Unintended Neighbourhoods

Things don’t always work out the way you mean them to.

Take, for example, the strange story of Jacqui Janes. Her son died in Helmand in Afghanistan in 2009 and she received a handwritten letter from the then Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She thought the letter was a “hastily scrawled insult” partly because of the spelling errors.

The biggest selling daily newspaper in the UK, The Sun, had recently taken the decision to stop backing the Labour party and to start backing the Conservative party. They ran with the Jacqui Janes story as an attack on Gordon Brown.

It seemed like a very clever move. They hoped to right a perceived wrong, to attack a politician that they no longer favoured and also, possibly, sell more newspapers.

However, it did not work out that way. Many people thought the attack was inappropriate and polls found that people had a higher opinion of Gordon Brown and a lower opinion of The Sun as a result of the whole episode.

It has become very fashionable for people who think about how to revitalize cities to talk about the importance of the “creative class”, a term some people will know from Richard Florida’s work. In particular, lots of city governments are now bending over backwards to attract young creative people not just artists, but also people working in tech, media or even engineering.

Will these plans to attract the creative class work out as intended?

A recent piece by MSN real estate said that U Street (the area of Washington that I live in) is now one of the best neighborhoods in America for people without children. Proof perhaps that the city has been successful in attracting young creatives. That is certainly the view put forward by The Washington Post in an article that referred to the city as an “urban playground” for twenty-somethings.

But things do not always work out how you hope. That same article wonders if the city could retain these same people or if they will move out to the suburbs when they grow a bit older and have kids.

Some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. A new organization has been set up called the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance (SDCA). They are protesting the number of places that sell alcohol, how hard it is to find parking and how noisy the area is late at night. Their views are strikingly similar to the ones put forward in the neighbourhood of London I used to live in, Camden Town.

They may be successful in their campaigns but will their success undermine the very things that the creative class finds attractive about U Street?

Indeed, there is already a tension at work in the way housing developers and the city have tried to attract the creative class to U Street, summed up in the name of one of the large housing developments, The Ellington. It’s named after the famous Jazz musician. He was born in the area and the success of him and a number of other musicians meant the area was for a while known as the ‘Black Broadway’.

People from the creative class are attracted by the development’s mixture of modern condo living and hint of excitement and ethnic diversity (plus excellent transport links, of course). But, just as they are attracted by these things, they also undermine them and actively work against them.

Where does this story led?

One future can be seen in the adjacent neighborhood to Camden Town, Primrose Hill. For years it was a smoggy working class area populated by people who worked building the railways. Then, in the 1960s, a wave of people working in the theatre or media, fresh out of university, attracted by low rents, community spirit and transport links, moved in. As they grew older they managed to get the large road that used to go through Primrose Hill re-directed. They invested in their houses. They got the area designated as a “Conservation Area”. House prices started to increase. The shops started to change. The schools improved. Now it is one of the wealthiest parts of the country, and when artsy residents move out, it is corporate lawyers or money men that move in.

Like I said, things don’t always work out how you intended.

Civil Partnerships

Washington DC has a big problem with homelessness. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem last winter the city paid God knows how much putting over 200 families up in motels, and according to a recent survey 4% of pupils in DC schools are homeless.

There are lots of different people who are trying to deal with this problem including city agencies, charities and advocacy groups. These groups regularly meet under the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and have a plan to end homeless by 2014. Given that there are literally thousands of homeless people in Washington, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are not going to hit this target.

I have never heard of a public policy question where people don’t say we need better partnership working. Crime, education, public health, you name it, people will say that we need better partnership working to solve these problems. The same is true of homelessness provision in DC.

In the UK, New Labour mandated a number of partnerships at the local level including Local Strategic Partnerships, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and partnerships relating to the Every Child Matters agenda. I think it would be fair to say that these mandated partnerships did not quieten the chorus of people calling for better partnership working.

I attended the last meeting of the ICH. This meeting showed many of the reasons why partnership working so often fails. Many of the people attending the meeting did not have the seniority to actually make decisions, the agenda was mostly updates from various sub committees and, there was no clear process for how to come to agreements or to take action.

One thing was clear from the meeting, if there are fewer homeless people in motels this coming winter it will not be because of the existence or work of the ICH.

I could not help but contrast this meeting with the meetings of the Clarence Way Tenants and Residents Associations (TRA) in Camden.

These were well attended meetings. The TRA did a good job of getting a range of residents to attend and they did a really good job of getting the different public services out. There were always police, housing officers, councillors, someone from the local community association, environmental health officers and so on. The TRA basically forced everyone to work together.

There is a beautiful quote from Ella Baker “strong people don’t need strong leaders”. In this case, it’s more like organized communities don’t need organized partnerships.

What are the implications of this observation for things like the ICH? I think a much better way of organizing things would be to spend money bringing homeless people together and building their ability to come together. Once homeless people started coming together they would inevitably start to make demands of the various agencies that are relevant to their lives and partnership working would naturally occur. What’s more, this more empowering approach would be, I believe, far more effective.