What can Seoul teach the UK about community engagement?

Seoul Sky Garden. Image: Keneckert/Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year saw the opening of Seoullo 7017. Seoul’s version of New York City’s high line is a 1970s elevated section of highway converted, by Dutch practice MVRDV, into a “Skygarden”: a pedestrianised walkway and garden, almost a kilometre long, landscaped with a wide variety of Korean plant species and illuminated at night.

The new landmark illustrates Seoul’s confidence as an emerging world city, a status first indicated by its hosting of the Olympic Games in 1988 and its hosting of matches during the 2002 World Cup. It is now considered the World’s most “wired city” and is also gaining a cultural prominence – something indicated by K-pop’s global success and other landmark buildings like Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which provides a modern counterpoint to several UNESCO World Heritage sites across the city.

The city is also facing several challenges. Like London and many other Western cities, Seoul is struggling with the growth of pronounced wealth inequality and a generational divide when it comes to accessing housing. It is afflicted by poor air quality, has an ageing population and growing mental health problems, affecting young people in particular. Since 2011, under Mayor Park Woon-son’s agenda, the city government has been looking to redress the balance in the city, through the encouragement of new social infrastructure and more direct forms of democracy. The byword for this work in Seoul is “revitalisation” rather than “reconstruction”, as place-making initiatives have taken precedence from building work.

An important programme in the city has been the conversion of 424 redundant local administrative offices for resident-led neighbourhood uses such as libraries, small theatres, concert halls and cafes. The success of this work will depend on the Ccty’s ability to engage and activate more residents, encouraging collaborative approaches to running local services and managing community spaces. This will help meet the mayor’s desire to develop the city’s social infrastructure, representing a switch in approach to managing the city, which had previously been focused on stimulating fast economic growth.

My social enterprise Social Life was invited – alongside Locality, the national network of community-led organisations – by the Seoul metropolitan government to share the UK experience of working with communities and, specifically, the mechanisms used help them play a more active role in their neighbourhoods. We visited two neighbourhoods in the city, Mapo and Mok 2 Dong, and heard from residents and small organisations working to improve their neighbourhoods.

In Mapo, on the western side of the city, running north of the Han River, we visited a site near the Olympic Stadium: a formerly disused oil storage facility, with six large oil tanks, converted into a new culture park used to promote eco enterprises and culture. We spoke to local residents’ who had been squatting on the site for live-work use. Residents had set up social and creative enterprises in shipping containers on the site, providing a range of services including affordable health, a flea market, a culture and arts festivals and eco-education. The city government’s first response was to seek to remove these illicit uses – but a change in heart saw it not only embracing these activities, but seeking to work with the residents on the design of the wider park.

Mok 2 Dong village. Image: author provided.

Mok 2 Dong is a “maul” (village) in the Yangcheon District, again on the western side of the city but south of the Han River. It is an area of high-rise housing, including Hyperion Tower, one of the world’s tallest residential buildings – but we visited a lower rise section with street-level shops and cafes.

At a community café, we heard from Plus-minus 1°C, a social venture run by young villagers, which has led to the community cafe, as well as a village school, a housing co-op, and an annual town festival. The speed of this work and the energy and determination of the young people in making things happen in their neighbourhood was impressive.


As part of our visit, we also spoke with a number of intermediary organisations, including research organisations, think tanks, sector specialists and neighbourhood support bodies. We heard about some of the issues they face when working with communities: difficulties in opening a dialogue with residents, encouraging residents to speak openly, reaching beyond the louder/stronger voices, and the perception that, as intermediaries, they were not seen as independent enough from government. Some familiar themes, but also some marked differences, from our experiences in the UK.

We sensed the impatience from the city government to usher in this new resident-led approach to the city’s revitalisation. Mayor Park Won-soon had previously spent time in the UK to collect ideas for his political project (both prior to and since becoming mayor), and he was impressed by the role of civil society in supporting the place-making process in cities like London.  However, we offered a note of caution about the UK experience: the difficult message that community development was a slow and meandering process. We also emphasised that, for residents to form autonomous and lasting organisations serving their neighbourhoods, perhaps the best approach for local government is to step away and allow this process to occur naturally.

Social Life is a social enterprise, created by the Young Foundation in 2012, to become a specialist centre of research and innovation about the social life of communities. All our work is about the relationship between people and places.  

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.