Can community development combat social exclusion?

Building open, inclusive, vibrant neighbourhoods is an important part of combating the worst symptoms of social exclusion. In fact, it is probably more important than supporting the development of charities and the voluntary sector in general.

People who launch initiatives to bring neighbours together are often accused of having a deaf ear for the problems of the most marginalised in society. Community development can be caricature as supporting retired, middle class people to run fetes or hipsters to set up incubation spaces.

However, effective community development can help neighbourhoods to be more welcoming places, where people who might otherwise feel excluded are able to meet people and build a support network.

This chart shows the relationship between the % of people in a local authority who say that they feel like they belong in their local area against the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.

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The more people feel that they belong in a given neighborhood the more likely people who receive adult social care in that area are to feel that they are satisfied with their level of social contact.

This chart plots the extent to which there is a ‘thriving third sector’ in a given local authority and the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.
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Whether or not an area is more or less supportive of charitable activity seems to have little to do with whether people who receive adult social care are happy with their level of social contact.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since lots of charities are not mainly or even tangentially interested in building open and welcoming communities.

It doesn’t particularly help someone with mental health problems to make new friends if there are lots of donkey sanctuaries in their area.

However, when organisations such as Civic Systems Lab are effective in bringing together people in a fun, creative and open way, they can help build neighbourhoods where more people feel like they belong and this in turn is likely to benefit people who are often marginalised or excluded.

This is significant since research has found that social connections are one of the principle components of recovery.

In fact, rather than replicating existing patterns of exclusion and inequality, community development, if done properly and effectively, can go some way to combating these problems.


A recent trip to Tokyo illustrates something about the old question; is it ‘people’ or ‘place’ that matters?

Tokyo has poor cycle infrastructure

There are very few bike lanes in Tokyo. Cyclists often share the pavement with pedestrians which is frustrating for both groups.

However, far more people cycle than in Washington DC or London, which have both invested heavily in things like bike lanes and cycle hire schemes.

In fact, about 14% of journeys in Tokyo are by bike, compared with only 4% ish of people in DC that commute on bikes.

Tokyo allows some public smoking


Tokyo has fewer restrictions on where you can smoke than many other rich cities.

There are designated public smoking areas and many restaurants have smoking areas.

More people smoke in Japan than in other rich countries, but not that much more. Roughly one in four Japanese people smoke, whereas one in five Americans smoke.

Homeless people in Tokyo are highly visible


Some homeless people in Tokyo live in prominent blue tents made of tarpaulin in Ueno park.

There is something much more permanent about these tents than I have seen in Washington DC. They reminded me of the old cardboard city in London.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people in Tokyo. This is considerably fewer than in Washington DC, a much smaller city.

It’s not so much ‘place’ that matters as ‘social’

A recent report by the Work Foundation takes as it’s title the old question, “People or Place?”, asking, in essence, where should we focus our attention, on improving places or helping people (through whatever means)?

These three examples from Tokyo show how places can acquire social meaning for people. Different people will have different feelings towards the same place. Some might feel like they belong, while others feel that they are trapped and others in turn feel like they are just passing through and so on.

The social meaning that places have is bound up with people’s relationship with other people and with more abstract groups such as ‘the public’ or ‘my neighbours’. As Zachary Neal says, cities are social networks as much as geographic or administrative areas.

Rather than solely looking at how we can get a certain company to locate in an area by giving it tax breaks or asking how we reduce unemployment through training schemes for everyone out of work, we should also try and understand the different social meanings of places and use this as a basis for policy.

This could mean a number of things, from Renaisi’s work on ‘Tech City‘, to Porter’s ideas on ‘Business Clusters‘ or the ‘going with the grain‘ approach that John Houghton has talked about.

Either way, talking about ‘people’ or ‘place’ can be unhelpful if it blinds us to the importance of social interaction, norms and values.

Pictures of housing and homelessness in DC

This is a short photo essay on housing and homelessness in Washington DC.

There are many homeless people in DC.

The city government’s hostels look like prisons.

In some areas, housing for people on low incomes is being replaced with housing for people on higher incomes.

While in other areas, housing has been abandoned.

The city is planning to give away public land for free to developers so that they can build more houses for people on high incomes.

But some people are organizing against this.

It’s hard for homeless people to organize because they have limited social networks.

That’s why I am working with the Father Mckenna centre on a project that encourages homeless people to grow their social networks.

Stories about homeless people’s social networks

Sometimes it’s only when you buy something new that you realize how many other people have it. Suddenly, you notice lots of other people with the same shirt as you or the same phone as you.

Well, it can be the same with ideas.

Since I’ve started thinking about homeless people’s social networks (their friends, family and acquaintances) I am noticing more and more how questions about relationships are important in homeless people’s stories. Perhaps it’s that old problem that if you have a hammer you only see nails, or perhaps looking at the world in this way helps us see things we might otherwise miss.

I’m going to put down three stories here and let you decide what to make of it all.


He is addicted to hard drugs and living with friends who are also regular users. His place has lots of people coming and going, many of them also using.

One day he decides (not for the first time) that he wants to get clean. He leaves his place and checks into a homeless shelter. He’s so desperate to stop using drugs that he makes himself homeless to get away from the temptation.

He starts to get lonely and restless away from his friends.


Something happened when he was living in LA. It’s not quite clear what. It seems to have involved his home being invaded, his mother starting to use hard drugs and he thinks people from his church were implicated.

Somehow (he says someone at the Church helped) he gets enough money together to get to Washington DC. He arrives in Union Station. He doesn’t have any friends or family in the city.

A homeless person tells him about a day shelter that might be able to help.


Whenever he would visit a member of his family they would hide their pocketbooks because they didn’t want him to steal from them again. This would make him angry and he would get in fights with his siblings.

He’s clean now. He went over to visit his sister. Some members of the family left the room and left their pocketbooks behind. Surprised, he asked his sister why they hadn’t taken the pocketbooks with them.

“We know you don’t do that anymore” she replied. He cried.

Dream Housing presentation

I am delighted to say that I have secured funding from The RSA for the Dream Housing project I am working on.

The project will mostly be done in partnership with the Father Mckenna Centre in Washington DC.

Here is the lastest presentation I gave to staff at the centre on how we have progressed with the idea.