Finding the village in the city

This blog is contributed by Catherine Kearney. Catherine is one of City to City’s key connectors and she was involved in the London conversation in 2013.

As the African proverb goes ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. But what does this mean in daily life and what implications, if any, does it have on our cities?

Does it mean that parents cannot bring up children on their own? Is shared responsibility an ideal to aspire to?

Plenty of people testify that children are a blessing but few people would say that parenting is easy.  Clinical psychologist, Oliver James, went further and wrote a survival guide to family life, entitling it “They f*** you up”. He argued that the way we are cared for in the first six years of life has a crucial effect on who we are and how we behave.

The poet Philip Larkin was the source of James’s expletive. Larkin’s poem concisely describes a cycle of dysfunction between generations:

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

For parents, this negativity, together with the intensity of the focus on the early years, is sobering, at the very least. So what about sharing the responsibility? Could this be where the village mentality might come in handy?

CityIf we recognise that parenting is not always easy, and we strive for the ‘good enough’ model rather than perfection, then surely parenting in isolation is going to be an uphill struggle – and not much fun. Individuals can feel excluded from society for a variety of reasons and parents are no exception. We need others. Parents need others.


On Mother’s Day recently, BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship encouraged us to celebrate all women (mothers or not) for their part in contributing to the growth and development of others. This was followed a few days later by International Women’s Day. Yet parenting is not just for women and the need for fathers (or at least male role models) has been highlighted in the media and research. Families can be diverse groups of adults taking parental roles. Is this a community? A village within a city?

Empowering communities

Empowerment within a local community, in a grass-roots context can transform. Community development can strengthen civil society in a participatory and democratic way by giving voice to those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. Empowerment offers a route to inclusion, belonging and community development. Likewise, it could be key to facilitating the ‘village’ mentality – the raising of a child by the city.

Empowering individuals through community

It is important to bear in mind that empowerment is not an individualistic or self-centred endeavour. The close link between the empowerment of the individual and the empowerment of the community has been highlighted by practitioners. Families are an integral part of all communities, and some would say that they sit at a critical junction between the individual and the community.

If we agree that there is a link between empowerment, community development and participation, the implication is that we all have a part to play. We are in the city together. We are with each other in this. ‘Empowerment is not something we can do to or for people (that is a self-contradictory notion),’ says Neil Thompson in his analysis of empowerment and power in human services. ‘It is something that we can do only with them.’ True empowerment is transformational.

Peer-led projects

Budget cuts in the UK mean that policy is adapted so that the families who need the most help get it. Few would argue with ensuring this happens. However, there’s a time bomb waiting to go off as the families with lower levels of need aren’t entitled to support services. The underlying message when a parent asks to attend a group or course is ‘Come back when you’re a bit more desperate.’ Communities are often divided by into haves and have-nots.

I have the privilege of working in a project running peer-led parenting courses. It’s a fantastic project to be part of, but although parent engagement can be challenging, it’s really not rocket science. In some cases, parents can be fearful that their children will be taken from them if they’re deemed not ‘good enough’. The project is evidence based – research has been carried out that shows the effectiveness of peer-led courses in reducing children’s poor behaviour and improving parenting skills. This is really good news but it’s only part of the story.

When you speak with parents who attend the courses, they tell you how the simple things like a cup of tea being made for them when they arrive and the kindness of the course facilitators makes the difference. Parents make relationships with other parents and course facilitators, who are also parents and have attended the course. Parents become empowered by the knowledge that they are not alone in parenthood or the challenges they face.

What I have seen happen through peer-led parenting groups is a reciprocal empowerment ­– a parent feels that they belong to a ‘village’ (a parenting community) and so the wider community is strengthened. At the same time their engagement with community life empowers them as an individual.

The effectiveness of these courses is clear from the parents’ enthusiasm. Parents say how life-changing the course has been for them. Its impact for some is far beyond the scope of a simple parenting course, where particular skills are taught. Parents start believing they can do something – they can help their children and they can play a part in their local community. They find they are part of a village in a city.

Posted on Categories Housing & community

Housing for homes

Some amazing innovations are quietly taking place on the edge of mainstream thinking that challenge the culture of low affordability, price inflation and market-led housing.

HousingThe housing market is a friend to investment but a threat to relational-living. The collective direction of housing policy over the past 100 years has meant that a house has become an investment that you can live in rather than a home that could provide generational stability for the future of families.

Past, present and future

In the UK of the 1920s the picture was quite different. A significant majority of housing – 80 per cent – was rented. In the years that followed there were periods of council home construction, a growing ownership market and, in the Thatcher era, the sale of council properties.

In 2016, 64 per cent of housing is privately owned and 32 per cent is rented either privately or through housing association/council provision.

The housing market has created highly inflated prices in cities that few can afford. In rural areas the affordability of houses is jeopardised by fewer jobs and lower wages and this brings a complex mixture of pressures for individuals and family groups. The average multiplier for affordability in England and Wales is 5 x a person’s wage and that rises to 10 x in urban centres such as London.

It is projected that an extra 250,000 households are required per year until 2033 in the UK. Yet the country is only building 100,000 to 150,000 houses each year.

So what could change this?

A political u-turn? We might be waiting a long time.

Another economic crash? This would quieten the current market but may only provide opportunities for vulture capitalists ready to exploit the down turn.

Yet despite these negative indications, some amazing innovations are taking place quietly on the edges of mainstream thinking, building upon a legacy of creative philanthropy and cementing stable, multi-generational communities.

Living on the water

Although living on the water paints a nomadic picture of existence that few can contemplate, we have an unbelievable supply of rivers, lakes and sea moorings. We don’t advocate spoiling beautiful vistas and environmental eco systems, but residential accommodation on waterways is a chance to turn a static leisure industry into a living community. Boats, barges and other vessels are relatively cheap and have provided an incredibly eco-friendly lifestyle and strong communities in places like The Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia.

Given the environmental shifts that are happening and increased weather instability (i.e. higher rainfall), living on water is both sustainable and basic common sense in the light of the increasing climatic shifts we are experiencing. Waterways have the potential to be living communities in urban and rural settings, and in some places they are revitalising parts of the country and the countryside that struggle to survive economical and socially.

In one example of water-based living in south-east London, 175 people live alongside each other, sharing a system of walkways between boats, joint laundries and showers. The importance of these communal spaces provides strong motivation to manage the environment well, grow small business infrastructures, small eco-communities and mini economic hubs.

Community building

We tend to think of self-builders either as ‘eco warriors’ or ‘grand designers’, but beyond these stereotypes ‘community build’ provides an altogether different set of possibilities.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are local organisations that are set up and run by ordinary people to combine their finances and skills and develop homes as well as other assets important to that community, for example, community enterprises, food growing or workspaces. They build on land that might be council or brown-site designated, given as a gift or bought by a community group.

This is a sustainable alternative to private rental or private ownership. You can get a flavour of a CLT in action in a feature in the Guardian newspaper and a TV interview for London Live:

CLTs make homes affordable by removing the cost of land from the cost of a new home. This materials-only model could empower many more community builds. ‘We aim to establish a new precedent, a replicable model in community-led housing that will benefit people currently unable to access housing on the open market,’ says Kareem Dayes.

There are multiple advantages to a CLT. Those who build together usually stay together over longer periods – this has been statistically proved through early and more recent ‘Walter Segal’ builds. These communities are more socially diverse, multi-generational, stable and safe. They are literally built on interaction and community cohesion and they have proved to be great places for more holistic community care.

Other examples are Habitat for Humanity who build sustainable low-income housing globally and are also active in the UK. The organisation has successfully transformed the housing conditions for individuals and families from sub-standard housing conditions into sustainable housing solutions through ‘community builds’. This has provided long-term community stability and empowered individuals within those communities to reach for their life goals and aspirations.

One single mother in a re-built community housing scheme said ‘my daughter barely went to school when we were housed in a tower block in SE London … but she has now qualified to go to university to train as an architect’. Community housing is more than the fabric of the building but the essence of a more cohesive, safe and creative community.

Long-term vision rather than short-term solutions

The pressure is on for more housing at affordable pricing. However, the kind of quick, easy-build, non-eco housing that is being rushed into construction is only a short-term illusion. It gives no thought to the future community and long-term sustainability in terms of materials and environmental credentials.

We could be repeating the housing nightmare of the 1970s. It is important for architects, planners, environmentalists, housing experts and potential residents to sit down together to plan and dream the communities of the future. These are not pie-in-the-sky ideals but innovations that harness the creative skills of individuals and multiply them through collaboration.

CitytoCity is helping to bring together innovators and inspirers to encourage the cross-pollination of creativity and the willingness to re-imagine urban living.

Posted on Categories Housing & community