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Dissertation Medal Winner 2010

Happy Communities

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Clare Richards
University of Westminster | UK
Architects, politicians and planners believe that well-designed built environments have a transformative effect on people's lives. They see themselves as integral to the process of creating socially sustainable communities ¬– an objective backed by legislation and passed down in the delivery requirements for housing projects.

Yet, while billions of pounds are spent on house building and regeneration, in the belief that successful communities can be created by design, it does not seem to make them better. Curious that both thriving and failing communities come in many guises, I decided to investigate the relationship between their built form and their social circumstances.

Observational accounts, written over 150 years, identified some of the features of successful communities and the underlying causes of their failure. Historical precedents revealed the influence of social and political ideologies and the extent to which planned environments have contributed to the success of communities. In search of fresh insight, I called on the expertise of various witnesses – and focused this new light on two communities in London’s East End: the Holly Street Estate in Hackney and Bromley-by–Bow in Tower Hamlets. Both are among the most socially deprived wards in the country, but while Holly Street has undergone a costly and well-designed redevelopment, Bromley-by-Bow has received minimal funding for piecemeal improvement. Yet Holly Street’s social problems persist, while Bromley-by-Bow is experiencing a revival, through locally-generated social enterprise.

This investigation reveals a gulf between well-intentioned aspirations and the reality of community life. We have a poor understanding of what constitutes a ‘happy community’ and an inflated sense of the built environment’s ability to create them alone. The factors that decide whether they will thrive or fail are not solely dependent on their physical form – there are social factors, over which designers have little control, which must be addressed first.

Communities evolve slowly, from a strong social base. Architects can contribute to their success, but only in conjunction with others: by taking account of local, social and historical context; and by engaging collaboratively with people to create the physical conditions in which they can function and thrive.

Clare Richards

This is an exceptional piece of research which uses historical and contemporary expert commentary to investigate the factors which contribute towards the creation and success or failure of sustainable communities. The principles adduced are then applied to two deprived areas in East London. The factors are often elusive – if they were not, then there would not be a problem – but the modestly-stated but incisive conclusion, that architects have an important but far from solitary role, is perceptive, well-substantiated and even-handedly argued.

The author’s deployment of comparative summaries of observations by others, together with site observation and interviews, supported by official statistics, enables the compilation and assessment of a very wide range of material in understanding and measuring the notion of community in the context of the activities of regeneration and social renewal. In its montage of historical analysis, empirical facts and contemporary policy-making, this multi-faceted study is striking not least for its research-led impartiality.

This is an elegantly presented, extensively researched and intelligent study, distinguished by its quality of argument and challenging of received opinions. There are no easy solutions to the problem of understanding the social and environmental elements which make for ‘happy communities’ but this study deserves to be taken into consideration by all those policy-makers who aspire to create them, often on the basis of very limited evidence.

Dr John Bold
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