As part of the Communities Driving Change (CDC) programme, The Young Foundation have been working to support locally-led initiatives to improve health and wellbeing in Tower Hamlets. With the neighbourhoods around Columbia Road identified as a key area of focus, in recent months this project has led to a more in-depth study of the Boundary Estate.
Our guest Researcher, Isabelle Carter writes here about her time on the Boundary, reflecting on the changing nature of communities – then and now.
As a History PhD student, even one of housing in post-war Britain, it’s rare that I get the chance to experience first-hand the places that I research. The high-rise council estates at the centre of my work have either been demolished or largely cordoned off to the public for redevelopment, leaving me to piece together their scale and layout through photographs, plans, and the imagination. Working with The Young Foundation, however, I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in the physical space of one of the most celebrated housing estates in Britain.
The Boundary Estate is historically significant as the first planned council housing estate in the UK. Built at the turn of the nineteenth century in an area of squalid and overcrowded housing, the estate sought to improve the living conditions of the ‘deserving poor’ – a category deemed to exclude the area’s former residents, who were rehoused elsewhere. This distinction between the deserving and undeserving was echoed by Michael Young’s later research in East London in the 1950s and continues today, evident in news of the segregation of play areas between social and private tenants on a south London estate earlier this year. The Boundary’s innovative design situated blocks of flats and ‘pocket’ courtyards along wide avenues that orbited a central, open space: Arnold Circus and the Boundary Gardens. With shops and schools nearby, the new residents did not need to go far to meet their everyday needs.
Today, the estate is home to both social tenants and private leaseholders, as well as an array of local businesses and organisations. With one third of the estate now privately owned, flat prices have soared. A social tenant might live next door to someone whose flat cost around £700,000 or a couple paying £2,000 a month in rent. Redchurch Street and Shoreditch High Street border the Boundary on two sides, with shops, bars and restaurants attracting wealthy clientele and providing a significant boost to the night-time economy that has troubled some residents.
The ethos underpinning the Boundary’s construction was that housing provision alone was not enough. Shops and community spaces were – and remain – integral to residents’ everyday lives. The Young Foundation’s work has shown that some residents have been isolated by the speed and scale of change in the area, and feel that certain spaces around the estate are no longer meant for them.
“People don’t really talk and live separate lives. There aren’t many places for the community to meet. It has changed beyond recognition in recent years.” – Local resident
“I only go to Tesco’s. I can’t shop on Shoreditch High Street anymore. All of the affordable shops have gone now.” – Local resident
Working with local people and businesses, I have worked with the Communities Driving Change team to facilitate a cross-community approach to improving health and wellbeing.
Building on Laura Whittal’s work, I have been speaking to local organisations and businesses, including boutique shop owners, staff in cafes, as well as community centres and charities around the Boundary to get a sense of how they see their role in the community. By speaking with this cross-section of people on the estate, my aim has been to support relationships between residents and local businesses, in order to better understand the systems that shape how people use different spaces and why.
Our conversations have offered an insight into a range of perspectives. Some businesses have been based in the area for nearly two decades and others for only a matter of months. Some spoke of an active community amongst their neighbouring shops while others felt that organisations, businesses groups – and the community more broadly – have become more insular and exclusive in recent years.
One of the key findings from my research has been that several businesses do not see themselves as part of the Boundary at all, despite their location. Instead, they orientate themselves towards the nearby Redchurch Street and Shoreditch High Street. Or, as one local shop owner said in response to a question about strengths in the local area: ‘We love Shoreditch, we love East London’. This broader approach to the ‘local’ reflects in part the financial aims of the businesses bordering the Boundary, who look beyond the estate to attract more customers, but also how perceptions of the estate are shifting to recognise it as a commercial rather than purely residential space.
This has significant connotations for the community. If local businesses do not see themselves as part of the Boundary, how can we encourage their participation in the community? The people who live and work on the estate all have a part to play in shaping how life on the estate is experienced, as well as how it is perceived. For some, the as the centre of the bustling Shoreditch and others long for the quiet residential area of the past. The creation of a shared identity for the estate has huge potential to affect the local economy as well as residents’ health and wellbeing.
Yet this is not a straightforward story of gentrification. Some local businesses are owned by former residents of the Boundary, while others have formed close ties to the estate over several years. Change might be the prevailing focus of CDC’s work, but some community spaces have endured for years, such as The Boundary Community Launderette (in business since 1992) and St Hilda’s East Community Centre (celebrating 130 years this month). Many are receptive to advertising and participating in community events, remembering concerts and picnics on the bandstand at the centre of the Boundary Gardens fondly.
Tenants and residents have begun to push back against the inequality that has seen the financial value of the estate rise while housing conditions for social tenants remain in need of improvement. Over the past few months, The Young Foundation have supported the creation of the resident-led Boundary Activities Group (BAG). Aiming to provide local people with a forum through which they can organise events, BAG attempts to move away from the typical tenants and residents association model to collectively push for local improvements. This focus on events and activities has already shown signs of success on the estate; in 2016 a small group of residents worked with Tower Hamlets Homes to install planters along Camlet Street, which has seen a drop in anti-social behaviour since. BAG invited a range of other stakeholders to its first meeting – including housing association Tower Hamlets Homes and local Councillor John Pierce – creating a space for dialogue on the estate between different sections of the community.
As The Young Foundation continues to work with the Boundary community, it will be exploring how we can support more local people to get involved in the changes they want to see on the estate. This will not be a simple process, but one which must remain open and ever-evolving; supporting the Boundary to move closer to the social ambitions upon which it was founded.
These foundations are being celebrated by St Hilda’s East on Saturday 20th July (12-4pm, Rochelle Street E2) as part of their 130th Birthday Street Party, and in Skill Sharing Cafes at St Hilda’s throughout the summer, organised by the residents behind the popular annual Boundary Estate Fun Palace, which takes place this year on 5th October (11am-5pm, 18 Club Row E2 7HE). These events present an opportunity to better understand how the communities of today are informed by those which preceded them, while celebrating the local people and assets that contribute to communal health and wellbeing. To thrive they need support from all members of the community – from residents, to visitors, businesses and local services.
My research could not have been done without the support of our generous connections on the Boundary Estate – a massive thank you. You know who you are!
** Main Header image © Gordon Jolly **