When we think about what we build and who we build it for, we should think about the wider wiring of the country and about what makes a community
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “community” as “a group of people living together in one place” and “the people of an area or country considered as a group”.
Not remarkable really; pretty much what you’d expect. Look at the communities in the areas of flood-hit Britain. Neighbours, near-neighbours, friends, families, strangers all joined by a force of nature that swept through their streets and their houses.
The floods have divided politicians but they have united communities and in some cases they have strengthened them.
People who may have never spoken to each other before the waters came, shared boats and boots and small kindnesses.
When the waters retreat, that spirit of community will remain - because it’s a basic instinct that, once rekindled, stays alight.
When we think about what we build and who we build it for, we should think about the wider wiring of the country and about what makes a community.
Of course, the basic requirement is shelter - a reliable roof and solid foundations: without shelter, no-one thrives; society is diminished.
Want to reduce offending and create rounded citizens? Then will the means by which we build communities rather than just houses
But what lies beyond the basics of shelter? What makes a community distinct from a housing development?
Communities are only as strong as the relationships between the people who live in them. This sense of community can’t be forced but it can be fostered.
How? There are as many answers as there are people reading Building but for starters: by schools that are built as integral to the development; the school becomes not only the focus for learning but also for activity that can include (and therefore bring together) the wider community.
This is a real community school: one that radiates vitality not only when it’s filled with the sound of children but also at evenings and weekends when clubs and societies and classes can offer everyone a chance to visit and participate.
Shops too can play their part. Instead of the standard “commercial units” let’s talk about local shop space - whoever the tenant.
These facilities don’t have to be homogeneous but nor do they have to be opened from within the community - they just have to serve the community, whether with groceries or post-office style services.
Shops, like the local pub, can be places where faces are familiar and neighbourliness is fostered.
With homes and school and shops, communities become socially sustainable. And social sustainability at a community level is a building block with which wider society can work.
Policy makers in local government and in Whitehall should integrate outcomes into their work. Want to seed a community rather than just make our housing numbers? Then be more imaginative about planning and Section 106 demands. Want to reduce offending and create rounded citizens? Then will the means by which we build communities rather than just houses.
Construction cannot do this alone. As employers we have responsibilities to our workforce so leaps of faith simply don’t add up.
But in tandem with policy makers our industry can provide as many answers as there are questions. Start with building communities not just buildings.
James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and UKCG