Co-housing: the promises and the pitfalls

Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis have eclipsed the UK’s chronic housing shortage. But the housing challenges of 2019 are still with us in 2022, and in many ways they have worsened. According to the housing charity Shelter, over 17 million people are living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing.

There’s no single solution to Britain’s housing emergency. But one idea that’s gaining increasing attention is co-housing.

A London School of Economics report has given a good definition of co-housing:

“A co-housing group is formed by a community of people typically with similar needs and interests. Co-housing is owned by the group and usually contains private rooms or houses with communal areas such as living rooms and kitchens, where people will come together to share meals and spend time together. The residents are responsible for the management and maintenance of the site, and they are run in a non-hierarchical way, giving all residents an equal say in how they are organised.”

The modern co-housing movement began in Denmark in the 1970s, and has since spread to other European countries, including Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. There is now a growing number of co-housing projects in the UK, and although these are small in scale, they are pointing the way to alternative models of housing, and also to addressing other social issues, such as isolation and loneliness.

The promises of co-housing

The proponents of co-housing suggest that it has multiple benefits for residents:

  • affordability: by pooling resources such as cooking, childcare, and household expenses, co-housing residents can cut costs;
  • security: co-housing provides safe spaces for residents to live and socialise;
  • sustainability: sharing resources increases efficiency and reduces waste;
  • community: co-housing residents make decisions together, and co-housing can also reduce the chances of isolation.

The multiple faces of co-housing

There is no single template for co-housing. Some projects have a mixture of generations, singles, couples and families, while others focus on the needs of particular communities. In the United States, intergenerational co-housing projects have brought together retired people, families and foster children. Another scheme, in Berlin, has been designed for older gay men, but also welcomes older lesbian women, trans and inter persons, as well as younger LGBTQ+ people.

In 2016, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. The New Ground scheme has been successful in developing a mutually supportive community of women over the age of 50. In addition, New Ground has worked to encourage policy makers, planners and housing associations to recognise the social and economic benefits of co-housing, and to respond to the demand that exists for senior co-housing.

Because co-housing is often seen as being reserved for communities who are affluent and predominantly white, Housing 21, a leading provider of retirement properties for older people, has recently launched a co-housing initiative with a focus on older Black and Asian people of modest financial means.

Tackling isolation: how co-housing can address loneliness

The communal nature of co-housing makes it a natural fit for people who are isolated and lonely. This was one of the themes of a recent webinar hosted by Housing LIN. One of the participants was Kath Scanlon, a researcher from the London School of Economics, who highlighted her work exploring the links between loneliness and participation in community-led housing.

Kath’s research has underlined the importance of social connection with neighbours and sharing spaces with others as ways of preventing loneliness:

“Broadly, we found that the most tight-knit places, where members knew and trusted each other most, performed best as supportive communities… Emotional loneliness was countered by fostering meaningful relationships and ‘belonging’ through physical proximity, sharing similar values, a reciprocal commitment and care, looking out for and supporting each other.”

A resident’s perspective

One of the most engaging and powerful contributions to the Housing LIN webinar came from Alison Cahn, who has been a resident at Lancaster Cohousing scheme since 2012.

Alison was one of the first residents of the scheme, which is an intergenerational co-housing community of households in the village of Halton, three miles from Lancaster in the North West of England.

The Lancaster scheme was designed by the people who live there. It consists of private homes, community facilities and shared outdoor space. Shared facilities include a laundry, food store and a car share scheme.

As Alison explained, the scheme is an eco-housing community, designed to make sustainable living easy. The homes are built to Passivhaus standards, which means they use about 15% of the energy to heat compared to conventional housing. Electricity comes from the scheme’s own microgrid. And if Alison needs anything, from a drill to a tent, she can borrow it from her neighbours. Overall, the scheme is estimated to save around 540 tonnes of CO2 every year (a single tonne of CO2 is equivalent to a 500 m3 hot air balloon).

Alison also highlighted the social aspects of co-housing. The scheme has been designed to enable residents to meet and interact. As well as sharing facilities, the residents get involved in communal activities, such as art, camping and wild swimming. They also work together and make decisions on the future development of the scheme.

Alison watched her mother grow old alone, and was determined that this shouldn’t happen to her. She feels supported by her neighbours, something that was especially important when her husband fell ill. Alison also spoke very movingly about another resident called Roger, who found support from the co-housing community in the final weeks of his life. As she explained: “Roger said he came to this co-housing scheme to die, but he didn’t. He actually came here to live.”

The pitfalls of co-housing

While Alison was keen to stress the attractions of co-housing, she also described the challenges. “Different people need different levels of social connections. Not everyone is keen to spend much time with their neighbours, and some prefer their privacy.” While decisions are taken together, reaching a consensus can take time, with general meetings sometimes getting heated. “Some bitter conflicts have fractured relationships, and some people have left.”

And although co-housing can reduce isolation, some residents have the impression that it will solve all their problems – “We’re neighbours, not carers or psychotherapists.”

Final thoughts

As things stand, co-housing schemes in the UK are too small to tackle the enormous challenges of the country’s housing shortage. But existing schemes demonstrate the great potential of this model of housing. And with more support from housing associations and local authorities, co-housing in the UK could really take off.

It was thanks to an imaginative collaboration between Hanover Housing Association and the Older Women’s Co-Housing group that the New Ground co-housing scheme became a reality. The housing association financed purchase of the land and construction of the properties, and the homes were presold or pre-let by the co-housing group before construction started.

Co-housing isn’t for everyone. It requires commitment from residents to participate in the management of a scheme, and to sacrifice some of their privacy for the benefit of their neighbours. This model of housing presents particular challenges, some of which might be hard to overcome. But the rewards of co-housing can be substantial.

Or, as Alison Cahn puts it: “When it works, it’s awesome.”

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Community funding reigns supreme in Jubilee celebrations

By Bonnie Thomson

This year, Her Majesty the Queen will observe her 70th year on the throne – making her the first British monarch in history to reach a Platinum Jubilee. Celebrations will take place across the UK, with most concentrated on the Platinum Jubilee Central Weekend from 2 to 5 June 2022. Street parties, concerts and community lunches are just some of the initiatives planned on a local and national scale to mark the milestone, with a mixture of traditional and unconventional tributes set to take place. Taking just one example from Bradford, Councillor Sarah Ferriby said of the activities in her area:

“There are events planned for people who are experiencing homelessness, isolation or loneliness, there are dementia friendly events and intergenerational and intercultural events all reflecting the diverse communities of our district and the Queen’s Commonwealth. There really is something for everyone.”

The rich programme of events has largely been made possible by the multitude of funding opportunities, both large and small, on offer to community organisations throughout the country.

Diverse grants for diverse projects

The National Lottery has been perhaps the most significant provider of community funding for the Jubilee, offering more than £22 million through a range of schemes supporting everything from creative arts enterprises to preservation of local green spaces. According to a recent update, the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF)’s Platinum Jubilee Fund has given awards to a wide variety of innovative projects, including a beekeeping initiative in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, an intergenerational skill-sharing platform in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and a programme of sporting events for those with acquired brain injuries in Worcestershire, England. The same update reports that, according to NLCF research, over half of all UK adults are likely to join in with celebrations in their local area. This marks the Jubilee as a monumental opportunity for the voluntary and community sector to create new, and strengthen existing, community networks in their areas of operation.

As well as these opportunities from larger funding bodies, many local councils throughout the UK have offered funding streams aimed at supporting community events in their neighbourhoods. Breckland Council has given almost 30 grants to local community groups and associations for activities such as picnics, quizzes, all-day parties and arts exhibitions, while the Scottish Borders Council has funded a range of projects including a 50s-themed party and the creation of a breeding facility for the ‘iconic’ Scottish red grouse. In Northern Ireland, Lisburn & Castlereagh Council has awarded funding to a total of 91 organisations in the area, highlighting the vast appetite for local celebrations and inclusive community activities.

Opportunities for last minute ideas

For community groups still looking for a chance to get involved, funding may still be available in their local area. For example, Richmondshire Council is offering grants from its Platinum Jubilee Festivals and Events Fund until September 2022, for projects which can take place at any point during 2022. Similarly, Harborough Council is offering grants to secure or develop capital assets across the district as a lasting commemoration of the Queen’s legacy until the end of July 2022.

Also armed with £5 million of National Lottery funding, Sport England’s Platinum Jubilee Activity Fund is still accepting applications for projects which involve physical activity as a means of tackling inequalities and engaging communities. Speaking on the fund, Tom Hollingsworth, CEO of Sport England, said:

“As part of the celebrations of an unprecedented anniversary, we’re excited to be able to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with a fund designed to help people to come together and get moving.”

Priorities for the programme include introducing those who are less active to new sports and activities and removing barriers to participation in areas of deprivation. Full guidance is available here.

Creating a legacy that endures

Despite the diversity of concepts, the common thread throughout all funded activities and programmes which have been offered is a sense of connection-forging, which has the potential to extend far beyond the Jubilee. Founded on local knowledge and the goal of understanding community needs, the charitable sector is key to fostering longevity in relationships, and ensuring the feeling of commonality created during these celebrations does not dissipate.

By harnessing the momentum which has been generated this year, community-focused initiatives could thrive to an even greater degree. With funding on Grantfinder covering the Jubilee and so much more, there is ample opportunity to take inspiration from the activities taking place in June 2022 and carve out even more new avenues for community-building.

Image: Photo by Kai Bossom on Unsplash

GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services. GrantFinder is the leading funding database in the UK covering local, national, and international sources of funding. For further information about funding highlights, services and resources from GrantFinder, visit our website.

Further reading about funding on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Grey to green: can green spaces create equity and wellbeing in post-COVID cities?

As 2021 draws to an end, much of the world is slowly emerging towards post-pandemic life. Focus is shifting from response to recovery. Governments, activists and academics are arguing for a green recovery – a one-off opportunity to truly incorporate climate change objectives, sustainability and equity into future development.

Cities served as the frontline to the pandemic and will continue to do so in efforts to transition towards a sustainable recovery. Building the cities of the future was the focus of a recent NESTA webinar in conversation with Daisy Narayanan, Senior Manager of Placemaking and Mobility at the City of Edinburgh Council. It highlighted the importance of creating urban environments that put people first for healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Opportunities for cities

Narayanan argued that positives can be taken from COVID-19, as it inspired collaboration across sectors and communities whilst proving the responsiveness and adaptability of traditional systems. She believes that this mindset should be harnessed going forward to facilitate meaningful changes and progression within our cities for everyone.

Describing herself as a ‘relentless optimist’, she stated, “I think there is something about this moment in time where there is a real kind of desire to move forward, in a way that changes how things used to be, into what things need to be or should be. I think there is a lot of excitement around shaping that together.”

Narayanan went on to talk about the opportunities she sees for transforming our public spaces with collaboration across planning, transport and economic development. She is excited by the potential of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ and its growing presence within city planning around the world and in her own city of Edinburgh.

More broadly, she is excited that citizens are recognising the importance of living well locally and that community wellbeing should be inherent to placemaking.

The inequality of green space

Whilst positives can be drawn from collaboration during the pandemic, it also magnified how divisive our cities’ environmental issues can be. Pollution, congestion and dwindling green spaces compounded the health and social challenges for many of those living in urban areas.

With most inside amenities forced to close during periods of lockdown, city dwellers turned to parks for exercise and socialising in unprecedented numbers. However, urban green spaces proved to be unequal in distribution. Socioeconomic status is the most likely determinant to green space accessibility and quality, and access is typically limited to the more scenic neighbourhoods with higher average incomes.

The benefits of urban green spaces to an individual’s health and wellbeing are well documented, with associations between the presence of green spaces, greater quality of life and decreased risk of excess mortality. There is growing research suggesting that city populations without the provision of green spaces in the UK had typically higher instances of mental health issues, such as COVID-related anxiety and isolation.

Of course, the provision of green spaces is only one of a number of factors highlighted in discussions around equalities, health and well-being in urban areas. However, the pandemic exposed the barriers to accessing the potential value provided by such spaces which could continue to reinforce inequalities.

Can a green integrated approach to transforming our cities tackle inequality and promote wellness in the post-COVID city?

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

During the webinar, Narayanan briefly touched upon how Milan is a commendable example of a city making really big changes to its public spaces for the benefit of its citizens.

The city has impressive commitments for using nature-based solutions to increase resilience towards future environmental and health crises, whilst stimulating an equity-based approach to tackling climate change.

The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, committed his city to green urbanism before the pandemic and has since campaigned for efforts to be increased due to the unequal challenges created in cities.

He stated, “The green and just recovery that is needed to create more sustainable and healthier cities sees urban nature as a key element for building back better I have been clear that any recovery in my city, in Italy and for Europe, must be rooted in these principles of equity and climate action.

Sala aims to plant three million trees across Milan by 2030 to tackle climate change and to halt the trend of deteriorating air quality. At the core of this strategy is the transformation of derelict land in deprived neighbourhoods into 20 high quality urban parks.

The city government is providing for residents to have trees planted in their private gardens and upon flat rooftops, whilst greenery is being incorporated into car parks and on the sides of office blocks.

Integrating green spaces, food supply and equity, the city’s growing number of community gardens and allotments are often situated upon apartment block rooftops. Residents can grow and collect food whilst local restaurants are encouraged to use ingredients from the nearby streets. Locals have also lauded the social spaces that these gardens have become, as users can collaborate and educate each other through gardening.

Perhaps the most symbolic project in Milan’s transition is the Bosco Verticale or ‘Vertical Forest’- two residential apartment blocks which have been almost completely covered with trees, perennials and shrubbery. Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the 80m and 112m high buildings have the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 square metres worth of woodland upon only 3,000 square metres of concrete.

Consisting of hundreds of plant species of various shapes and colours, the project is a popular, living landmark throughout the year. Not only an appealing addition to the Milan skyline, the urban vegetation has been a remarkable success – lowering temperatures, encouraging 20 new bird species into the area and absorbing 30 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The towers demonstrate the multiple benefits that can be achieved from small-scale integrated approaches to increasing green spaces. The concept is already being replicated in cities around the world.

If successful, it is believed that Milan’s vast increase in vegetation has the potential to absorb an additional five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, whilst significantly decreasing the presence of pollutant particles in the air associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Milan’s transformation is exemplary of a city that is learning from previous vulnerabilities, using urban space to directly promote citizen wellbeing whilst tackling climate change.

As Narayanan argues, all cities now have the opportunity to put people’s needs and wellbeing at the centre of future urban spaces. Whilst citizens and authorities often both want to achieve attractive, sustainable and healthy places, she argues that citizen voices get lost in consultation.

As a step to progressing away from this, she says: “Consultations should be more like conversations. Discussions need to be done respectfully, evidence-based, data-based and using people’s stories and life as the basis for change.”


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‘Culture towns’: how small towns are leading the way

Image Copyright Billy McCrorie via Creative Commons

There has been no shortage of headlines sounding the death knell for our town centres over recent years as they continue to suffer from the effects of growth in online shopping, government policy and now the pandemic. But while concerns over the future of town centres is nothing new, neither are the changes that town centres are experiencing.

Changes that affect industries, technologies and the way land is used – which in turn impact on the economy – have impacted communities for decades, particularly in smaller towns. From the loss of manufacturing to new industries and ways of working, towns have had to adapt to survive. And some small towns have been leading the way in reinventing their economic bases by using other assets to spur on their local economies.

Culture as a catalyst

One such example is Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. Following the loss of a distillery and a creamery in the 80s and 90s respectively, Wigtown secured its designation as National Book Town in 1998. This acted as a catalyst for regeneration and inspired the creation of the annual Wigtown Book Festival which now attracts more than 20,000 visitors to the area and brings more than £4 million to the local economy.

Other Scottish towns have also been bestowed with cultural accolades. West Kilbride in Ayrshire, a once thriving mill town, is Scotland’s first accredited Craft Town and winner of a Creative Place Award in 2012. Dumfries recently became home to a new National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling which aims to “establish itself as an international visitor attraction contributing to the regeneration of the town and region and providing Scotland with a world class tourism resource”. And Huntly in Aberdeenshire has attracted artists from all over the world for residents thanks to the Deveron Projects initiative set up in 1995 to connect artists, communities and places.

In England, Farnham recently became the country’s first World Craft Town and only the third region in Europe to receive World Craft City status. Recent research estimates that the value of craft to Farnham and the surrounding area is already in excess of £50 million.

With the aim of building on Wigtown’s success, plans are being drawn up for an open competition to create further National Towns of Culture across Scotland as proposed in the SNP’s manifesto. Suggestions include Scotland’s National Live Music Town, Folk and Trad Town, or Scotland’s Visual Art Town.

Numerous towns could be in the running to become a musical town. It has been suggested that Ullapool could be a frontrunner, after playing host to the Loopallu festival for 15 years, as could Stornoway, the host of the international Hebridean Celtic Festival (HebCelt). And of course, being home to Jimmy Shand and The Proclaimers, Auchtermuchty could equally be in with a shout.

Making the most of local assets

Now may be the ideal time for small towns to make the most of their local assets, whether that is cultural or otherwise.  Research has shown that some smaller towns have actually fared much better than larger cities during the pandemic as the importance of local has been emphasised. They have experienced fewer reductions in overall footfall and there has been an increase in footfall in some small towns as consumers look to stay local and avoid using public transport.

A report from Sustrans has recommended capitalising on the increased use of smaller high streets as a way to economic recovery. It highlights that this presents an opportunity to invest in other elements unique to these areas, arguing that “re-establishing the role of a high street as a hub for social connection and reinforcing and celebrating its roots and unique character could go a long way to encourage people to stay local and spend their money where they live.”

Lessons from the US

Research from the US has also shown how small towns can succeed by reinventing themselves through emphasising their existing assets and distinctive resources. Following the loss of various industries, these communities have moved away from trying to attract major employers as a way of attracting talent. Many have moved towards investment in creative infrastructure rather than physical infrastructure to make their communities more attractive to residents and businesses.  

Following increased suburbanisation and growth in out of town retail, Paducah in Kentucky, for example, changed its approach to economic development by focusing on developing and retaining the historic integrity of the Renaissance Area, which includes the LowerTown Arts District, the historic downtown, and the riverfront. Paducah’s approach aimed to develop a cohesive identity around its core assets: art, the Ohio River, and history. In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Paducah the world’s seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art.

While all the case study towns in this research drew on different assets, several successful tactics were identified that other communities can use:

  • Identify and build on existing assets
  • Engage all members of the community to plan for the future
  • Take advantage of outside funding
  • Create incentives for redevelopment, and encourage investment in the community
  • Encourage cooperation within the community and across the region
  • Support a clean and healthy environment.

Small towns leading the way?

All these small towns are exemplars of community-led regeneration and illustrate how drawing on unique local assets can be a real catalyst for growth. Perhaps the bigger towns and cities should be looking to their smaller counterparts for lessons on how to succeed in an ever changing world.


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Rethinking and rebuilding the voluntary sector post-pandemic

By Andrew Hogg

From crisis comes opportunity. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the voluntary sector, but it has also given us an opportunity to rebuild for the better.

With this in mind, the speakers attending the recent ‘Rethink Rebuild’ webinar (organised by NPC) gave their thoughts on how the voluntary sector can move forward to face the challenges and inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and to create a more equitable society.

COVID-19 has highlighted key systemic inequalities at the heart of our economic system. A recent report from Imperial College London has shown that ethnic minority groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. When age and sociodemographic factors are accounted for, people from these communities are almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white peers.

Kaneez Shaid, Head of Community Engagement at Rethink Mental Illness, highlighted the direct impact the pandemic has had on people with mental health issues, such as the erosion of support frameworks and statutory services, loss of communal spaces and increased demands for accommodation. NPC have linked COVID-19 with a rise in domestic violence cases, with increased demand for services and donations from voluntary sector organisations, alongside a reduction of charity fundraising efforts:

In many communities it has been the not-for-dividends sector that has provided cohesion, that has provided people with food, with economic viability, access to vaccines, and social infrastructure stopping people falling through the net…the question for me becomes how we make this more visible politically. – Lord Victor Adebowale, current Chair of the NHS Confederation

Seth Reynolds, Principal Consultant for Systems Change at NPC, argued that the pandemic has created a ‘liminal space’ wherein we can pause and reflect on the systemic drivers and fundamental patterns of behaviour that created the inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

This is a chance to fundamentally and systemically change the way our economy works for the better. There is no going back to normal, so how can the sector provide leadership to face the new challenges going forward?

Collaborative and system leadership

A recurring theme during the webinar was the need for a collaborative leadership approach to accommodate systemic change. Lord Adebowale talked about the need for system leadership, the adoption of which would enable voluntary sector organisations to align their missions and operations towards a common goal. This would set sector-wide objectives and generate a cooperative atmosphere whilst facilitating conditions within which others can make progress toward social change. This means leading beyond the boundaries of one’s own organisational needs to achieve aggregate, cross-sector outcomes.

This would involve understanding the interdependence of the voluntary sector, and decision-making that may go against the immediate concerns of the organisation to achieve collective outcomes. It also entails the acceptance of diversity as not only a good in and of itself, but as Lord Adebowale observed, as an “essential, economical, and operational good”, to include a broad remit of local, grassroots organisations.

A collaborative approach to leadership would also make best use of resources and help align funding to where it is needed. Juliet Mountain, the Director of Shaw Trust, argued that a competitive funding environment means that charities tend towards mission drift and invariably must follow the funding, rather than the needs of those who use their services. She argued that shared intelligence, not just of hard data but of expertise, resources, tools, and decision making, would enable lower capacity groups to easily access and understand generated data. This would enable the triangulation of funding and a coordinated decision-making process – what Lord Adebowale called “process matching intention”.

Power with, not power over

Collaborative and system leadership would also entail a shift towards localism – services either co-produced or fully produced by the communities who receive them – and relationships based on trust, power sharing and diversity. Kaneez Shaid talked of devolving hierarchical relationships between charities and local communities and creating new structures of shared power and co-production, such as integrated care systems and place-based activities embedded into local communities. Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds of NPC similarly argued for local partners and grassroots organisations to be embedded into social recovery plans to co-create structures that are built and maintained by the people using them.

Power sharing can go further than this. Even small, day-to-day changes can help to address power imbalances, such as adapting a more inclusive vocabulary when it comes to working partnerships. Both Kaneez Shaid and Juliet Mountain argued that a shift in language can facilitate a more cooperative mindset and be more inclusive of smaller, grassroots organisations. For instance, using ‘participant’ instead of ‘client’ or ‘colleague’ instead of ‘co-worker’ would create a more inclusive taxonomy and equitable relational partnerships. This in turn would engender collective decision-making and create added value for participants.   

Grant-making

One of the few things to directly result from COVID-19 that has been openly welcomed across the voluntary sector is the increased access to unrestricted funding. In November 2020 over 150 funders made a pledge towards flexible grant-making and trust-based relationships with charities.

Many participants in the webinar who shared their opinions in breakout rooms after the talks also agreed that the temporary suspension of funding restrictions and flexible approaches to grant-making during the pandemic had been hugely beneficial and at times necessary to keep smaller charities open.

Flexible grant making could also involve simplifying and standardising application processes, such as what is asked for from the grantee or the technical vocabulary used in the application. This would mean charities would not have to spend more time than necessary filling out forms and could use templates to increase their application output.

However, as Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds noted, to continue to understand the value of flexible funding and to know where future funding should be allocated, proportionate impact measurement is needed. It is important for funders to be able to keep demand light and proportional whilst having access to a funding feedback loop.

Concluding thoughts

This webinar revealed some key sticking points: cross-sector collaboration, system leadership, and the adoption of new models of power sharing that encourage localism, co-production, shared system analysis, and collective decision-making are needed to dynamically respond to funding needs. Similarly, the collective utilization of resources would allow for greater triangulation of funding and level the playing field for smaller, grassroots groups.

Organisations must come back from the pandemic with a renewed emphasis on community engagement, decentralised and devolved forms of organisation, and embrace the mentality of ‘power with, not power over’. Organisational models and processes, such as affiliate frameworks and decentralised partnerships, should be adopted to encourage power-sharing and to create structures with genuine value to the people using them.

Grant-making has trended towards flexible funding and trust-based arrangements, which is undoubtedly a good thing and grant-makers should continue to provide flexible and unrestricted funds. However, suitable impact measurement is needed to properly determine allocation and value, and that those who need funding the most will get it.

Simply put, we cannot go back to normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep systemic vulnerabilities at the heart of our economic model, and the voluntary sector must adapt to address these vulnerabilities and create a more equitable society.


Further reading: more on the voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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Why are we still talking about healthy places?

In recent years, there has been a wide ranging debate across the housing, planning, health and infrastructure sectors about the development of healthy places in both regeneration and newly approved projects.

In 2016, Town and Country Planning Journal published an article on building health and wellbeing into the built environment (Town and Country Planning, Vol 85 No 11 Nov 2016, Knowledge Exchange customers can login to view the article here) In 2017 and 2018 the talk was all about healthy towns initiatives, and a Design Council report in 2018 looked at the relationship between healthy placemaking and the impact on our communities. In 2019 the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) called on members to “reunite” health and planning

It is clear that everyone involved in placemaking agrees building places that promote health and wellbeing for all is of vital importance to our communities, The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and the idea remains at the forefront of design policy, particularly in urban city contexts. But, over four years after the initial conversations and thought pieces, why are we still talking about it, and what actions still need to be taken to integrate the idea of a healthy place into planning to the extent that it just becomes the norm in the planning and design of our places?

Preventing avoidable disease

The phrase ‘healthy placemaking’ has been defined by Design Council as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”.

Public Health England defined healthy placemaking as: “Placemaking that takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments, and improved transport and connectivity”

Research has shown preventable diseases linked to lifestyle and environment are among the most significant threats to public health. Lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease and cancer, as well as being health problems in their own right, can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions, exacerbate symptoms and create complications with care which are costly to the NHS.

Creating healthy spaces is not just about encouraging people to live more active lifestyles by facilitating active travel and improving the environment around buildings, although this is a significant part of it. “Healthy places” include approaches to improve air quality, reduce loneliness, allow people to age well in place, promote mental as well as physical wellbeing, reduce deprivation and inequality through projects like housing, infrastructure development, and high street regeneration.

Healthy places also have a preventative role to play in public health management, not just a health improvement role; such interventions are essential to help avert the onset of disease, improve people’s quality of life and reduce health inequalities. And evidence shows the return on investment from public health interventions is high and creates value of different kinds – economic, social and personal.

In short people who live in healthy places, tend to live healthier lives, place less strain on services and “contribute” more to society, both economically through work or spending and socially through community engagement.

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

Enabling planning practitioners to think about creating healthy places

Research published in 2020 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explored local, national and international planning practices that enable the creation and delivery of healthy places. While a lot of research draws attention to the barriers to building healthy places – including a lack of funding, different requirements from developers and conflicting policy priorities – the RTPI report instead sought to identify important challenges faced by planners who try to integrate healthy placemaking principles in their decisions and then offer potential solutions to these in practice. Key themes emerging from the report include a need to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and the skills of planners.

The report provides case studies looking at: the place standard tool; the livewell development accreditation; connecting communities in Tower Hamlets; health planning in South Worcestershire; and train station district rejuvenation in Grasse, France. It also identifies seven steps to plan for healthier environments

Across the sector there have been calls for planners to be allowed to be innovative, creative and take a “visionary” approach to planning to help make places healthier in order to address the convergence of challenges around public health, the climate emergency, and economic recovery from Covid-19.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed how we think about healthy spaces?

The lockdowns  imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the importance of quality space into sharp focus. Places that facilitate health and wellbeing among the people who live there, and places where the indoor living quality is as important as the outdoor space have become incredibly important.

The pandemic has highlighted what it really means to have a healthy space. It has also demonstrated how wider socioeconomic deprivation and inequality – linked to living conditions as well as other factors – is having an impact on infection and hospital admission rates, with those groups who live in more deprived areas being found to be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

The 2018 Design council report found in its survey of practitioners that focus was given far more to outdoor space than to indoors, as it was easier and more cost effective to make changes that could produce demonstrable impacts (an increase in cycling, for example). But the pandemic and the increased time we have been forced to spend indoors has encouraged designers and urban planners to think even more creatively about quality space in their developments.

Where now?

Public Health England (PHE) which for many years was a strong voice in the conversations around healthy placemaking has been disbanded and will be replaced by a National Institute of Health Protection. It remains to be seen how, or if this new organisation will fit into the conversation going forward. But reflecting on recent reports on the significant public health crisis facing the UK in the long term, it is clear that the work must continue, driven collectively by those in planning, urban design and public health.


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Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


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Guest post: Three things I’ve learned in my local coffee shop

By Steve MacDouell

If you were to walk into my neighbourhood coffee shop, you’d see the usual suspects: Joey, a body and mind professional, who would be talking to someone about Finnish saunas, metal music, and the human condition; Arielle, the local city councillor, who would be conversing with her constituents about their ideas and hopes for the neighbourhood; Alexis, a writer, who would be sipping an americano, plugging away at her book, and scrolling through funny dog gifs; and Brittney, Jen, and Emily, three friends who, on a weekly basis, come together to talk about the joys and complexities of life all the while trying to keep their pre-school aged children occupied. This coffee shop, like many others, is a place where people are invited to sit, to catch up on some email, and to, potentially, encounter a few of their neighbours — all while enjoying a hot, caffeinated beverage.

Third places — that is, places where people can enjoy the company of others outside of their workplaces and homes — are critical to the well-being of our neighbourhoods. From public parks and libraries to pubs and playgrounds, these places are impacting our localities in both subtle and significant ways. For our communities to thrive, we need third places where ideas can be shared, where everyone is welcome to belong, and where relationships, over time, can be fostered. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, emphasizes the importance of these kinds of places in this way:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life…Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.”

After a few years of sitting in the same coffee shop, I’ve come to realize that third places have much to teach us about our neighbourhoods and the people we share them with.

In the spirit of celebrating the third places in our cities, here are three things that I’ve learned in my local coffee shop:

People want to linger in places where they can be seen, heard, and known

There is something about your local barista knowing your coffee order that grounds you in a place. It’s one of the small, subtle ways that I started to feel like a character in the story of my neighbourhood. This vague familiarity would go on to spark brief conversations between the staff and I, which led to more robust exchanges around our unique interests, our vocational endeavours, and our shared hopes for the neighbourhood. They began to introduce me to other locals in the shop which led to more conversations and to a broader network of connection. Additionally, the shop is small, so sharing tables with my neighbours became a normal practice. At times, these shared table experiences sparked meaningful interactions, and at other times, it just led to more spilt coffee. As weeks turned into months, strangers became friends, a sense of community started to be formed, and feelings of familiarity began to take root.

It’s often within the relational ecosystem of a local coffee shop that we encounter the people we’ve actually shared close proximity with for a long time. We start to put names to faces that we’ve seen in passing, and we begin to feel a little more noticed ourselves—which taps into our human longing to know others and be known by others. In this sense, coffee shops provide far more than local economic benefits and enjoyable products; they offer a space where trust can be formed — and where hospitality can be extended — between neighbours. While turning up, sipping coffee, and being open to connection seems like a small act, the cumulative impact of doing so can’t be quickly dismissed.

People long for places where contextual ideas—for the common good of the neighbourhood—can be inspired

The collision of humanity that occurs in a local coffee shop has a way of catalyzing ideas that, if leveraged well, can go on to improve the well-being of our neighbourhoods. This occurs, in part, because the individuals who spend time in these places will have some sense of the contextual opportunities that exist locally and because the social nature of a coffee shop can lend itself to a high concentration of neighbourly interactions. Over the years, spending time in my local coffee shop has opened up different collaborate engagements with my neighbours: from cocktail nights, dinner parties, and social clubs to playgroups, TED-style events, and tactical urbanism projects. The seeds of these ideas were planted and cultivated through ongoing conversations over lattes and laptops.

The local impact that can come out of a coffee shop is nothing new; historically, these places have played a key role in shaping the social, political, creative, and intellectual pursuits of cities. Take, for example, the coffeehouses of London in the 1670s. The open, political dialogue that occurred in these places was subversive enough that it caused nervousness in the powers that be, so much so that Charles II tried to have them shut down. If you were looking to be involved in political dialogue during the French Revolution, you could find it in a Parisian café, and if you were an anti-Communist dissident in Prague after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, you could conspire with kindred spirits at Café Slavia. Some, like German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, have even gone on to argue that the coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.

While revolution might not break out in our local coffee shops, these important places still inspire dialogue, ideas, and collaboration, all of which can go on to make a tangible impact on neighbourhoods and cities.

People are attached to the places that they experience with all of their senses

Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of road trips across the United States. Whenever I’m in a new city, I try to sit in a few local coffee spots to taste their product, to meet a few locals, and to get a sense of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. While I’ve enjoyed some great coffee and met some interesting people along the way, I’ve always felt like a visitor in these places—and this makes sense. The coffee tastes a little different than what I’m used to; the aesthetic, while often similar, is not quite the same as my local coffee shop; and the people are friendly, but I’m not connected to their stories in the same way that I am to those of my neighbours. Visiting these places is always a welcomed experience, but it never quite feels like home.

The hours I’ve spent in my local coffee shop have increased my level of attachment to my neighbourhood and the people who inhabit it—which, over time, has made me less likely to dream of being somewhere else. While I love to travel, being elsewhere has made me more appreciative of the people and the places that are familiar, reminding me of just how much I continue to receive within the ordinary rhythms of life in the places I call home.

Third places play a critical role in the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness of our cities. Whether your third place is a coffee shop, a community centre, or a local McDonald’s, spending time in these places can move us toward the people, the stories, and the opportunities that exist all around us. While these places will not solve all of the urgent problems that our cities face, the tangible benefits that they offer our communities should be celebrated.


Steve MacDouell is a professor at @FanshaweCollege in London, Ontario, and a senior community fellow at @TheGoodCityCo, a civic organisation that creates projects to help citizens take greater ownership over the places they call home. Steve also writes posts on community formation, place and neighbourliness. This post originally appeared on Steve’s own blog.