Radical Placemaking: Socially Engaged Practice vs the Redevelopment of London’s Council Estates

In this short essay I’m going to sketch out some of the key features of a type of practice I’m calling radical placemaking.

I understand placemaking as the process by which a place comes to have a unique cultural identity. The term has been co-opted by town planners and developers as part of a top-down approach to designing the built environment, but when I talk about placemaking I’m talking about a social phenomenon that’s intimately bound up with community and local identity. (1)

Placemaking is also bound up with power. Who has the power to shape the way a place develops? Historically cities like London have presented opportunities for cultural minorities and economically less advantaged groups to make parts of the city their own. But this type of placemaking has largely been overtaken by the economic forces driving the widespread gentrification and corporate mega-development we see today. Rising rents have played an increasingly significant part in determining who can afford to live in many areas of London. And the vast majority of the developments we see in London today are large scale, corporate projects. (2)

Perhaps one of the most alarming features of the way London is developing now is the issue of council-owned estates which are earmarked for demolition and redevelopment as luxury apartments.

According to research by Birkbeck University there are currently 90 estates in London facing demolition (3). Borough councils rationalise this redevelopment as a way of raising income in order to build more social housing, but the reality is that most of the social housing earmarked for demolition isn’t being replaced and long-term residents are being forced to move away from areas and communities they have lived in for decades in a process that can justifiably be described as social cleansing.

The films Estate: A Reverie and Concrete Heartland both capture the situation faced by tenants of council-owned estates when the council decides it’s going to redevelop.

Estate: A Reverie was filmed over seven years on the Haggerston estate in Hackney. The film documents a number of social rituals organised by residents before, during and after the demolition of the estate and it’s redevelopment as well as including a number of more performative and dramatised elements. (4)

ESTATE REVERIE COLLAGEStill images from Estate: A Reverie, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, 2015

Concrete Heartland exposes the social cleansing of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, South London. The film combines video documentary footage of the Heygate estate shot before the estate’s demolition in 2013/14 and 12 years of archive materials charting the struggles of the local community to keep their homes, stay living in the area, and maintain communal benefits in the face of extreme development pressures. Inserted among these recordings are sections of a performance protest staged in 2012 on the then still-inhabited estate. (5)

Verbatim theatre projects Where Will We Live? by Brixton-based Changing Face Collective and Land of Three Towers by You Should Have Seen the Other Guy draw on the experience of displaced residents and residents facing eviction.

Where Will We Live?, which recently had a successful run at the Southward Playhouse, grew out of in-depth interviews with a range of the people involved in, or affected by, gentrification in Brixton and Lambeth – residents, local businesspeople, politicians. (6)

Land of Three Towers is currently in development but is following a similar process in telling the story of the Focus E15 Open House Occupation on Carpenters Estate last September. (7)

d6236bf71e397b4d5fd1a7b0d1b97a44_originalE15 Open House Occupation on Carpenters Estate, September 2014. Photo by Jess Hurd/reportdigital.co.uk

All of these projects are motivated by a refusal to stand by and do nothing whilst local authorities conspire in development plans which will tear communities apart.

I suggest there are a number of ways these kinds of projects help push back against development –

  • By celebrating the richness of longstanding community to build community cohesion and raise awareness of the value of the community which is threatened by redevelopment.                         
  • By elucidating the political and economic processes which are driving redevelopment in order to facilitate resistance.
  • By opening up a forum for discussion about the redevelopment of public housing and putting the voice of the community at the centre of this discussion.

These tactics of resistance suggest some of the key features that the projects I’m discussing here have in common –

These projects involve working with local communities. In practical terms this means that projects are co-designed with participants and decisions are made in a consultative and democratic fashion. The artists’ role is to create a space and structure within which participants can (re)discover their own creativity and creative agency in relation to place.

In these projects the value of the process is intimately entwined with the value of the product. These projects harness the collaborative efforts of a community. As Andrea Luka Zimmerman writes, “[Estate: A Reverie] would have been impossible to make without the enormous commitment of the residents and many others – who gave freely of time, equipment and resources to enable the film’s production. In this way it was deeply collaborative.”

It takes time for artists to become embedded in the communities they’re working with. Projects are likely to develop over an extended period of engagement with a community. Estate: A Reverie was made over the course of 7 years during which Andrea Luka Zimmerman lived on the Haggerston Estate. Concrete Heartland draws on 12 years of archive recordings. Where Will We Live? draws on journalist and scriptwriter Elizabeth Winkler’s long-running engagement with issues of gentrification and redevelopment.

Another key feature of the kind of practice I’m endorsing is that it sets out to foster greater engagement in civic decision making. This is both a vital channel for the fight to save public housing and an essential component of community-led placemaking. As Susan Silberberg writes, “When people come together to flex their civic muscles, to test their political voice and to deliberate, disagree, decide and act, they are imbuing their actions and the resulting product of public space with identities, worldviews, cultures and traditions … [Community-led placemaking] provides an opportunity to rebuild social and political capital after the 20th-century decline in an active and local political voice in communities.”

Concrete Heartland and Estate: A Reverie offer a retrospective insight into the failure of democratic process, but there are many ongoing fights to save council blocks. Public performances and screenings can be a rallying cry for ongoing activism. This is clearly the aim of Land of Three Towers which will have its first performance as part of an afternoon of workshops and housing activism skill-shares during the Whose London is this Anyway? Festival at Camden People’s Theatre in January.

In some cases there is a strong basis for legal action – where local authorities have signally failed to fulfil their duty to consult with existing residents about redevelopment plans, for example. The recent legal victory of the residents of the Cressingham Gardens estate shows that it is possible to challenge local authorities through legal channels and win. The legal expertise involved needs to be shared with other groups facing similar struggles.

It’s interesting to consider whether local history research could be a productive angle to pursue in relation to radical placemaking. The importance of local history in relation to place is well established. As Susan Silberberg writes, “[The failure of top-down placemaking to consider] local identity and history represents a missed opportunity to produce uniquely different places, each reflecting the the context of culture, geography, history and identity of the specific place and its users.”

Eastern Angle’s project 40 Years On is a good example of a project combining local historical research and theatremaking in Peterborough. The project was built on a community research exercise employing oral history and archival research, leading to a number of performance outcomes. (8)

A local historical approach has the potential to open up funding opportunities (Heritage Lottery Funding for example) and lends itself well to partnership working with local museums and libraries (especially where a local archive is held by the local library). In this respect it aligns very well with Arts Council England’s funding priorities.

I hope this essay provides an insight into the energetic range of practice currently addressing the issue of gentrification and the redevelopment of public housing in London. This practice combines elements of housing activism with socially engaged arts practice. It involves artists working with communities to celebrate the value of what will be lost if redevelopment goes ahead, to raise wider awareness of the threat of redevelopment and to facilitate resistance. In doing so it returns the concept of placemaking to its origins as a community-led activity.

Historically placemaking has happened ‘by accident’ as the inhabitants of a place have gone about making it their own. In the current economic and political context it’s clear that this process is under huge pressure. Socially engaged arts practice can play an important role in pushing back against economic and political forces and helping the voices of communities to be heard.



(1) As Susan Silberberg argues in a recent article for the RSA, there is a need to reclaim the concept of placemaking and return it to its original use describing the work of urban sociologists who “put communities and people ahead of sterile design aesthetics and the thirst for clean, orderly and chaos-free cities, advocating instead for the complexity and seeming disorder of multifaceted neighbourhoods, the layers of history and culture that make our cities the rich, interesting places they are.” Silberberg, S. The Common Thread; Placemaking has traditionally focused on ‘place’, it’s time ‘making’ got a look in, published in the RSA Journal, Issue 3 2015

(2) As Saskia Sassen puts it, “Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex… But it is this possibility – the capacity to make a history, a culture and so much more – that is today threatened by the surge in large-scale corporate re-development of cities… We are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.” From Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all, Guardian online, published Tuesday 24th November 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/nov/24/who-owns-our-cities-and-why-this-urban-takeover-should-concern-us-all?CMP=share_btn_fb

(3) Dr Paul Watt, quoted in Minton A. Developers at London’s property fair are plotting how to demolish our homes, Guardian online, published Wednesday 21st October 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2015/oct/21/mipim-uk-london-property-fair-developers-demolish-homes

(4) See www.estatefilm.co.uk

(5) See Ball, S. & Novaković, R. artist statement at http://concreteheartland.info/

(6) See http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/archives/where-will-we-live/ and https://medium.com/@ewinkler/where-will-we-live-af8cc640d14b#.xw3txxbwk

(7) See https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1629314913/land-of-the-three-towers

(8) See http://www.vivacity-peterborough.com/libraries-and-archives/forty-years-on/



About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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