Divided Playtime - The Slide into Segregation

Divided playtime – the slide into segregation

Last week housing developers in Lambeth hit the headlines for creating a segregated community by stopping children from poorer social housing using a playground built in the more well-off private residents’ part of the complex.

On Wednesday, Henley Homes released a statement saying that they would make sure all residents can access the playground, but the controversy rumbles on with residents saying the assurances don’t mean very much until the physical barriers separating residents are officially removed. In fact, The Guardian ran another article on the weekend following an investigation that showed another half a dozen developments had similar policies.

It’s no wonder there’s been such uproar at a time when we are already divided and our research shows how damaging segregation is to our wider society. Surely it isn’t right to make anyone feel excluded – let alone children who know no different – just because their circumstances aren’t the same as the people who live next door?

Promoting integration through housing

Separating residents from different socioeconomic backgrounds, as the original development did, prevents them from meeting, mixing and forming meaningful connections with one another. It freezes social groupings, keeping them as they are, telling people: “You are part of this group, and you are part of that group – and you have nothing to do with one another.”

That’s why the announcement by Henley Homes, followed through with action, is so welcome. The complex can now provide a setting where social housing residents and private residents can build bonds of trust and understanding, and appreciate each other’s perspectives and life experiences.

Had the idea for a ‘common ground test’ on all new developments been adopted – proposed by co-founder of the charity Community Links, David Robinson, which requires all planners to include effective social integration into every development’s design – the Lambeth controversy would have never arisen. Now is the time to take these suggestions seriously and implement them in planning laws.

The need to do this has been made more urgent by the social divides exposed by Brexit. Our country is not only fragmented along class lines but also across age and ethnicity. Through The Challenge’s work helping to run the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration, we’ve been exploring the intergenerational divide and what can be done to bring people from across the age spectrum closer together – and housing has a crucial role to play. From the ideas being developed by the Manchester School of Architecture including interconnected gardens and shared areas jointly owned by two or more properties to the rising popularity of ‘co-housing’ where residents look after community spaces together, there are some great innovations to strengthen connections through housing.

Social mixing is good for everyone

At The Challenge, we know that meaningful social connections between people from different backgrounds are good for everyone involved – and society as a whole. On our programmes for young people, which have been carefully designed to promote integration, we see the evidence of increased trust and understanding, time and time again. For example, our latest impact report shows that 71% of those who took part in the National Citizen Service (NCS) programme, aged 15-17, either agreed or strongly agreed that NCS helped them to think about their own attitudes towards people who were different from them, and to understand their challenges and experiences. And 75% said NCS encourages people to respect the viewpoints of people from different backgrounds.

Bringing people together across dividing lines strengthens bonds between participants in a particular programme, or on a housing development, and across society as a whole. As Harvard-based sociologist Robert Putnam shows, declining trust between different groups has a knock-on effect and causes declining trust within groups, too (as we explain in our All Together Now report). A sort of ‘fragmentation cycle’ sets in, where society becomes more and more pulled apart.

So, if poorer social housing residents and more well-off private residents are segregated, they will trust each other less, but also trust people in their existing social groups less, too. Who benefits from that? The answer is pretty obvious by now – no one.

Boosting social mobility

As well as strengthening whole communities, social mixing between people from different socio-economic backgrounds is good for social mobility and opportunity. Shared spaces mean better class relations and offer opportunities to disadvantaged young people.

Whatever you think about it, the reality is that ‘who you know’ matters when looking for a job as well as ‘what you know’. As recently as 2010, 40% of jobs in the UK were found through personal connections. When less advantaged people get to interact with more advantaged people, they broaden their social networks, and have greater access to new and better-paid job opportunities.

There are so many important reasons why we should be pleased that Henley Homes saw sense – even if it took being splashed across the pages of the national newspapers to reverse the segregation they had created. Enhanced connection, trust, understanding and opportunity will result from that decision. The Lambeth controversy should make us all stand up and take note of the need to bridge class, age and ethnic divides wherever we can – particularly at a time when Brexit has exposed such vast social chasms.

If the kids can play nicely together now, then as the next generation they can lead the way in bringing people together – and the first step is to tear down the hedge that currently separates them.