Community Projects at King’s Cross

Maija Bergström blogs about redevelopment of the King’s Cross area. This is the third part of a series of posts about King’s Cross, the new home base of the Finnish Institute in London.

My previous post described what community projects are and how they can be of help when developing areas. Professors Matti Kortteinen and Mari Vaattovaara – a sociologist and a geographer, respectively – from the University of Helsinki recently wrote in Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, about the advantages of local collaboration (1). They referred to a research by Michael Porter from Harvard Business School that points out how differences in dealing with unemployment and segregation have been tackled. The most successful areas managed to recognise local, unique strenghts, and use all resources and get them to work together; not only administration and strong businesses but also grassroot level actors such as local businesses, artists and universities.

At King’s Cross, Argent, the property developer responsible of the redevelopment, aims at actively creating networks across the organizations and charities that work at the area. Local networks are not a new thing, but what I find fresh is the idea that these relations should start growing at the same time as the physical environment. Collaboration should start in the first stage of development, not superimposed afterwards.

A recent project by the City of Helsinki, managed by Forum Virium, Fiksu Kalasatama (“Smart” Kalasatama) does something a bit similar (2). Kalasatama is turned into a Living Lab, where new services could be developed collaboratively and tested promptly as the area grows. The inhabitants and those working in Kalasatama participate in planning and testing new ideas, services and facilities. Esitystaiteen keskus (Performance Center) recently launched a community arts project in Kalasatama that aims at boosting local identity and support participation among inhabitants (3).

What would motivate people and organisations to collaborate with each other? I started looking at the community projects at King’s Cross and met some of the people involved with them. They pointed out several benefits that can be gained from community projects:
Meeting new people, getting new ideas. This is especially important for people who come from deprived neighbourhoods that suffer from unemployment. Community projects can provide young people with organisational skills, networks and information about worklife. Businesses too can benefit from unexpected new networks and meeting different people and working with them. It is a good way to get fresh ideas and boost creativity. The reputation of being open to new suggestions can also help meet like-minded organisations and companies.
Sharing and recycling resources.  Recycling becomes a good option when distances are not long. Sharing is also an effective way of reducing costs and dividing them with several stakeholders. The resources that are shared or recycled can be material, immaterial, skills, spaces or mutual help. A tiny investment for a big organisation can help others to start a micro-business or provide the essentials for a common-good project.
Corporate social responsibility. For companies, helping in local community projects is a good way to carry out their corporate social responsibility programme. For people working in organisations, it can provide opportunities to bring their work into different context and help other people, and give a deeper meaning for their work.
Area becomes recognised, valuable businesses and committed inhabitants. Community projects make an area interesting and produce a range of different activities. This produces a unique identity for the area and makes people want to go there, so the area is perceived in a positive way. This creates committed inhabitants that want to live there for a long time, and is good for the businesses as well.
Trust. Committing to community projects and supporting them in long-term, helps create relationships that are based on trust. This is valuable and makes doing business with them easier.
 
Community projects are one tool for promoting collaboration at local level. They offer a channel for citizens to affect the design of their neighbourhood and its services. Collaboratively developed, place specific practises differentiate areas from each other and help create a distinctive identity for them.
As the interviewees pointed out, interesting and multilayered urban space where people can spend time and meet each other, supports the success of community projects as they offer a platform for the partners to get together.

In addition, successful projects require an atmosphere where developers, companies, charities, and citizens can find mutual benefits and gains – not only conflicts of interests. This derives from trust that is built up during a longer period of cooperation and based on knowing each other’s ways of working.

Building sustainable and working relationships takes effort. I also asked what kind of costs or difficulties can be related to community projects. Projects cost money, of course, and all the contributions – hiring staff or giving their time, electricity, land, spaces – have value. The interviewees concentrated on difficulties rather that costs as such.

Difficulty to quantify costs and benefits. As mentioned above, the perceived benefits seem to be more qualitative; such as trust, social responsibility and good reputation. They do have value, but that value is not easily turned into pounds and euros, and might not have an immediate effect to profits. Especially in the corporate world this calls for a deeper understanding of these benefits and their meaning for the company.

Finding the right partners and interesting projects. Community projects are quite popular in the UK and often there are lots of organisations doing a similar job at the same area. Especially in a dense city such as London this might result in a difficulty to find like-minded partners that are easy to cooperate with.

Summing up: engaging local organisations, businesses and institutions to community projects could be an effective way to promote collaboration and make an area successful starting from the first phase and stage of development. As relationships take time to grow, they should be boosted and encouraged during the whole building and development process. Mutual benefits could be made more concrete to make them more compelling to businesses as well.

Community projects could be promoted more widely in Finland as a tool for developing new area – King’s Cross serves as an interesting and positive example of the recent turn to a more communal way of developing a new area.

(2) “Smart” Kalasatama project, Forum Virium (3) Performance Centre launched a community arts project in Kalasatama

2 thoughts on “Community Projects at King’s Cross

  1. aksawy says:

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    Like

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