London in lockdown:

the pandemic has been played out at a local scale and that’s where its lasting impact will be judged


I’ve had a sense over the past weeks of physical space shrinking around me. It’s a curious feeling - as experienced by Alice in Wonderland perhaps - of undergoing a change in scales. My immediate community in North London has taken on huge proportions, in which minute visual and audible stimuli have been amplified (just listen to the birds!) and daily walks have become an elaborate spatial dance. As an architect I find it intriguing.

Yet there’s also a new sense of social space – as people have suddenly become more conscious of each other, of a common vulnerability and interdependency. In Islington, as elsewhere, actions speak for themselves: strangers chatting through open windows; students delivering donated meals; retired nurses returning to work; people on rotas phoning vulnerable neighbours. The optimist in me hopes that this spontaneous show of empathy represents a genuine change of heart, the world having been forced to focus on what’s important. Are we witnessing a new appetite for social action that we can harness once we return to some kind of normality?

I’ve learnt not to judge by appearances. Before becoming an architect I was a documentary filmmaker, often observing and recording people’s experience of poverty. I am therefore acutely aware of a parallel reality in my own community. Islington is not only one of London’s most deprived boroughs, it’s also one of the most divided in terms of income. At 38%, it has the second highest rate of child poverty; and it is 8th in London on the IMD’s Living Environment Deprivation list, which reflects poor quality housing. So on local walks – unavoidably eavesdropping on raised voices, babies crying, teenagers huddled together on doorsteps – I’m well aware of the precarious existence of families living in crowded accommodation. The problems and inequalities within this community have simply been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic.

So, if what I’m seeing beyond my front door is both the problem and the potential solution, the key challenge is this: how must we act to harness this capacity for mutual support, compassion and social action in order to tackle the divisions that have been so cruelly exposed?

ft’work’s purpose is to help create thriving communities: we support local projects with advice, evaluation and funding – so that the best ideas can be rolled out elsewhere; and we call for clear social principles to underpin development – to ensure it brings real value to communities. Right now we’re getting behind various rapid-response initiatives, whilst collecting and helping to evaluate examples of social innovation. These include the delivery of donated smart phones to enable isolated residents to join in online activities; a local theatre becoming an interactive platform for artists and performers; a community centre and restaurant collaborating to provide free meals.

From what I’ve observed, the following principles could help formulate an enduring response to the pandemic:

- commit to fundamental and lasting change

- build on people’s newfound resolve (not to revert to where we were)

- focus on social justice (we’ve learnt to connect with and shield the most vulnerable)

- be inclusive (we’ve seen the potential for mutual support across social divides, especially in volunteering)

- be collaborative (public, private, charity and community sectors have spontaneously started working together)

- tackle social and economic aftershocks together (they’re interdependent and there’s some evidence of a new contract between business and society – such as rent relief, flexible working, or hotel rooms for rough sleepers)

Above all we must seize the opportunity, but how does this translate into action? There are clear pointers from what’s already happening:

- be practical and inventive (we’ve found new ways of working, of being at home, of relating to each other)

- mobilize the wider community (collaborate across disciplines to kick-start ideas)

- be adaptive (organizations small and large have rapidly switched focus to address the impact of the pandemic)

- champion and fund innovation (social and creative enterprises have been firing on all cylinders, keeping community spirit alive)

- collect evidence (understand what’s happening, what’s worked and provide clear evidence to demonstrate its value)

People’s responses to this extraordinary world crisis have shown that it doesn’t take a generation to change human behaviours. We’ve each experienced its direct effects, so does that make us more prepared to act? If we want to continue to enjoy clean air and car-free streets, we must choose to stop driving, stop flying, work from home... Similarly, if we value the demonstrations of human kindness and social action, we must acknowledge our individual responsibility to build and maintain inclusive communities.

Contribution by Clare Richards to the London Society blog

Clare Richards, architect and award-winning documentary filmmaker, founded ft’work in 2016 to promote thriving communities and ensure that clear social principles underpin development. A not for profit, ft’work collaborates at local level to support projects and initiate ideas whilst, at national level, working to encourage best practice and debate policy change.