Activating spaces for active communities


Community halls should be an asset for neighbourhoods – yet often the reality is very different. We’re exploring how app technology can help people get more from their local spaces.

Earlier this year, a housing association contacted us about their 21 community halls. Instead of being lively hubs of local activity, many were under-used – a drain on finances, with little to show for it.

At the same time, we were working with a neighbourhood where residents found it difficult to access their own community facilities; the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association were hard to contact, and had set prices for hall hire that shut out many local people.

It’s a complaint that’s echoed across the country. Existing ways of managing community spaces have often left them severely under-used – a huge waste of resources. Supporting residents to look after their own facilities can be costly, and while the aim is community empowerment, this approach risks empowering one group in the community to the exclusion of others.

We’re developing a new way for people to use these spaces; one that’s more accessible, and a better fit with the way we manage other parts of our lives. Inspired by websites like Airbnb or Liftshare, we want to use peer-to-peer technology to connect people with each other and their local spaces. Anyone will be able to use the app to find a community venue, set a price and start putting on an activity, or search and book activities near them that match their interests.

Residents know what activities will work in their community and at what price. We’ve learnt that requiring a voluntary commitment doesn’t work for everyone, but that local entrepreneurs will come forward if they can earn some extra money by meeting a need in their community.

One such need is for exercise and wellbeing classes; demand for these, and for better information about what’s on, comes up frequently in public health consultations. Opening up community spaces will lead to more affordable opportunities to get active close to where people live. As well as physical exercise, the health benefits of more social participation are well-known.

Using apps to help provide local services isn’t a new idea. However, this isn’t a project that relies on technology alone; a social enterprise will help with vetting providers, maintaining the facilities, and making sure that those without smartphones can still take part. Nor is technology the focus; what we’re hoping to do is change how people and spaces interact, and crucially, make this change from the bottom up.

Local authorities talk about co-production and co-design of services, but acknowledge that even in areas with a strong sense of community, asking citizens to become co-producers of services is a challenge. With decreasing resources, the demands of the infrastructure needed to support this can seem unrealistic.

This idea allows genuine co-production to happen at low cost. By creating an accessible tool for using spaces, it will encourage residents to respond to local demand and create a programme of activities that suits their community without commissioning or top-down management.

This approach also suggests an alternative to the problems of working in a joined-up way at the local level.  Often, different targets and funding sources cause inherent difficulties for initiatives that cross departmental silos, as ventures like neighbourhood management, total place and community budgets often demonstrate.

In contrast, while this project has benefits for public health, adult social care, housing, community regeneration and the local economy, we won’t need to know in exactly what proportions. Disputes over who manages and pays for it will be limited by its light-touch, community-led and increasingly self-funded operation. Departments will also be able to promote their individual agendas by subsidising activities they wish to promote or ensuring personal budget holders can tap into the new activities.

In May, Penny Osborne called for an open marketplace in social care; similarly, a marketplace in the use of community spaces lets residents expand provision of activities to suit their specific needs. We’re talking to three local authorities about the potential to pilot the idea. Like us, they want to unlock not only the potential of their community assets, but the potential of citizens to create services from the bottom up.