by Calum Green, CEO of London Community Land Trust

St Clements, Mile End: 23 of the 252 homes on the site are owned by London CLT. Image: Linden Homes.

When a crisis occurs, the window for what is politically possible widens. As we reflect on how we got here, and think hard about where we want to get back to, a sense of opportunity to change things for the better is in the air. But, it will often dissipate quickly and without warning.

Given the tragedy involved in this highly unpredictable crisis, we have an obligation to take advantage of any silver lining that might exist. We must look at all options for a better future.

And yet, we should not fall into the trap of thinking this future is either predictable, or that it will necessarily reinforce whatever beliefs we already have. The window for what is possible also widens for those we disagree with. Few predicted that the 2008 financial crisis would contribute to a rise in authoritarian ideas across Europe and the USA.

We are at a critical juncture, where things that previously seemed impossible are now openly considered (see a traditional fiscally conservative Government offering to pay 80% of [some] people’s wages). And yet, predicting the outcome of this crisis is a waste if time, and efforts to do so will often be based on reinforcing our existing beliefs, not a frank assessment of where things could go.

So, given that complexity renders predictions a fool’s errand, what does that mean for those who want to change the way we do things? I find myself in rare agreement with Milton Friedman, ‘when [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.’

Here is one idea that is lying around…

Building relationships as well as homes.

Many people have commented on how communities have organised themselves through the crisis. This should not be news to those working in the built environment sector — it has long been clear that understanding how people build relationships in a place is integral to the success of any new and existing neighbourhood (see anything by Michael Young). The crisis has simply brought the importance of building for and nurturing relationships to light.

Research by the Quality of Life Foundation highlights that there is a stronger need than ever to invest in and support the building of these relationships. Their national poll shows that people across the country agree — a great place is made by the people who live there.

Building this concept into every project is integral to our work at London Community Land Trust. It adds value to a development in ways that cannot always be seen but can always be felt. In addition to providing genuinely and permanently affordable homes, we include clear, democratic structures around governance, ownership and management of places that mean decisions are made collectively. This is not always easy, but doing so builds relationships with neighbours in a way that is important if places are to truly flourish.

These relationships also lead to small, seemingly insignificant implications for life. Just days after moving in, a resident dropped their debit card outside St Clement’s , London CLT’s first project, and a neighbour returned it to them within hours because they already knew who they were. Such interactions can restore some faith in humanity and hope in the ability of a community to care for you.

Unfortunately, across many developments in the UK, this is something that volume housebuilders simply don’t do. They have not learnt the lessons that Michael Young brought to light over 60 years ago.

That relationships matter, and that buildings new places with and for people can help build those relationships, is an idea that is lying around. I will be doing all I can to ensure that others pick it up.

Twitter: @CalumDGreen, www.londonclt.org

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