February 25, 2020

Creating Urban Communities that serve our children

This week I interviewed David Mowat, community worker, musician and father. We begin by talking about the fact that we can’t effectively raise our children in isolation but need to create a sense of community or tribe.

Streets in the sky

David lived in a tower block in Sheffield in the early 1980s. Buildings like this were a legacy of a utopian vision called “Streets in the Sky”. The architects creating them hoped that people of all ages would live harmoniously in vertical communities, taking advantage of communal indoor and outdoor spaces.


Unfortunately the tower block which David inhabited was affected by socio economic deprivation. As a young activist he was motivated to help and noticed lots of single parents who would let their children play in the corridors. One of their difficulties was going shopping while taking care of small children. As the estate was unpopular there were lots of empty flats, in collaboration with the residents he petitioned the council and after some persuasion was allowed to use one of the flats to run a shopper’s creche.


Despite tensions the project brought the community together and ran from several years with funding from the council. Many of the people who lived on the estate look back fondly at this time as one where there was a strong sense of community. Simply having safe places where children can play together makes a huge difference to the health of a community.


On the continent similar projects to “Streets in the Sky” were more successful, perhaps because renting properties is seen as a normal thing to do. In the UK greater cultural value is placed on ownership of houses so that those who can afford property tend to buy it. This meant that people with less choice and a higher level of need tended to move into the tower blocks. The services provided were not adequate to meet these needs contributing to the deterioration of the community. People tended to blame the building when other factors may have played a greater role in creating the problems faced.


In fact some of the features of the “streets” were positive such as safe places for children to play and a mixed range of ages. Traffic can be an obstacle to children playing outside and neighbours connecting with one another. In Europe there are examples of co-housing communities where cars are parked outside making safe spaces for children to play and adults to interact.


We talk about what creates community, consistent face to face contact is important. As Charles Eisenstein says “joint creativity creates community, joint consumption doesn’t”. Making art together, creating events,  situations such as camps where we are interdependent and rely on each other are important ways of bonding.


Ways to build community

We may not have the option available of living in a co-housing community but here are some ideas for how to create community in your local area:

  • host a tea party for your neighbours – ask them to bring snacks to share to make it super easy for you.
  • spend time in your front garden and start conversations with people who pass by
  • create a book exchange on your front wall on sunny days
  • start a facebook page for your street
  • make a list of things you are willing to share or swap and ask your neighbours to do the same
  • offer help, dog walking, cat sitting, plant watering
  • send Christmas cards to your neighbours
  • make friends with your local care home and offer to chat to the residents

The small effort that each of these things will take will be more than paid back by the reward of feeling part of a caring community.

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