Imagine you received a flyer in the post that tells you your neighbourhood is about to undergo regeneration. What is your first reaction? A sense of unease? Excitement perhaps? Most of us would probably feel a bit anxious even if our home wasn’t directly impacted.
It is entirely natural to feel uneasy about seeing your neighbourhood change, especially if you feel shut out from the process. Reluctance and unease often stems from a fear of the unknown and a process that underestimates and disregards people’s connection to the place they live.
Regeneration can cause distress for tenants, even if it’s welcomed, but it doesn’t have to if processes built on empathy, accountability and patience are created.
In 1974 Yu-Fi Tuan brought the poetic notion of topophilia into the field of human geography – ‘topo’ meaning place and ‘philia’, love of. It sought to explore the emotional link between person and place.
The term was also further unpicked in the field of environmental psychology, which proposes that most of us feel an innate attachment to a place. This attachment is built on the notions of identity and familiarity. It’s a cognitive knowledge of place anchored in a sense of history. Any threat to this subconscious map, or to any attachment to it that we may hold, brings anxiety.
“We accept the collapse of the fabrics of our old churches, the thieving of lead and objects from them, the commandeering and butchery of our scenery by the services, the despoiling of landscaped parks and the abandonment to a fate worse than the workhouse of our country houses, because we are convinced we must save money.”
– John Betjeman, First and Last Loves (1952). A poet and architecture enthusiast, passionate about places and people, Betjeman was instrumental in saving St Pancras station from demolition in the 1960s.
So, when a place is up for regeneration, it’s important to keep in mind this innate attachment people may feel. While as outsiders we may not understand what there is to love about a building or area that we consider to be run down and in need of improvements, attachment is entirely subjective. It’s not rooted in any sense of “beauty” or architectural appreciation, but of familiarity; it’s rooted in the routes we choose, the markers that tell us where we are and our social history. It makes up a part of our identity and it connects to our sense of security.
The ability to navigate and feel secure in the places we inhabit is strongly connected to health. Feeling lost tends to generate anxiety and insecurity; particularly within older generations, whose memories may no longer be what they once were. Living in an insecure tenancy is another source of anxiety, one that warrants a whole other article in itself. In a city like London, which is constantly undergoing rapid change, understanding the impact of regeneration on people’s mental health and the reactions it may trigger could help us create processes that alleviate this stress.
Community engagement – that is empowering and collaborative – is one method of minimising the potential mental health implications of regenerating an estate or area. A study by Glasgow University (2016) found that “higher levels of empowerment reported higher levels of mental health and well-being” in regeneration schemes and concludes that there is a “compelling argument for paying more attention” to this space. In a time when communities are experiencing rapid change in their environs and their familiarity of place may be eroding, their role in place-making is crucial. Engagement provides a platform from which people can be actively involved in the process.
The value of engagement lies in the relationships formed where trust can grow; trust in people, processes and organisations. Within this space, empowered collaboration can happen and that’s when attachment to place can be restored, place identity can evolve, and familiarity can be retained. If communities are mainly seen as a risk or constraint to achieving housing targets, then we can’t have meaningful engagement processes.
Regeneration projects must embrace collaboration and co-production methods if we want to address the underlying fear and anxiety that the start of the process can subject residents to. Between viability, numbers and targets the conversation is often dehumanised and objectors vilified as ‘usual suspects’ or nimbyists. That’s simply not the whole picture. Because the process – or lack thereof – influences people's willingness and ability to engage, so it’s vital to put in the time and effort. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it has impacts on people’s health.
There is a general, and sometimes justified, lack of trust in the engagement process and a growing resistance of the marketisation of social housing estates in London. In the context of recent high-profile regeneration precedents in London it’s fairly understandable. It serves to be said that there are many practitioners are passionate about involving communities, but the system is currently not set up to fully allow the time and energy it takes to really engage residents and be accountable to the outcomes. If we are going to re-establish faith in the system, which we should, every scheme matters, big or small. Understanding that process is key; numbers aren’t everything and the end does not justify the means. From this position we can build the homes London needs with minimal impact on the health and social fabric of existing communities.
Madeleine Lundholm is a London-based writer with a base in human rights studies and sustainable development and an MSc in Urban Strategies & Design.