Message - Community vs Architect. Control vs Participation

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Posted by  Andrew Kesson on November 18, 2002 at 06:15:51:

Research subject: Community involvement in the building process

Community Building : Southwark Habitat for Humanity, Peckham, Southwark

A study of the Southwark Habitat for Humanity self build project on Gordon Road Peckham.
I propose to examine the area generally, researching the planning, ideological, financial and material flows that have intersected in the local area. Providing a background to then narrow the focus to the Southwark Habitat for Humanity charity self build project.

Peckham is an ancient settlement, mentioned in the Domesday Book as Pecheha.
It gets its name from the River Peck that ran through it until it was enclosed in 1823.

For most of its history it has been a market garden for London (It was itself consumed by London in 1889 – until then it was part of Surrey), though there were other industries like brick making and barge building. This latter industry was possible because there a branch of the Great Surrey Canal ran through the town, again enclosed. Remembered by names like Boathouse Walk and Canal Street the canal flowed parallel with the ancient river into from Peckham into Greenland Dock. In the latter part of the 19th century a horse drawn carriage was set up and two railway stations opened. Thus the town became more attractive to the new suburbanites who wanted to escape the city centre.
Peckham today has the usual mix of the earlier incomers and newer arrivals. There is a large African and Caribbean community, but Asia, South America and Eastern Europe are also well represented. Peckham High Street reflects the changes in population demographics with a huge proportion of black orientated businesses plus the ubiquitous Safeway. WHSmiths and Woolworths.

The identity of the place has most recently been shaped by the murder of a young schoolboy Damilola Taylor, the construction of a new library by Alsop Architects where the boy had just been and the success of a group of local young people called the So Solid Crew famed for their glorification of violence.

Through the settlement’s history the various players – the Council, the Church, the local residents’ groups different concepts of community and community identity can be traced in a few projects.

Community power was evident early in the rapidly growing town in the late 19th century. Residents and most significantly the local Church protected the local green spaces of Peckham Rye and later, Peckham Rye Park.

Southwark Council during the post-war building boom created the largest council estate in Europe – The Aylesbury Estate. This has more recently been the subject of the council’s desires to sell off the scheme to independent developers – the plan was rejected by the residents and in the councils own words: “The Aylesbury Estate will be revamped without being demolished thanks to cash allowances from central government and Southwark Council.”
This has been made possible by large funding from central government.

This regeneration is a small part of the much larger local government regeneration project – The Peckham Partnership. The best known result of which is the new library built by Alsop Architects.
The Partnership saw their objectives as: providing access to training and employment; providing young people with basic skills; transforming the five estates into a desirable residential area; creating a safer area; creating a vibrant and viable Town Centre; improving physical and mental health; providing safe/convenient access for people; effective delivery and management and enabling a sustainable community to develop.

There have been various beneficiaries of the Partnership and more specifically the money available to the area. Not least self build schemes. One such is a development called Timberland Close, built by young offenders. Another being Southwark Habitat for Humanity.

I worked for a charity called Southwark Habitat for Humanity for nine months during my year out. It is affiliated to the charity Habitat for Humanity International, which was started 25 years ago in America. The charity's vision is to eliminate sub-standard housing worldwide. It is now the third largest charity in the States and operates in over 80 countries worldwide. Southwark HfH endeavours to change at least a tiny portion of these statistics, providing decent, low cost housing. They have built a terrace of 7 two storey dwellings on their site in Gordon Road, Peckham. I joined them on the next phase: a terrace of four houses on the same site, on the same line, but slightly removed from the others to provide space for an access road to the rear of the site.

The charity builds houses to sell, not for rent. Prospective Homeowners are invited to apply for a house; they are then selected by the charity on the basis of their need, their ability to pay for a 20-year interest-free mortgage, and their ability to work on the houses themselves. Costs are subsidised with the partnership and support of many organisations that donate materials, money and volunteer labour. Not least large American companies such as Credit Suisse First Boston and Computer Associates anxious to improve their images. The system of homeowner participation at every stage means they become well acquainted while working together - by the time they move in they can be firm friends. This community building is the vital extra to the home building, which makes Habitat for Humanity unique.

There is a story to be revealed about the way the project has come together in that place, and in how it is developing. The story revolves around the changes through time in that place, and the ideologies and systems of thought that people bring to the place. I also think self build is an especially powerful tool as a means of local and personal development. I think the Southwark Habitat for Humanity scheme is a powerful example of community participation in the building process. I suggest this is a mode that can be adapted or broadened to be applied more effectively and widely. What do you think?

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