Engage or destroy?

How much say do residents really have in their neighbourhood’s destiny? Katy Hawkins of the Academy of Urbanism examines how a Clapton consultation process was turned on its head, and whether this could inspire future attempts

Possessing character in abundance, the Tram Depot in Upper Clapton, a Victorian relic and formerly a home to artists’ studios and workshop spaces, was sold to the developers Upper Clapton Ltd in 2014. The sale caused contention in the local community after it was revealed that the developers sought to demolish most of the building.

As with many consultation processes, the first attempt for the Tram Depot was deemed a “box-ticking” exercise that did not reflect the attitude of the local community – reminiscent of the pedestrianisation of Narrow Way earlier in 2014, that drew much criticism from local businesses on the street.

An alternative approach

To address the issue, the developers employed Clapton-based community engagement specialists Mapify to organise a consultation, and gather and collate the opinions of the local community as to what the redevelopment should look like.

Alex Pielak, Co-Founder of Mapify, explained to us that their goal was to facilitate a democratic consultation process, to enable a more open and honest dialogue to take place.

Not only did Mapify host the typical consultation meetings and workshops you would expect, posters went up around Clapton asking residents to submit comments on their website, effectively utilising digital technology in the engagement processes.

Crucially, the website challenged the oft-cited issue that, when consultation comes around, most people do not have the time or availability to attend meetings – especially when priorities such as work or family responsibilities dictate. Mapify’s accessible platform allowed residents to share views and join the debate by becoming part of the virtual dialogue.

“Regeneration and development are incredible opportunities to build community pride, but it has to mean the community as a whole; not just some.”
Tilley Harris, Co-Founder of Mapify

Alongside a rigorous advertising campaign in the physical and online spheres, Mapify also visited local businesses. “It was great to speak to people working in the area,” Alex explained. “The Tram Depot is a Priority Employment Area, so we really wanted to engage with Clapton businesses, find out their struggles, what they needed and what was lacking in the area. This was a great opportunity to establish the Tram Depot as a space for Hackney homegrown businesses, rather than letting it become a collection of blank properties for the likes of Starbucks and Tesco to move in to.”

Overall, Mapify reported that through their engagement with the area, their immersive outreach approach enabled them to establish crucial relationships with active community members and key spokespeople in a way that many consultations are not able to achieve.

Open invitation

Mapify worked hard to create a more inclusive consultation process. “We spoke to a wide range of people from the community and encouraged them to attend and take part in the consultation, but from those that opted to provide us with demographic information it was mainly white 30 to 44 year olds,” Alex told us. “Surprisingly, there was an even spread of household yearly income – from below £15,000 to above £100,000.”

Despite improvements such as these, it is still only a minority that engage. Statistically speaking, it’s white middle-class retired citizens (who have the luxury of time to commit) that tend to be involved in local decision-making processes such as these.

The remainder find themselves branded apathetic, when in fact it would be more accurate to say there is widespread scepticism that their views will be listened to and heeded. Indeed, however meaningful the process between those facilitating the consultation and the community, you can never guarantee that developers will listen and respond to the results. Alex asked: “When we live in a society where it seems that money and big business always wins, why would you feel that your view would be noticed – let alone taken into consideration?”

With each new overhaul of the neighbourhood imploring residents to “have your say”, questions linger. Where do the ideas go, and are these conversations and contributions traceable in the final product? What is left when the facilitators of the process leave and the architects and developers swoop in?

Building blocks

For the Tram Depot, only time will tell. Hopefully each case study of this nature will contribute to fine tuning an inclusive and accessible process. Tilley Harris, Co-Founder of Mapify, explained to us that the experience has pushed them to strive for ultimate inclusiveness.
“We are even more dedicated to ensuring our approach is inclusive and want to do more to engage and empower all members of a community to express their feelings about their area. Regeneration and development are incredible opportunities to build community pride, but it has to mean the community as a whole; not just some. That’s always the hardest part and needs the most time and attention spent on it.”

Mapify have re-represented the findings of their consultation, in keeping with their commitment to transparency and openness. You can access the results

Words by Katy Hawkins

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