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5 ways community spaces are using social innovation to #ReimagineSpace

Published Date: 29 January 2020

This year, we at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) hosted a Winter School for Hallym University. The 5-day programme in London tackled pressing social issues and started students on their journey to become changemakers. 

Focusing on the theme of ‘Community Spaces in the 21st Century’, we explored how place and social innovation interact to create thriving spaces for the community. The week was held at Calthorpe Community Gardens in King’s Cross where students were set the task to help the community garden think of socially innovative ways to deal with challenges they currently face.

During the week, students went on tours around community spaces and areas of regeneration in London and met many social innovators. One of which was SIX 100 member Amalia Zepou, the former Vice Mayor of the Municipality of Athens, Greece. During Amalia’s talk she spoke about the 5 key themes that community spaces might tap into in the 21st century: 

  • Trust

  • Co-governance

  • Ownership

  • Exchange

  • Integration 

Here, we explore how some of the community spaces we visited over the week speak to these themes outlined by Amalia in her talk on how Athens worked with the community to build space to come together to make positive change. 


Trust plays a key role in the running of Calthorpe Community Gardens near King’s Cross. The site which is soon to be next to a construction site of Centre of Excellence for Dementia and Neurology which will affect many of its programmes which relies on volunteers and the community to come together. Building on trust with diverse group of people, the community garden is a place where everyone is welcome to take care of the space as well as a place for community groups to come together to meet. Through Calthorpes sustainable food growing practice, there is a regular elderly gardening group (mostly from Spanish speaking countries) that meet every Friday, they also offer gardening and nature activities for children and young people, provide experimental spaces to test out bio-digestion and composting practices, offer space for different social entrepreneurs such as Refugee Connection, an organisation that connects Londoners all over the city with people seeking asylum and those with refugee status, to find friendship. Our friend Mila and other staff members at Calthorpe Community Garden act as activators and glue of the space --  they “are the guardians” of Calthorpe, constantly identifying and connecting the community with each other and responding to the needs and ideas of people who participate in the making of the place. 


We can see how ostensibly very different organisations can come together to co-govern community spaces through the example of MAKE at Story Garden in King’s Cross. MAKE is a ‘public space for creative collaboration and social innovation’ in the heart of London, behind St. Pancras train station. It’s a collaboration between the Somers Town Community Association, Central Saint Martins, Camden Council, and the property developer Lendlease. MAKE consists of a number of small buildings in the Story Garden, in which different activities take place including weaving, woodwork and DIY. Activities here have enabled people to come together who might never have previously crossed paths, like members of the community or students at local universities trying out pottery for the first time next to employees of the nearby new Google and YouTube offices. In the words of Adam Thorpe, Professor in Socially Responsive Design at Central Saint Martins, the space is an experiment in ‘learning together by doing together’, a mission they’ll be pursuing while MAKE is open until Autumn this year.


On a tour of the Southbank area, friend of SIX, Jungwon Kim told us about the story ofCoin Street and the political and social context surrounding the regeneration in that area. Coin Street is a renowned location in the international social innovation movement. Since the 1980s when Southbank started undergoing redevelopment and the community fought back, the area has battled with ownership. Homes originally owned by the government were sold off and bought by real estate companies. Many of the local residents didn’t want to leave. They protested and campaigned to stay for ten years until the community won. The area is now owned and run by Coin Street Community Builders, which provide co-operative homes, parks and gardens, shops and design studios, galleries, restaurants, a family and children’s centre, sports pitches, and a range of community programmes and activities. The argument of community asset ownership brings up many questions: How are people affected in an area that is being redeveloped and can community ownership model offer an alternative regeneration model? Jungwon says that “people are at the heart” of successful regeneration plan and should be included in the conversations when an area is going through a change. 


When it comes to exchange, the THINK & DO space in Kentish Town offers a really good case study of exchange between the local community, council and business. The THINK & DO space is rooted in the culture of the neighbourhood and is asking the question “How do you mobilise a neighbourhood to tackle the climate crisis?” In April 2019 Camden Council recognised the climate emergency, and are now part of the 1300 cities and councils globally recognising the emergency. The idea was sparked at a local talk series in a pub which led to a ‘local solutions centre’ which we know as THINK & DO. The space was given to the project by the council on a short let. THINK & DO is on the high street and stands out to passers-by from the creative and colourful window front which brings the climate crisis into the everyday lives of the locals. One of the important messages Farhana Yamin mentioned was that the space was a neutral location which allows for the development of dynamic relationships instead of power-based relationships. When the space closes, Farhana’s hope is the project will continue and for more participatory spaces to continue to be created in the area. 


On the third day of the Winter School, SIX took students on a tour of Hackney Wick led by William Chamberlain. Hackney Wick has the highest concentration of creatives living and working in one area in the UK, but as it is so close to the Olympic Park and Stratford with good connections into London the trendy area is facing regeneration. For the past ten years, William has been working on a range of creative place-making and inclusive regeneration projects to help establish Hackney Wick and Fish Island in East London as a permanent, sustainable, creative economy. Through these projects, he has been working with the local creative community and the new people moving into the area to come together to discuss the issues caused by regeneration. The role of integration between these two groups has meant artists can still afford to have space to work and live within the area being redeveloped. The area makes use of the two communities with growing businesses, one of the most recent being a zero-waste fine dining restaurant called Silo, or the multitude of hybrid business that are workspaces during the day and become clubs at night.

Community spaces in the 21st century are becoming more and more interdisciplinary. Throughout our week exploring them around London, we saw how they are spaces for people, run by people - continuing to exist alongside some of the big issues faced by society. In all the case studies above, the spaces are about giving back power to the community to share ideas, create and work together.

Authored by: Darren Mew

Co-Authored by: Sophie Monaghan-Coombs