James Smart is an undergraduate student at London South Bank (LSBU), reading Urban & Environmental Planning and recipient of the Michael Welbank Scholarship.
I grew up in a housing cooperative. When asked why my family, less well-off than my classmates, could live close to our school, I would say it was a council home, the difference seeming irrelevant but seemingly needing justification. Trying to process the reasons behind this difference of ownership, the importance of such, especially for cities like London and the pressures it silently exerted on my relationships is a source of reflection.
The community I grew within in Islington, the residents who remain, the realities that drove others out, and the mixtures of ownerships that guided these changes are relevant today. Those seeking or experiencing life in the capital will look for a place they can belong. My family found its position through a housing cooperative called HTC (the Holloway Tennant's Committee), which we gained through my grandmother, an early member and investor.
Looking back, living in suitable housing surrounded by people experiencing the spectrum of life; engendered an interest in fostering this possibility for others. When I went out to play with friends, our eagerness to discover space, and connect with everything around us, orientated my relationship to place. I see the difference in our realities as a key nurturing element of my identity, relationship with my surroundings and how I perceive urban design. Many of the routes I enjoyed growing up are dwindling. Namely, access to gardens, community events or centres, and even after-school clubs are dwindling. Whilst there is hope with low-traffic neighbourhoods and street play, it is unlikely to stand alone.
Academically urban design is manipulating the environment to create an aesthetic or function. When I consider the way urban places and spaces are entwined, knitting the people who occupy them together, environmental design is a means of enrichment. When Urban Designed areas can lead, you find people meeting casually, building friendships, and a community emerges.
A community's needs become more explicit as it develops shared ownership of a space, which can elevate the community into delivering more than a sense of, but a real, tangible welcoming place. Inevitably an issue of context arises; an unsustainable cost issue is inevitable, not exclusively in London but acutely the case.
The idea of collaborative construction becomes almost a theory. When it does bloom, it can highlight opportunities for external interests, say by enquiring to manage an abandoned lot. Increasing competition, backfiring by escalating costs and displacing those who were content without change. Illustrating a recurrent fear at source, our inability to achieve or protect communal assets.
Realities of economics, austere points of view and imbalances in power are potent in their abilities to dissolve communities before they become resilient and flourish.
I do believe the limit of my personal history creates a bias. It isn't easy to imagine how those who don't share the same past are impacted by caging themselves away. Urban fabric changes routinely result in segregating the most well-off, self-enclosed in landmark spaces. Who benefits from these changes? And what is the outcome of restricting the mobility of all these groups?
Whether you live in an icon, a townhouse or an estate, these pressures are unsustainable. These circumstances isolate all Londoners in a fragmented city that leaves us lonely.
As a future planner, I tend to lean towards conservative hopes. If I put one forward, it would be a change in awareness. Should a time come where the questions like mine become dinner conversation, that would be exciting. Such discussions could lead toward planning being held as a cornerstone of our society. How our city is designed and managed belongs side by side in hearts with the NHS, the legal system and other public institutions which serve us. There is little doubt in my mind that a shift in value would better us all. During my studies, I aim to prepare for when this hope comes to be.
About the Michael Welbank Scholarship
The RTPI-Michael Welbank Scholarship, launched in September 2021, commemorates the life and work in London of Michael Welbank MBE, who died in September 2020, and who served as the RTPI’s President in 1992-93.
This new initiative targets those who have entered a London Planning School via a widening participation programme including students from under-represented demographics, lower- income and disadvantaged backgrounds to help encourage diverse talent into the profession.
We are committed to promoting and representing a diverse and inclusive profession and ensuring that planning education is accessible to all, as evidenced in our ten year corporate Strategy CHANGE action plan and are grateful of the opportunity to offer this scholarship over the next three years. In its first year, the £2000 scholarship was awarded to James Smart from London South Bank University and Ashleigh Gill from University of Westminster.