Introducing the University of Sheffield JR James Studentship 2017

The JR James award was founded in 1981 from funds subscribed in memory of the late Professor JR James. The prize is awarded to students from the department of Urban Studies and Planning to undertake travel and/or study in Britain or abroad. The spirit of the award, in line with Professor James’s beliefs, is to use the award to enhance students’ experience and to widen their horizons.

As part of our winning proposal for the studentship we have planned a research trip in the UK and Europe to explore a number of community-led projects and initiatives in the next few weeks we will be updating the blog with our key insights but for now below is a map of our exciting journey which we would love for you to follow.

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A Map showing our travel route

The research will start in the UK and end in France where we will be visiting six community led development and one of our highlights will be visiting the first edition of the International Social Housing Festival 2017, hosted in Amsterdam; a city well known for its innovative approaches to social housing.

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Spreefeld housing cooperative: Berlin, Germany

On our visit to Spreefeld housing cooperative in Berlin two weeks ago, we spoke to community coordinator for Spreefeld and social development specialist Nicola Boelter about the beginnings of the project and realisation of the development of 64 flats, studios, workshops and shared communal spaces.

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Site Plan of Spreefeld showing the three blocks that make up the scheme. Photo by Author

Context

Spreefeld sits within a context with strong industrial heritage with juxtaposing former industrial warehouses and buildings that have been either taken over by squatters or converted into prime real estate. The site has played an important role in Germany’s history forming the riverbank of where East Germany once met the West and a deadly crossing point over the wall once dividing East and West Berlin during the Second World War; due the proximity of river Spree and clear visibility for patrol guards. The site and surrounding area over the past few years has since been rebranded and known for its clubs and creative scene which has helped regenerate the former industrial lands. My first impressions of the Spreefeld development was its uniformity as a cooperative housing scheme and the close attention paid to small design details as well as having sensitivity to existing greenery. Despite the urban and industrial setting, the feeling of green space has been well integrated into the buildings which many urban housing projects often fail to do.

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Spreefeld is the first cooperative project of its kind in Berlin with its adopted finance model and is seen as a truly unique project by its inhabitants and the public alike. The building cooperative or what is referred to as ‘Bagruappe’ in Germany was initiated in 2007 when a group of Berliners came together to campaign about the development of an office complex on the site which now houses the three blocks forming the development. The campaign argued against a real estate office development which threatened to build over public space along the riverbank which has long been informally used widely by many residents of the city.

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One of the blocks at Spreefeld; apartments come with spacious balconies that have been used as gardening space by residents  Picture: Author

Today, the area along the river Spree has undergone extensive regeneration and DIY urbanism and provides a contrasting environment that seems to work well in unison. A former soap factory for example, has been turned into housing and at the same time, graffiti and wall murals pop out at every corner. Across the river, members of the coop have created different forms of DIY urbanism in the form of an urban village; Holzmarkt. It integrates several bars, clubs and public spaces that blend in with a doctor’s surgery, nursery and residential development all adorned with art murals. It creates more of feel of an outdoor riverside gallery space than a residential riverside site; the Berlin effect.

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Picture of Holzmarkt taken from the riverbank of Spreefeld. Picture: Author

The spirit of community 

As you reach the site by foot walking along the river bank, we noticed a sign inviting the public to walk along and through ‘Teepeeland’ a space made up of a community of squatters living in teepees. It was surprising to see a community so open and welcoming in allowing the public into their space.  This is perhaps why the municipality of Berlin have accepted and embraced their presence along the River Spree; something which many other European cities would fail to do. The spirit of Teepeeland resonates a lot with Spreefeld and is what gives it some of its unique characteristics. A lot of the open space on the site for instance has remained open to the public with original paths preserved to allow the public to have open access through the scheme and the riverbank. There are also no fences at Spreefeld, which is something residents are proud of. Nicola spoke of the great relationship Spreefeld has with the squatter community at Teepeeland. There is a consensus that everyone is willing to help each other out; for example, the community at Spreefeld provides affordable electricity and energy rates to service Teepeeland using some of the surplus energy and electricity generated by the ground source heat pump and photovoltaics on site which feed into the central power station.

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Site plan showing how the public and private spaces work  Source: die Zusammenarbeiter – Gesellschaft von Architekten mbH

The development process

Spreefeld is very much a project initiated by a group of 16 passionate individuals who had varying housing needs but were priced out of the city and did not quality for government housing. They also shared a common vision about what function the public space along the River Spree would play and what it meant by sharing spaces. Many of the individuals now belonging to the 60 strong members of the cooperative know each other through mutual connections and friendships. Of that group were five architects belonging to the three architecture studios who worked on the project; Silvia Carpaneto, fatkoehl and BARarchitects. This collaborative design process proved to be beneficial for the projects successful design principles and sustainable properties which aim to make living as low cost as possible by creating dwellings under passive house principles.  Each of the three blocks have been designed by the different studios and whilst all three blocks look almost identical, each block has subtle design elements that give the blocks their own distinctive character.

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Image of the site showing the greenery and retained public space on site  Picture: Author

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An important success of the project is the consultation process that took place with future inhabitants of the development; each member of the cooperative was given a say about the communal spaces to be adopted in the scheme and given flexibility about the design of their individual dwellings.  Dwellings are designed to be as low cost as possible therefore simple material options were provided with the option for personalisation at a later stage. Communal facilities in the scheme include a laundry, a large kitchen and double height events space, a children’s centre and play area and a gallery which hosts monthly exhibitions open to the public as well as an existing boathouse and platform which is used regularly for events. Ground floor spaces in each block are very much dedicated to workshop and studio spaces to allow for live/work opportunities the architecture studios involved in the project inhabiting some of these spaces.

Financing 

Unlike other projects that we have already visited in Europe, this project is very different as financing was not seen as a large obstacle in delivering the cooperative scheme. The cooperative were able to secure initial startup funding through an low interest loan from a German social bank and foundation Umweltbank; Nicola emphasized on the great opportunities social projects have in Germany due to the high presence of social banks who are keen on making long term investments in social projects. The remaining finances required for the project was delivered through small deposits from the 60 people who became members of the cooperative which was a percentage of the total cost to build and design the housing blocks enabling the project to be built in full. Following the deposit payment, small monthly rents would be paid by cooperative members once they had moved into their dwellings to pay the cost of their property. Once the current loan has been paid off rental payments are envisioned to become cheaper over time which is rare for a housing development of this size.

We were told by Nicola that current rent levels are similar if not better than the rent levels set for government subsidised housing. To me this was an excellent deal for Spreefeld cooperative members as the units are spacious for families, provide generous balcony space and are in a central and sought after central location which provides serene views along the river. Which is perhaps why many cooperative members are intending to live there long-term as rents continue to rise in Central Berlin.

Reflection 

Spreefeld is a truly special project as it provides affordable apartments that are dedicated to being affordable for life. It also goes further than most affordable housing schemes by preserving and promoting social inclusion through the clever integration of public and semi-public spaces and commitment to keep the area open to the public

One key recipe for the project’s early success is attributed to Berlin municipality who had faith in the project from the start of the campaign and released and leased prime real estate land initially ring-fenced for private development. Additionally, the high availability of low-interest loans from a social housing bank played a prominent role in helping get the project on site. This is perhaps why Germany has seen many other successes in community-led housing movements and has a long established and successful housing cooperative movement which continues to steadily grow.

Overall, Spreefeld has demonstrated the necessary support needed from municipalities in gaining land for development and the key role that the formation of social banks can play in investing and driving forward community led projects.

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The Spreefeld annual party organised by the residents and committee Picture: Author 

We would like to extend a special thanks to Nicola Boelter and the Spreefeld community for making us feel welcome at their annual summer party and for giving us a detailed perspective into the scheme. To read and find out more about the scheme including the architects behind it please visit the following links:

http://spreefeld-berlin.de/

http://zusammenarbeiter.de/

http://carpanetoschoeningh.de 

http://fatkoehl.com/

http://bararchitekten.de/

Vrijburcht co-housing scheme: Amsterdam, Netherlands

While in Amsterdam we visited the Vrijbrucht  cohousing project on Steigereiland. We were lucky enough to meet with Menno Vergunst one of the architects from VLUGP and initiators of Vrijbrucht.

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Front street view of Vrijburcht showing the cafe space which is part of the scheme

Steigereiland is one of several man-made islands in the IJ Lake making up the IJburg district of Amsterdam. According to Menno, during Europe’s economic boom between the 1990s and early 2000s the City put out bids to have the island developed. Today it is home to a range of workshops, offices, retail outlets, cafes,  living spaces and some of the most creative architecture we’ve seen.

Menno explained that barring a few regulations around building heights and positioning, the planning framework governing the island was flexible enough to allow people a little freedom to ‘play’ with their designs, creating buildings with real identity and character.

Vrijburcht is one such building built in response to a call by the City for a community led housing scheme on the island. Built right on the banks of the IJ Lake,  this three story structure houses 52 apartments (including assisted living units financed and run by the De Key social housing association), a cycle shed, retail space, greenhouse, kindergarten, cafe, workshop and hobby space, guest rooms and a community theatre space. Vrijburcht is built around a shared garden with entrances to apartments on the inside of the building so that residents are encouraged to pass by each other when leaving and returning home. When walking around the balcony walkways which connect the apartments we were reminded of the ‘streets in the sky’ design feature that characterise Sheffield’s very own Park Hill flats.

Two residents who we chatted to explained that having a garden in the central courtyard also means that there is a safe place for children to run around and  play where one of the neighboring adults can always keep an eye on them. Petra, who runs her reflexology practice from the first floor of her apartment is in charge of the Vrijburcht gardening committee; she involves the  children in the upkeep of their veggie patch and looking after the big apple tree that stands in the courtyard – a very important member of the Vrijburcht community as it supplies apples which are turned into all kinds of fruity treats from cider to apple pie in an annual party held in the building.

What really stood out to us from our visit to Vrijburcht were the lessons shared with us  about what makes the ‘community’ in community led development. Vrijburcht is partly co-funded by residents and the building is run by committees who take collective responsibility for the garden, the upkeep of the building, theatre and all of its other aspects.

Residents spoke fondly of the sense of neighbourliness they experience in the building as a result of knowing their neighbour which gives them a sense of safety and support, allowing them, for example, not to worry if they’ve left the front door open, or whether there will be someone to feed the cat if they’re away.

Familiarity and consideration thus came across as important ingredients for creating ‘community’, but as the people we spoke to explained, shared living is not without its challenges. Energy and commitment to collective responsibilities varies from time to time, and this can be frustrating and disheartening, but what stood out from our visit to Vrijburcht as with other projects visited, is that part of  the trick to successful cohousing seems to be just as much in the continuous efforts of individuals to take initiative and engage their neighbours in getting things done as well as the structural design that facilitates this engagement.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Menno and his partner Yolanda for hosting us, as well as to Barbara and Petra who took time out of their days to have us at Vrijburcht, their wonderful home.

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From left: Menno, Barbara and Petra sitting outside in the community garden and space

St Clements, East London Community Land Trust: London, UK

Arriving in East London from Mile End station we were greeted by the main road and a view of mile End park with frequent traffic passing by and little sight of any crowds and a seemingly quaint neighbourhood with rows of colourful shops selling fruit and a variety of world foods. Upon catching glimpse of Canary Wharf in the near distance (a reminder of how close we were to the financial centre of London) it was surprising to walk on towards Bow station and stumble upon the large but not overbearing Grade II listed St Clements Hospital tucked away neatly and so close to Mile End Station blending in with the small hub of local activity and sitting amongst pre-existing council estates.

St Clements Hospital is now a mixed-use housing scheme delivered through a joint venture partnership with Linden Homes, Peabody Housing Association and East London CLT; London’s first urban CLT. The scheme consists of 23 flats for affordable sale under the CLT model; built for local people and those with a connection to the local area, forming part of a larger private development of 252 homes by Linden Homes with 88 of these homes delivered as affordable housing by Peabody. The site is a former mental health hospital located in the borough of Tower Hamlets and sit within an area historically known for its rich diversity and was and is still a preferred first location  for new arrivals to the country. It is also characterised by its challenges of high unemployment rate and deprivation levels however, today, Mile End is undergoing a slow but optimistic regeneration following the 2012 Olympic Games benefiting from its close proximity to the newly regenerated Olympic Park in Stratford which has sustained interest in the area.

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Front entrance of St Clements hospital in which the Grade II listed building has been retained and restored.

In his presentation for Sheffield CLT a few weeks ago, Calum Green, Communities Director for East London Community Land Trust and communities’ organiser for Citizens UK explained the early beginnings of the project which started as a grassroots campaign in 2009 through a charity, Citizens UK which helped bring together individuals committed to finding alternative ways to provide genuinely affordable homes in East London led by the local community. Through various campaigns over a prolonged period of time, the idea for a CLT gained momentum and support from the coalition government and eventually transformed into a successful bid to build CLT housing under a joint-partnership arrangement with private housing developer Linden Homes acting as a key deliverer of housing.

St Clements is a small-scale scheme that aims to address the affordability of housing London in transparent way through its affordable housing CLT model which puts housing in community ownership, with membership to the CLT open to anyone with a connection to the local area for a small payment of £1. Under the public-private joint venture, East London CLT has created housing where prices are directly linked to the median incomes of the people living in the local area; addressing first time buyer obstacles in being priced out due to housing market speculation. This commitment to do this in perpetuity ensures that the CLT housing is kept affordable for a lifetime. Additionally, the scheme is committed in maintaining housing for people who are from the local area meaning that it is housing for local people delivered by the local community. The idea is that residents chosen to live in these houses will be committed to the CLT and its other activities in helping to improve the local area through the Trust set up to manage it which will distribute funds for smaller initiatives and projects that aim to improve the surrounding area.

Despite the positivity and enthusiasm for the final delivery element of the scheme which is expected to complete this year, Calum explained some of the difficulties and challenges that have been experienced over the 9-year duration in working on and building housing under East London CLT and the model used. These include gaining funding, political backing and support from the surrounding communities who all played a key role in making the project happen and bringing alive a strong campaign that could not be ignored.

As housing prices in London continue to increase and predictably create an onset of gentrification in places like Mile End, we need more smaller and positive initiatives like St Clements to provide alternative affordable housing models for people struggling to get on the housing ladder or unable to afford rents close to their work place.

Upon reflecting on the scheme and what we saw; although St Clements is a CLT scheme that is still developing on site, we could see for ourselves from the homes already occupied a slow formation of a what seems will be a pleasant community. What especially stood out to me about the scheme is the subtle mix between the old and new and balance of the use of space on site. The attempt to provide garden spaces through generous balcony space worked; these were already proudly being used for potted plants and seating making the apartments appear more homely despite the high density of some apartment blocks. The large aspect windows also offer great views to the city and over the nearby cemetery now turned nature reserve.

Overall, there seems a sense of pride and ownership in the different ways in which the new occupants have personalised their flats and made them feel homely, despite being amongst what is very much still a building site. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics and characteristic of this scheme will develop once the private element of the scheme and the rest of the affordable housing is occupied and how the scheme will integrate with the adjacent housing and community which is made up of mostly council owned and housing association homes. This is one the key future challenges St Clements will need to overcome as a mixed tenure and mixed-use scheme where existing Grade II listed walls have been retained.

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View of some of the completed CLT properties which have been occupied and personalised by residents

All in all, St Clements is a shining example of how cross collaboration between public and private organisations can positively work but the scheme also truthfully highlights the challenges and impacts that this type of set up may have. It is also important to note that many of the key successes of this scheme are attributed to the high commitment and level of involvement of the community in design workshops and development consultations, support from government organisations and the design teams involved and joint venture structure with a private developer.

To read and find out more about the brilliant St Clements scheme and charity organisation Citizens UK and their work in engaging communities please visit the following websites:

East London CLT: http://www.eastlondonclt.co.uk/

Citizens UK: http://www.citizensuk.org/

A special thanks goes out to Calum Green of East London CLT and Citizens UK for his insightful presentation on St Clements delivered for Sheffield CLT in May 2017 of which this blog post is largely attributed to.

 

 

 

Granby4Streets Community Land Trust: Liverpool, UK

 

IMG_8128 By a stroke of odd chance we found ourselves arriving at Liverpool train station just as police, clad top to toe in riot gear were awaiting English Defense League protesters and Unite Against Fascism counter protesters in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing.  While peace was apparently being kept,   we were a few blocks up the road at the Granby4Streets Saturday market.

In what has historically been known as the city’s deprived neighborhood (where a shooting of a young boy had occurred just the day before), stood two rows of stalls in between colorfully painted houses selling plants, West African food, Chilean jewelry, and HomeBaked bakery’s (another homegrown Liverpool Community Land Trust ) famous pies.

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In the small space of a neighborhood street, people (different in their age, ethnicity, culture, nationality and trade) came together to share their wares, their music, their crafts, their news and their  jollof rice and English pies with their neighbours and their visitors alike. As new comers we felt immediately welcomed by the kind old man Cyril who got off the bus with us to make sure we knew where to go for the market but also where to find good African food; the gentleman who had been living in the area for 60 years who waited with us to make sure we found Marianne who runs the Granby4Streets who kindly agreed to meet with us; and the invitations to a community theatre production, a Father’s Day church service and a summer solstice celebration.

Granby, undoubtedly a special community, has been the site of a  series of unsuccessful ‘regeneration’  projects by the city council and private developers which saw evictions of residents and demolitions of people’s homes . In an effort to protect their community,  residents embarked on a project a few years back to make visible their love for and attachment to their neighborhood. They painted murals on the empty houses, planted gardens in the streets and started the Saturday market. As a result of many years of hard work in behalf of this community development of the neighborhood and refurbishment of the empty houses is now being carried  out through a Community Land Trust and a mutual home ownership scheme – Terrace 21, ensuring that this community will have access to permanently affordable housing and control the trajectory of development in Granby. When we visited it was hard not to take a picture every few steps wanting to soak up the colour and vibrancy of the streets – colourful plastic birds from a Tate Liverpool Bienniale exhibition sit in the trees above the streets and even the fashionable purple Liverpudlian dustbins match the colourful streets.

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‘Community’ is a catchy word these days; applied generously to models of urban development that try to be people-centered, but sometimes this word can feel a bit intangible. Yet what really struck us, was the visible sense of community in Granby displayed not only in the mammoth feat of setting up the CLT and Terrace 21 schemes and all the administrative and fundraising  negotiating that comes with it, but also in the acts of welcoming and kindness shown to us when we visited there that made it easy to forget that elsewhere in the city protesters clashed over anti-outsider, anti-foreigner Islamophobic ideologies.

A special thanks goes out to Marianne Heaslip for taking time out of her Saturday to chat with us and the wonderful people of Granby for their kindness and their hospitality.