How your neighbourhood’s regeneration can impact your mental health

A residential tower block in an area of Southwark, London. Image: Getty

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.

A statue of John Bejeman in London’s St Pancras station. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.