Dropping into conversations about Community Architecture, 25 years on

These days the principle of helping residents create the neighbourhoods they want is official policy – supported by Government-funded programmes like Communities First, the Lottery-funded Big Local and of course through the idea of Big Society, relaunched yet again yesterday by David Cameron.

Radical inspiration might be traced back to the Diggers and Levellers of the 17th century, and the plotlanders of the last century, but there’s a case to be made for saying that this type of initiative became mainstream through the promotion of the idea of community architecture in the 1980s.

Yesterday evening provide a great opportunity catch up with the pioneers, when Routledge relaunched the 1987 book Community Architecture by Nick Wates and Charles Knevitt.

Not only were Nick and Charles there, but also Dr Rod Hackney, who can claim parenthood of the movement through his work dating back to the early 1970s. By 1987 Rod had become President of the RIBA, and so was well-placed to provide official support, along with Lord Scarman, whose report after the early 1980s riots concluded it was essential that “people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area”. He wrote a foreword, and according to biographer Anthony Holden, the book also became a Bible for Prince Charles in developing his views on architecture.

We gathered for drinks in the RIBA bookshop, and some brief speeches, including one from Rob Cowan, who has been writing, designing and training in the field since the 1970s.  He gave a year by year account of how Governments have been appropriating community architecture and planning ideas, with more or less deference to the original ethos. It was also a pleasure to chat with Professor Michael Hebbert about the work he is doing on London governance, 50 years on from the Act to create the Greater London CouncilI had a few anecdotes to share from my time reporting for the London Evening Standard in the 1970s.

Michael and Rob worked together on Vision for London, after the abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Rather than try for some formal interviews I just added a microphone, with permission, to the conversations. Rod Hackney is still busy, and his colleague Tia Kansara in Kansara Hackney provided an update on their international work on sustainable community architecture.

Charles Knevitt and Nick Wates

Professor Michael Hebbert and Rob Cowan

Rod Hackney and Tia Kansara

I think it is splendid that Routledge have republished Community Architecture. At £70 this edition is mainly aimed at libraries, but there will be an eBook at £24.95, and you can buy a PDF from Nick’s site. Do also take a look at Nick’s compendium of advice at Community Planning.

Back in the 1980s I was working on Groundwork Trusts – recalled in this publication – and on Development Trusts. A book for the Department of the Environment, Creating Development Trust, written with my then colleague Diane Warburton and others, sits on my shelf.  I don’t know whether HMSO could agree to any re-publication, but the essence of it was expanded into a 1998 Guide to development trusts and partnerships.

There are now hundreds of trusts around the country, supported by Locality, which is the successor to the Development Trusts Association.

I mention development trusts because Nick also started the Hastings Trust, where he lives. Just as I was leaving last night Nick said he’s now involved, as a trustee, in winding it up. There was a lot of creativity in urban planning and regeneration in the 1980s … but while the ideas may persist and grow, organisations are not forever.


  • June 8, 2013 - 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Dear David

    Very good to see you again after all these years.

    This is terrific! Well done! I hope it goes far and wide – I will certainly do my bit in disseminating it as far as possible.

    All the better for being such a fast turnaround. Most impressive.

    All the best


    PS: Website – “in development”. Hope it will be up and running by the end of July.

  • June 8, 2013 - 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff David and very interesting reading – and useful links.

    Will get bits added to my current curation activity which is around community organising – growing (slowly) here https://www.evernote.com/shard/s3/sh/77731651-cc1f-4bf9-a82b-3da3de8d0cb2/9faa907dff2c9161431f209bfc2eceda

  • david wilcox
    June 8, 2013 - 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Charles, Dave – that I really encouraging, and reinforces my motivation to develop the community enabling exploration I started last year http://socialreporters.net/?page_id=684
    It would be great to bring together some new and old community architects, organisers and enablers to find common principles and add new methods.

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