May 18, 2023

Sustainable and equitable futures through placemaking

With the climate crisis worsening, governments worldwide must take a more sustainable approach to urban planning. This is particularly important for lower-income communities, who can feel the effects of climate change harder.

In the context of climate change and rapid regeneration, placemaking is a powerful tool for promoting sustainability in urban communities, encouraging residents to actively become involved in and have agency over how their communities change. Sustainable placemaking should focus on providing and making green spaces accessible to all and ensuring communities are safe and inclusive – strengthening the creation of sustainable futures in the fight against climate change.

The effects of climate change on lower-income communities are substantial. Many communities are already being squeezed by cost-of-living pressures, and climate-related issues, such as frozen pipes, worsen this. For example, in London, one in every ten households is in fuel poverty and choosing to eat or heat their homes can be a daily decision.

These communities suffer the fallout of extreme weather events the most – they tend to live in areas more vulnerable to floods, droughts, and extreme heat. Lower-income communities also suffer from higher pollution levels in their water, air and soil and tend to have poor access to nature and recreational spaces. Many areas, such as East London, also have large swaths of derelict industrial plants that are now being regenerated.

The physical threat posed to people's homes, local infrastructure and community facilities by climate change is also higher – many residents do not have home insurance.

These communities then have higher rates of disease owing to air and water pollution in the area, which is especially worrying for more vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions and people of colour.

A lack of available green space can also impact the well-being of communities. For example, in London, 35% of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds visit green spaces less than once a month, and this is linked to a lack of green space in poorer areas. But even when available, this space is often limited, and lower-income families can typically only access around six yards per person – the size of the goal area on a football pitch.

Combining all this with a lack of access to quality healthcare leads to a marked decline in mental and physical health – lives can be cut short by as much as a decade in these postcodes.

While climate change is on many Londoners’ minds, over a third (37%) of respondents to a London Council survey said a green heating alternative is too expensive. A further 16% reported that low-carbon alternatives to gas heating were also out of their reach. As a result, many boroughs are calling for the government to allocate more funding to projects by delivering £98 billion on retrofitting to make London's homes more energy efficient and the £3.8 billion Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund.

Crucially, securing a more equitable, sustainable future for London will require effort from sectors across the capital.

Placemaking is a participatory approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces, harnessing the ideas and assets of local communities to create areas that are inclusive to and representative of them.

Placemaking projects focus on inclusive public places and cultural spaces that support progressive shifts: from genuinely affordable housing for low-income households to public parks, areas and buildings where people meet, create thought-provoking culture, explore heritage, and champion diversity and innovation.

By inviting individuals to co-design, develop and create their local spaces, placemaking supports sustainable development that is accessible to everyone whilst also promoting environmental benefits and community well-being.

A major driver of sustainable development in local communities is placemaking, which promotes environmental sustainability by encouraging community projects that centre around reconnecting with nature and designing inclusive green spaces and sustainable facilities.

For example, placemaking supported the creation of "in-between spaces" in Waltham Forest. As part of the project, students and other community members collaborated to design new, green walking paths to fight back against the effects of air pollution on residents.

Another recent Hackney project funded by Foundation for Future London saw a collaboration between an architect, estate residents and local authorities to turn urban spaces, such as a disused car park, into vertical farms for fruit and vegetables to grow.

These collaborative projects crucially take a co-design approach to placemaking, enabling residents to reconnect with their surroundings with fellow community members and work towards a collective goal – an inviting, inclusive green space.

Significantly, adding parks, green roofs, stormwater infrastructure and greenways should be at the heart of any placemaking strategy. In addition, urban greening can benefit lower-income communities by enabling them to offset the effects of climate change in ways that reflect their community.

Therefore, working to strengthen the green economy through community-led projects in these areas will empower them with tools to combat the effects of the climate crisis better and become natural agents of change in their communities.

Urban greening is not just beneficial from a climate point-of-view. People living near parks and other green spaces display fewer psychological concerns and are more active.

Generally, when an area is greener and walkable, its residents have more space to share and meet as a healthier community. The £250 million Greenwich Square regeneration project – delivering communal gardens and a piazza, is an excellent example of how collective mental anxiety can be alleviated by connecting communities to nature.

Having these green places also puts an area back in touch with itself. Because people will be more inclined to spend time outside, they will be more likely to connect with other residents, build trust and share their thoughts on life in the community. The result is a happier, more social and, importantly, stronger community.

Placemaking enables projects that bring the community together to address socioeconomic issues. It allows creatives, businesses, and social enterprises to flourish, as development is centred around the local community and contributes to arts and culture.

Through placemaking, community-led projects that support urban redevelopment can bolster employment and spur innovation at a local level, crucially helping tackle socioeconomic inequalities.

In Waltham Forest, for example, local people have been raising funds to purchase solar panels. These panels will then be used to power the community centre to help alleviate the damage of soaring energy costs – including the homes of those most affected.

Other projects centred around green space to fight against food poverty and social justice includes the Waltham Forest-based "Green Forest Gate," which features Loop Labs and Forest Gate Community Garden. (WEBCFF 2022).

From supporting initiatives that focus on providing clean air technology and sustainable energy sources to projects looking at localised food systems, placemaking brings about sustainability that also boosts the social and economic vitality of the community.

Placemaking makes communities more resilient and inclusive, supporting them by creating urban sustainability that is accessible to everyone. Therefore, placemaking helps communities combat climate change at its source and rejuvenate the area as a social organ – turning it from a "postcode" into a community.

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