Community centres play an important role in bringing communities together. They provide a meeting place for people that might otherwise be isolated or disaffected, enable individuals to connect with others around a shared interest or cause, and provide support services for those that need them.

Traditionally, community centres have used a model whereby they offer a programme of activities, events, support services, and volunteering opportunities to the local area. The centre decides what they want to deliver to the community, they source funding for it, and then offers opportunities to people in the local area to get involved. 

Together with The Peel, a community centre and charity based in Clerkenwell, we want to reimagine the role of community centres in bringing people together. Through the Connecting Clerkenwell programme, we want to turn the traditional community centre model on its head. Instead of delivering programming to the community, we ask people what they think Clerkenwell needs to be more unified, celebrated, and equal. We found that many people in the community had brilliant ideas on how to improve their neighbourhood and bring people together. 

Clerkenwell is an area that has changed rapidly over the past few years. The high streets have become unaffordable to many residents, and the influx of new commerce has not benefited them either. A process of gentrification has meant that some voices have been amplified whilst others have been sidelined. Hence, the area may no longer benefit everyone in it and for many, a sense of belonging and pride of place has been compromised. 

Connecting Clerkenwell is a community cohesion model that shifts the paradigm for how community centres work with local people. It brings together all parts of the community including residents, businesses, the local workforce, and institutions to develop a shared vision for a connected community. It situates community centres as the hub of community networks. It is a model which galvanises local people with lived experience and a great idea to make use of these networks and spark new ideas for ways to improve their neighbourhood.  

In June 2018 we took to the streets of Clerkenwell to find out if there were people who had ideas for how to bring the community together – and the answer was yes! People came to us with great ideas, and through the programme, we offered them one to one support, a small grant, and access to The Peel’s networks to help their idea off the ground. The four ideas that we are supporting are: EC1 Echo (a free local newspaper), London Zip (a basketball team for young people), the Clerkenwell community garden, and the Exmouth Market Street Party.

In September of this year, we launched the Exmouth Market Street Party. Envisioned by Scarlett Gregory, and a group of volunteers, the street party celebrated the Clerkenwell community and gave people an opportunity to get to know their neighbours. There was something for everyone, including a brass band, hands-on creative workshops, face painters, performances from local schools, a Clerkenwell themed treasure hunt, foraging walks around Spa Fields and lots more. Over 500 people showed up on the day. 

The overwhelming success of the street party reflected the need for more community activities and programmes that make it easier for people to connect across divides. Providing these opportunities helps to build communities based on an appreciation of each other’s differences and what we have in common. As communities become increasingly disparate, this work shows itself to be more necessary.