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.  

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

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

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL