This is a post written by Ruth Smith, one of our Community Mission Advisors, after her work in the Diocese of Durham and experience of urban villages. This is the first in a three part blog series looking at what it means to be radical church.
Walking through London recently I noticed a sign on a construction site inviting me to come and view this attractive Urban Village. I’ve seen these before, in Leeds and other cities, often outside modern apartment blocks that I know are hard to let and expensive to rent. I smiled wryly to myself… better that than laugh out loud with derision. “If you want to see an authentic urban village,” I was thinking, “come with me to the north east and I’ll show you a few.”
Working in the Durham Diocese in recent months has been a privilege and a joy for me. I was there to introduce churches to the idea of community engagement as an effective way of doing mission, especially in challenging social situations, to begin to support them in thinking through what that might mean for them. The response was encouraging, to say the least: everyone I spoke to could see why this approach might hold the key to change in their churches and communities. They just need support to make a start in their own places, and encouragement through the inevitable challenges and disappointments.
It is there in the north east that I have begun to see and understand the reality of the true ‘urban village’ – of which there are many scattered across the county. They have their own local economies, services and activities. They have characteristic housing stock and distinctive social structures and often still their indigenous populations. They are separated from the main centres of commerce, employment and activity and surrounded by lovely countryside. They are proper villages; yet they display all the characteristics of urban poverty, with little regenerative investment in housing stock, very few local employment opportunities, poor transport links, neglected parks and recreation, and often struggling schools. It’s hard to build community or grow aspiration. Not only are they separated, they are separated off: isolated, marginalised and worst of all, it seems, abandoned.
Don’t misunderstand me: in common with many urban estates and inner cities these villages have wonderful people – including clergy and the churches – working hard to bring new life into these neighbourhoods and communities, but they work against the odds. They have minimal (and shrinking) financial resource, a lack of social capacity locally and, frankly, just too much to do. Add to that a history which has nurtured negative attitudes, isolationism, poverty and hopelessness… and you begin to see why an invitation to view a City Urban Village brings a sardonic smirk to my face.
I’m painting the worst of scenarios here. Of course every village has its good side, and every community has its own happy narrative as well as its problems. Some of the Durham villages have successfully survived the decimation of their industries and livelihoods. Some have become thriving new communities. It’s important to find and tell the good stories to counteract the impact of the bad. But the bad still remains and unless we make that clear there will continue to be little hope and a bleak future. We have to keep on looking for, praying for, working for, campaigning for ways to redeem and renew and regenerate these communities. Redeem, renew, regenerate – all words rooted in the Christian way. That’s why the work we do as church is so important. If anyone carries a banner of “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” we do.
The concept of ‘urban village’ within a city context is a fairly new phenomenon, emerging in the early 1990’s as a way of tackling perceived urban problems. The concept isn’t fixed or static: each ‘urban village’ is different in size, shape and design. However there are some key underlying principles: variety of population and mixed residential, community and business use, harmony of architecture and environment, neighbourliness and sustainability. It sounds great, just like the village we would all like to live in – the one that we hold a romantic notion of, drawn from handed down images of days gone by, or from our wonderful holidays in the countryside. However the jury is still out as to how effective city urban villages will be, and whether they will indeed be regenerated places where people can work and live in happily.