Social City

Wednesday 19 November 2014

© Agnese Sanvito

© Chris Mansfield

London needs to pay as much attention to its ‘emotional economy’ as it does to its bricks and mortar.

So said Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founding Director, Kids Company at a special NLA breakfast session yesterday, organized to assess what the construction industry can do to allow people to enjoy better lives in the capital and beyond.

Batmanghelidjh set up an organization 18 years ago to take care of children under 11 who were feeling ‘bereft’ at schools being closed, before being deluged with some 400 of the capital’s most disturbed and dispossessed children who the normal agencies had no capacity to help. Fast-forward to today and the statistics have not changed, said Batmanghelidjh, and repeated government initiatives are failing to reach these disenfranchised people, under what Batmanghelidjh called a ‘flawed system’. Because the majority of kids self-refer, Kids Company has no local authority funding, and, added Batmanghelidjh, some two million children are being maltreated in this country today. Following research by UCL, Kids Company found that as many as 1 in 5 of the children under its wing had been shot at or stabbed, a third were sleeping on floors, and 55% of kids didn’t even have a table in their houses. So the charity aims to make physical changes to their homes, and urges the built environment community to give help in this activity, as well as forwarding wealthy people Batmanghelidjh’s way to help its core funding. But when it came to managing these children with disturbed behaviours, nurturing and caring can alter gene expression where punishment can’t, said Batmanghelidjh, principally because of alterations to their frontal lobes caused by their backgrounds. The model you want, said Batmanghelidjh, is a care architecture that reduces the reasons why a child is frightened. ‘As you structure environments, it’s a really good idea to think about the emotional economy within them’, she said. ‘If you want stability in that environment you need to think about how you create a substitute frontal lobe’.

Christine Townley, Executive Director of the Construction Youth Trust also works with young people, specifically to give them opportunities to get involved in careers in construction. This includes a ‘Budding Brunels’ programme, working with Network Rail and Crossrail, taking young people on site, an awards regime, and through its Southwark training centre to link into the Elephant and Castle project.

Social Life, meanwhile, said its founding director Nicola Bacon, works with councils, housing associations and developers to create places. ‘We’re called Social Life because social relationships are what make places tick’, she said. Projects include working with residents at the Aylesbury Estate and at the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which, far from Ian Sinclair’s description of it as ‘an extermination facility for asylum seekers’ is a home to small businesses and the Latin American community. ‘We’re in danger of ignoring this sort of strength and asset in our city that really does create our social city. If we lose these places we lose a massive amount’, she said.

Finally, Alicia Pivaro, trustee at Architecture sans Frontières, said it was important to help create different models of change, support communities, fight the mindset of short termism and profit and believe that we can do better. ‘To quote Bob the Builder’, she said, ‘the answer is, “yes we can!”’

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Social City: What the construction industry can do to make better lives in London


Building places depends on much more than bricks and mortar. Too many developments, towns and cities fail because the reality of what people and communities want and need has been neglected in their creation.