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A city of communities?

Published in The Future of London collection of essays September 2016

Please do not link here: extracted from pdf for easy reference

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

How should we think about London’s current strengths and weaknesses and its many possible futures? Some will emphasise economic dynamism, arguing that without growth nothing else is possible; others will focus on social justice, asserting that only a fair city is a great city; a third voice might shout out for the environment, urging a focus on the quality of the public realm and the long term sustainability of an international city on a warming planet. Could the ideal of a city of communities offer another, perhaps more unifying, lens through which to peer at our city in 2016 and its potential in 2050?

A successful modern urban community is a diverse group of people whose norms, bonds and resources enable them to act together in pursuit of common goals. Communities can be built on many foundations; shared values, experiences or interests but, as this is a collection about a geographical concept - the city - I will focus on place.

There is a subjective and an objective case for strong place-based communities. On the one hand, people say they prefer to live in areas with a sense of community (although this is only one of many factors in the equation). On the other hand, there is evidence of the benign effects of community cohesion on outcomes including individual mental health and collective resilience. In his seminal studies of Chicago communities, Professor Robert J Sampson found an enduring ‘neighbourhood effect’ which led to better social outcomes in more civically-active localities than others with a similar socio-economic profile. Research by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) shows social connectedness to be crucial to the economic prospects and well-being of disadvantaged people.

Changes in the City

The recent history and current record of London as a city of geographical communities is complex and chequered. Ever since Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s classic 1957 study Family and Kinship in East London there has been a powerful narrative that slum clearance and modern estate development in the post war era damaged traditional communities irreparably.

But a later study from the University of York suggests the picture was mixed with most resettled residents feeling able to maintain social networks and enjoying the benefits of modern accommodation and facilities. In the late twentieth century, housing policy and public architecture took the rap for social problems more rooted in changes in the economy and family.

Another account of lost community focusses on London’s changing population. It is certainly the case that waves of mass migration have disrupted existing communities and sometimes led to tensions, and a sense of loss among long-standing locals. One researcher into London’s poor recently told me that the phrase “there’s been a lot of change round here” has replaced ‘I’m not racist but…’ as the preface to people bemoaning greater diversity.

Yet, as a whole, modern Londoners are more at ease with mixed communities than citizens of any other part of Britain. Our most attractive and popular neighbourhoods exemplify what sociologist Susanne Wessendorf has described - referring specifically to Hackney - as “commonplace diversity”.

For London communities this can feel like the best and the worst of times. Gentrification both make places less socially inclusive while also spawning a micro-culture of local food, independent shops and social enterprises. London’s attractiveness increases housing density and makes community businesses and activities more viable, but London as a magnet for absentee global investment has turned West End neighbourhoods into weekend ghost towns. The best developments, like Kings Cross, create a very modern sense of mixed use community, the worst have bleak shared space and use separate entrances for the poor. At times national and London policy seems to have had greater social segregation as its implicit goal.

“Gentrification both make places less socially inclusive while also spawning a micro-culture of local food, independent shops and social enterprises”

Engineering integration

In 2014 the independent Social Integration Commission, which I chaired, compared levels of integration by class, age and ethnicity with the local population mix (obviously, a resident of Tower Hamlets would be expected to have more diverse networks than a Cornish villager). Which city came out as furthest behind the expected levels of integration? Step forward, with head bowed, London. It was a surprise: because the city’s population is so diverse we wrongly assume people’s social networks will be too. Integration doesn’t happen naturally as an accident of proximity, it is something we have to work at, including permitting a degree of social engineering.

So, among all the commendable aspirations for London 2050 and beyond contained in this essay collection, let me raise the banner for a London of diverse, cohesive and active local communities.

This would be a 2050 London that not only functioned at multiple geographical levels – global, European, national, city, locality and neighbourhood – but which exploited the synergies between those levels. Every community would have a story about how its own internal social capital makes it stronger, more resilient and creative but also how it is a doorway to the world with street neighbours helping each other reach out to both geographical and non-geographical networks of people around the world.

“Because the city’s population is so diverse we wrongly assume people’s social networks will be too. Integration doesn’t happen naturally as an accident of proximity, it is something we have to work at”

These local communities would have strong cores but also be porous, finding creative ways of making even short-term visitors feel immediately at home and connected (something that can become an inherent part of platforms like Airbnb) and maintaining links to a neighbourhood diaspora around the world (think of a Facebook page for former residents of the Tooting Bec who now live in Lagos).

Other writers in this collection have talked about the importance of stronger governance with more power at city level but we will also see new models at the locality and neighbourhood level. As public spending continues to be inadequate to meet public need we will see more explicit social contracts between places and councils through which citizens commit to certain forms of behaviour, engagement and collective action as part of the deal for receiving service levels; existing schemes like Lambeth’s volunteer snow sweepers point the way to a more general blurring of the boundary between state and civic action.

Similarly, we should hope to see more imaginative solutions to our housing crisis and the funding of community facilities through development trust and sharing economy models through which citizens own a stake in local assets.

As the strength of community become an ever more important factor in determining the quality of people lives enlightened politicians and officials will move from promising to solve people’s problems to understanding how best to enable people and to act together themselves. Economic necessity can help create a more participative democratic culture.


The London of communities 2050 will evolve naturally but there are things we can do to help it and also to stand in its way. To build the city we want in 30 years we need to start taking community more seriously today. Whether it is transport infrastructure or local planning, the provision of public services, local tax raising or forms of governance seeing strong communities as cause and effect of social progress is the surest way to a London that works for anyone who wants to call themselves a Londoner.

Matthew Taylor is the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts. He was previously director of the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, and was head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair’s premiership.

nc/mtfuture.txt · Last modified: 2017/05/18 10:35 (external edit)