contributions from Suzanne Wolfe and Babu Bhattacherjee from Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (HARCA) and Ian Rathbone from Hackney Borough Council, three clear themes emerged from the discussion.

1. Community Talent is Underused

All agreed that underused community talent is a problem in London. Despite community projects and numerous organisations encouraging engagement, only a small portion of urban residents have affiliations with any community organisation. Age, gender, income, and length of time as a resident were acknowledged as contributing factors to this lack of engagement.

Yet despite possible isolation, there are many reasons for individuals to get involved in community-led urban regeneration projects, with Bhattacherjee reasoning:

They do it for themselves and their families They are looking after the things they care most about. They then extend that to looking at the wider community and thinking about [how] they can make a collective difference, and they’re thinking about the future, the generations to come. And also, they are paying us rent to deliver these services, so there is a vested interest in making sure their money is spent properly.

For non-profit and non-governmental organisations, interacting with communities and making use of local talents is frequently an integral part of their working methods. The private sector, however, is motivated by different goals, and received criticism for contributing towards the underuse of community talent during the Ecobuild discussion.

2. Communities can become agents of change

In line with the topic of the seminar, each speaker presented examples of community-led projects revitalising local areas, however, the approach taken by governments when attempting to engage with local communities was criticised for being overly negative, focussing on an area’s perceived needs rather than the skills and social capital available.

The current economic climate was presented as a positive for community engagement, with speakers claiming new urban regeneration opportunities have arisen as a result. Economic problems were also accredited with encouraging residents to engage more positively in local activities.

3. The importance of collaborating with communities

It was agreed that maintaining functional dynamics between community stakeholders is vital when encouraging long-term engagement. Collaboration between councils, residents and private organisations was considered integral to the success of community events, with each stakeholder capable of contributing to a project’s success or failure.

Undertaken correctly, these collaborations can produce strong networks with the power to shape cities, leading to additional benefits for the individuals and organisations involved. It was noted that as more stakeholders become involved, a wider variety of resources, skills and ideas become available.

The future of social enterprise

There is value in community projects for both government and private organisations. However, with budgets stretched it is likely that local government will encourage communities to maintain themselves as a cost cutting tool. Communities are going to have to make the conscious choice to initiate and maintain urban regeneration projects, and with a majority of urban residents currently not involved in any community groups, community-led urban regeneration could remain an approach only a minority choose to be involved in.

Image courtesy of Birthright Armenia on flickr

  • Peter Barrington

    Maybe 1% of a community get involved in any project.  And it’s difficult to get volunteers because those who might help are already busy with other groups.

  • Peter Barrington

    Maybe 1% of a community get involved in any project.  And it’s difficult to get volunteers because those who might help are already busy with other groups.

  • Peter Barrington

    Maybe 1% of a community get involved in any project.  And it’s difficult to get volunteers because those who might help are already busy with other groups.

  • Imogen Humphris

    It is good to know that recognition of the collective power of communities is growing. How we foster it, however, is complex indeed. Recently I’ve been finding very informal projects that often arise from chaotic, messy and even ‘undesirable’ processes but none the less have created intended or unintended positive change in their local areas. The reality is that people led change does not always present itself in ways that are orderly and well dressed. I think it’s desperately important that we begin to expand our view here. In order to facilitate change we need to be able to acknowledge and respond to phenomena that have meaning to the people at the grass roots rather than simply our own agenda. Particularly with issues of youth, enabling individuals to simply hold a stake and find their own role in the public realm can have catalytic effect.