Modelling the impact of regeneration

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In the summer of 2018, me and Adam Ramejkis, a licenced Lego® Serious Play® workshop facilitator (www.aschoolofthought.uk), ran a Lego® workshop in Tidemill Garden with local residents, campaigners and supporters of the Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! Campaign. Participants were asked to build models in response to questions regarding Deptford and the regeneration taking place, and then to explain their thoughts through their models. Lego® Serious Play® workshops are a useful and creative way of engaging with difficult issues, and talking through the built models can draw out views and perspectives that might otherwise remain hidden. The time spent on building also allows more thinking time before having to speak and it can sometimes help visual people articulate their ideas better. The discussions in this workshop really brought to light how the participants understand and experience the regeneration of Deptford, particularly how it impacts them emotionally. The first question asked how individuals see Deptford.

Ian, who lives right opposite the garden and who used to give a helping hand with whatever needed doing in the garden (fixing the path, the fence, preparing for events, etc.), explains that Deptford is a place of different communities that do not mix. He explains his model (see above) that clearly shows the separation of groups:

“We live here together but sort of bypass and not really see each other. This doesn’t apply to all of course but generally people do their own thing and even though we’re kind of doing the same thing – bringing our kids to school, to church and to the shops – we’re not recognising each other. We’re mixing but we’re not blending, we’re not bonding. I recognise my immediate neighbours but at the same time we are literally blind to one another, until something serious happens. The church helps to bring people together. Green space is another way to connect, like Tidemill Garden – it’s like a magnet for people to meet. When you come here, you’ve got more time to take in your surroundings, and that can lead to wonderful encounters. A common space, a green space is the magical ingredient when it comes to community.”

Luciana agrees, saying that the garden is an important meeting place. “The notion of a communal space to make culture, create community, and build up this relationship of unity, of togetherness, is really important. As Paulo Freire used to say, all culture is born from the wish to share time and space. Communal space is for people to meet and build up community and culture.”

DSC_0019Fred’s model of Tidemill garden and Joe Dromey on top of Reginald House waving destructive sticks

Jacquie’s model is a representation of streets and buildings of historic times and the 60s and 70s, and how well they all fit together. “The lay-out is very higgledy-piggledy, it’s not clinical, it’s not shiny, but it’s been built up over time. And the communities living within these buildings have also evolved over time. We know how to navigate these spaces and we move around them well, but at the moment my feelings are that the council want to get rid of anything that isn’t shiny or neat; they want to erase the higgledy-piggledy-ness, to cleanse existing communities so that the area will become a shiny and neat version, looking the same as everywhere else. Obviously, things can be improved, we need investment, but we don’t need erasing which is what I feel Lewisham Council want to do to working-class communities in Deptford.”

Harriet’s model also shows the higgledy-piggledy-ness of Deptford, with different colours and shapes representing the different community groups in Deptford. “This yellow bit in the middle could be The Bird’s Nest, which is quite cool and creative, and this here could be some of the market traders. There is lots going on, with different bits connected up; it’s all quite mixed, dynamic and compact.  But then this is the new Deptford, which is quite uniform and blue, cos it’s a Tory colour and the council think that this is so much better than the other Deptford because it’s more uniform. It feels very disconnected from the rest of Deptford. Although there is more mixing and intercrossing going on in Deptford generally than in a lot of other places, this happens more between individuals. The Deptford Market Yard does some things for the community but it’s not doing very much, they seem to just want to do their own thing.”

Finally, Heather and Matt’s model represent the river, as both feel that the connection to the river is being lost for most of Deptford’s working-class residents. Heather says: “I don’t think there is a policy to get rid of all the poor people, it’s just the chasing of the dollar that is getting rid of working-class people and all the things that are valuable to them. And I know not all of it was good in the past but that’s how I see Deptford changing from a class perspective.”

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The next model was about how participants see regeneration, either how they see regeneration as it’s happening in Deptford and across London or how they think it should be done. For Luciana, regeneration should be about remaking something by including the old. “Regeneration is not destroying the old and creating something new. Like here in Reginald Road, destroying existing housing and green space is not regeneration. It is really important to see how a community develops, and regeneration should allow communities to have this old and familiar together with the new.”

Ian agrees, saying these new blocks are all funky and nice, “but they seem to forget to mix the old and the new, they seem to just put the new in there and we, the people already living here, are left to our own devices. It’s up to us to mix and blend with the new. It’s all just about funkiness and being cool, but there’s a lot of things missing. Regeneration today doesn’t actually solve the problem of the community, of being together and of social housing.” When Ian thinks of regeneration, he thinks of cranes, or ‘concrete trees’ as he calls them, being erected everywhere to build ‘cool’ buildings. Matt explains this process as disregarding certain realities, and he thinks developers should see an area as a patchwork of land and communities that should grow together.

Heather and Harriet feel that fortresses are being erected with gentrified areas being built inside walls that keep the working-classes out. “It’s obvious”, Heather says, “some of these developments are just private and have walls and gates around them so we don’t feel welcome. It’s not just literal walls but also financial walls – we cannot afford living in these fortresses, even if we wanted to… not that we do.”

Fred’s model is a reference to the Pepys Estate, that “for all its faults represents to me that you can have high-density buildings and still have a sense of space around them. This sense of space is missing from all the new developments, they are all blocks up against one another. So, good regeneration is that a sense of space remains; developments should feel more open rather than somewhere like Lewisham Gateway for example.”

Jacquie’s model represents regeneration as violence. “It’s like developers, councillors and regeneration officers coming in pretending to be like cute rabbits but they’re not; the majority come in and squash people down. It’s not about a community’s voice, it’s about the council being dominant, coming and squashing us. It feels claustrophobic, we’ve got no say in this process.”

When asked to take the elements of individual models to build a shared model of regeneration, the group agree on having all the new fortresses surrounding Deptford communities and Tidemill Garden, with Ian’s cranes hanging over the green space and local communities, putting a shadow over the existing, historical parts of Deptford. When I ask Luciana to explain the model she replies with:

“Regeneration is the gentrification of people without a voice. Ideally, there should be a space between the blocks, green spaces where people could mix. However, this is being overshadowed by the construction industries, by power, by the system, the Babylon system. Gentrification separates communities into fortresses; the new communities live in fortresses, which are surrounded by walls and which have no real social mix, no integration; the local, existing communities are forgotten, they have no voice. It’s so sad”.

Harriet adds that all the communities on the older estates are interconnected. “These estates all have lots of green space around them and are nice places to live. Then we’ve got the council who’s basically this monster hiding behind the fluffy bunny and imposing on the community. They are directly oppressing and squishing the community into THEIR idea of regeneration, which is just this big flat grey thing which is propped up by private developers and is looming over the garden and all these other bits of Deptford. If they get their way, we’ll just get these fortress developments, those big boring towers which don’t want any of us to come in.”

The next task was to build a model of the personal impact the regeneration/gentrification of Deptford is having on local people. Matt and Epo, who joined later, explain their model as a rising mountain, signifying the potential impact it might have on an ever-increasing number of people. “It’s like gears, like one thing affecting another, one gear inputting on another, leading to more and more harm. But this harm is hidden from others, people are being crushed but others don’t see this, they are too busy with their own problems. Everybody is struggling so you don’t have time to take care of others.”

Luciana says that people who have no voice and no choice become invisible because they have no space left for them to be heard. “What the council is doing here is not giving people a choice, a ballot for example for Reginald House, and so it is putting these people in the situation of invisibility. There is all that talk about equal opportunity but really it’s not about equality but about QUALITY. If you are wealthy you are seen to have a good quality of life, and if the people living in Reginald House were wealthy people, their voices would be heard, they would be visible, but since they are not wealthy and their lives are seen to be lacking in quality, they do not get equal opportunity.”

Jacquie elaborates on the notion of violence that regeneration brings when your home is under threat, and her model is perhaps the most harrowing example of impact (see below). The green leaves in the middle represent Jacquie’s heart and the black slabs represent the various regeneration schemes in the area that pierce her heart. “This violence of regeneration has an impact on your whole being, your health, family, your neighbours, the community, your friends…it’s oppressive and it affects all the things you hold dear – your memories, your home…It’s massive! And the councillors and developers just don’t understand this, for them it’s just housing, not homes. If they understood, they wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

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Harriet also refers to gentrification as incredibly violent, symbolised in her model by a hairbrush and an axe, with the former demonstrating how local artists, especially musicians, are linked up and the latter signifying the attempts to break up these connections. “The hair brush was the closest thing I could find to link music and singing and the arts, and the axe here demonstrates that there have already been victims of music communities being broken up. This gentrification is violent and does kill people through lack of housing, stress, segregation, and higher pollution levels.”

Ian looks into the future and sees more and more separation that will have a psychological effect on people. “Suddenly a new block is being built and a green space which everybody could use becomes a lot smaller. At the same time, with the new blocks there is green space gated off as if to say “For the tenants only”. And psychologically, this separates the community, causing a them-and-us mindset whereas before we were together.”

Heather also comments on the benefits of open green space: “Tidemill Garden for example has a big heart and welcomes everybody in and this makes me feel I want to be the same – loving, welcoming and wanting to share it with everyone. And all around are all these towers – they take away all my light, they create wind tunnels which feel uncomfortable because suddenly you hit a road or a pathway between two buildings and whuff, you’re being blown away. But this gentrification has made me into a bit of a warrior, and these people also suffering from gentrification are not alone because there is all of us that are trying to protect what we have.”

Fred also feels that the high-density and bad design of the new tower blocks all around impact on his well-being as it feels to him like a conveyor belt with more and more towers coming into the area. “We are a nation of designers and we are surrounded by all this bad design, particularly with what’s around the buildings. Even the brick cladding, they want to make the buildings look like they’re made out of brick but it’s just fake!”

Once again, participants are asked to put all their models together into a shared model of impact, and Jacquie explains the model: “We’ve got the positive symbols in the middle which is the garden and the library at Pepys, which represent the resistance going on. Here, around the middle, we’ve got all the new buildings which are not well-built, not well-designed, look ugly and the building of them represents a sort of conveyor belt, and over there we’ve got the personal impacts, how the constant construction of these blocks affect communities. What will happen is that all the spaces where we can come together are getting smaller and segregated, so there’s borders being built up in between communities, so the new private builds are becoming dominant.”

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What I find interesting is that at the centre of this model there is still hope, hope for resistance and change. So, I ask the participants: “In terms of thinking about the campaigns we’re involved in and the spark of hope in the middle, how can we resist and how can we make this impact on our lives visible?”

Luciana is clear that there needs to be a dialogue between the council and communities, one that acknowledges the council’s constraints but also the wishes and needs of the community. “The council is acting like they don’t see us; they don’t give us a voice, they don’t hear what we say. They are ignorant of their own faults in their mission to work with developers and Housing Associations rather than with communities. There is no dialogue about what we want! What we wish as members of the community and as campaigners is to make our voices heard and tell them that it’s time for us to sit at a round table and discuss, have a dialogue and find compromises on both sides.”

Jacquie agrees: “If we didn’t scrutinise all their plans and schemes, the council would just do what they want. At least our resistance has had some impact with the amount of social housing slightly improved but that wouldn’t have happened without campaigners. We’re supposed to accept everything while they just push through what they want. We have less and less control over our own lives because the council just don’t listen!”

To conclude, Heather sums up what is really needed in the area and London as a whole: “We need the maintenance of existing council homes and green spaces, and for new-builds to be social housing rather than private because that’s where the crisis lies. The council need to be more community-minded when they are building those places and build truly affordable homes. And they need to tackle pollution, but a glorified walkway that no-one will care about and private gardens are not the solution.”

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