The community difference – living in Derwenthorpe

I asked Carol Warren to tell a little about living in a neighbourhood which was designed as a community – Derwenthorpe by Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust.

I moved to Derwenthorpe on the outskirts of York with my Partner, Nick, almost a year ago. One of the most important reasons for the move was the knowledge that a thriving community already existed here and that the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust had planned the layout of the estate with both the environment and community in mind. Community was something I hadn’t properly experienced since growing up in the working class terrace houses of Poppleton Road in the 40s and 50s.

So what is a typical “community” day like in Derwenthorpe? Physically the estate, with its landscaped gardens, restricted car access, groupings of a variety of house styles and sizes, communal parking and bin areas, offers lots of shared spaces which promote casual engagement with your neighbours. The front gardens are small with no gates, so front doors seem more inviting and accessible. Ours is frequently knocked on as it used to be in Poppleton Road. People might wave at you through the large, low windows or stop to talk as you garden or sit on the bench outside your door. Cycling is promoted via cycle paths which also leads to more encounters. You bump into people much more on this estate for sure. It feels quiet and relaxed walking round the lake or indeed just round the houses. We’ve done our share of door knocking since living here and the number of people we get to meet seems to grow daily, facilitated by both these accidental encounters and more structured activities.

Today, for example, I am going to feed the cats for Katie, a lovely young woman we met in our first week, who helped us move boxes and is now running the book club that Nick has joined. After that he is going to the choir committee meeting as we’re both keen singers and joined the choir soon after moving in. Next weekend we’re both helping at the Open Gardens event, Nick by making a cake, me by manning the tea and coffee stall. Recently, when the nature group were bee-bombing the cycle path outside our window, I took them out a cup of tea and was happy to be recruited into that group. We’ve helped out at monthly coffee mornings, the children’s Christmas party, walked with a group on Boxing Day, attended the 50 Ways to Love Your Planet events, invited our other choir to sing at The Big Picnic, visited a recycling centre with the intention of reporting back to residents very soon. Most of these events are organised by the Community Activity Network which I joined very soon after we moved in, wanting to meet people and get involved as quickly as possible. In June, I volunteered to help with the distribution of Lots On, the monthly newsletter keeping everyone informed of all the upcoming events and ongoing groups. The list goes on, the wine club, litter picking, art classes, Joe’s organic veg stall, Pilates, Yoga, French circle; all on your doorstep if you want it and no problem if not.

I suppose what all this active volunteering and joining has done for me and in a very short space of time has been to give me a sense of belonging to a purposeful, good-natured, active, supportive community that weaves strong threads through doing things together. This in itself creates other opportunities to meet up in other, more social ways, dropping round to each other’s houses, going to the local library cafe, sharing information and skills, offering help, minding cats and keys.

An example of a nice and unexpected encounter a couple of weeks ago, was walking round the wider estate to show it to Nick’s son who was visiting, stopping to admire a front garden, striking up a conversation with the owner (up until then, a stranger) which ended up with her digging up and presenting me with a big clump of a flowering shrub to take home. That’s sort of how it feels here, friendly, generous with a real mix of people, retirees, young families, people with disabilities, people on low incomes. It’s not a utopia, there are problems of inclusiveness, trying to get a wider range of people involved with community building. There will always be issues between people, between people and organisations and issues with the physical space such as unfinished roads, faulty heating systems, inadequate community space. Nowhere is perfect, but this place has been built and imagined on solid principles of sustainable community living. There is a real sense that through the physical environment and the structured activities the threads will hopefully continue to grow, strengthen and cross over binding the community together for years to come and I for one feel very lucky to live here.

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