Community-Led Development in High-Value Areas – Imelda Havers

At the fourth of The Life Sized City screenings and conversations, we asked Imelda Havers “How can economic systems and land ownership be manipulated in order to allow neighbourhoods to function well according to their own chosen priorities, and how can this be made to work in areas of high land values?”

There is a lot in that question, so it is probably helpful to break it down into two parts:

  • Land: Genuine access to this is critical to the success of York Central
  • Economic systems: How do we share prosperity equitably?

Without tackling both, the development of York Central will not be sustainable. We need to face these questions head on, but the good news is we are not starting from scratch: A lot of work has been done in the UK, with the Scottish government doing some innovative work on developing a new approach to land ownership.

In England, we are a little way behind in terms of government policy but have some good research and practical examples emerging across the country. York Central needs to build on these, in a way that answers local needs and priorities.

The Land Question

To gain genuine access to land, whether for building or open space, we need to make it affordable as well as available – not an easy task in this high value area. Our economy has for decades been dependent on the monetarisation of land and property as a foundation for wealth creation. In the process, it has become increasingly unequal, with wealth creating wealth, squeezing out those who have no wealth, creating generations of renters.

If we are to reverse this, we must replace the common assumption that land ownership and value is fixed, with a new land narrative. Central to this is seeing land as something which we all have a right to, to add to everyone’s quality of life, not simply as an investment opportunity for a privileged few. Having acquired it, we must develop for living and not just for profit, securing affordability for future generations. A new narrative will allow us to talk about owning and managing space mutually, for the benefit of all. If we can do that, we will be free to move forward with the land reform we need.

The Community Land Trust movement – see provides national examples of community-owned developments. A good local example is the excellent co-owned housing work being done by A recent Life-Sized Cities session featured an ambitious “co-op of co-ops” in Montreal, offering accessible and affordable housing to diverse communities. The book “Who Owns England?” by Guy Shrubsole provides an excellent insight into past and present patterns of land ownership, and some tangible ideas for radical change. The think tank specialises in researching alternative land use models. They have recently teamed up with to explore new narratives around land. Their report can be requested at Power in place: understanding our land narrative – Future Narratives Lab

 New Economic Models

This area is perhaps more evolved than the land question, with successive governments offering alternatives to private enterprise. The York Central development provides a golden opportunity to challenge the failed trickle-down economics provided by corporate investment. Community organisations and small businesses need to be part of the design and delivery process, not an add-on or an afterthought. York needs a genuine mix of enterprises, meeting local needs and creating wealth locally. An excellent source of ideas can be found at

Developing a granular neighbourhood, flexible enough to evolve over time for the people living and working there, needs a healthy eco-system of small independent businesses and non-profit enterprises which can become more than the sum of their parts. That is not to say there should be no larger businesses, rather that a healthy balance must be struck between large, medium and small enterprises, and between those for profit and those for the common good.

The events of the past year have starkly demonstrated the rabbit hole our economy has led us down – creating large office blocks in urban centres, which we spend hours commuting to from suburbs and faraway towns. We have, through Covid lockdown, become much more aware of the value of local neighbourhoods, and the attraction of having everything we need within a short distance of where we live. Covid, eventually, will go away, but the neighbourhood genie is now out of the bottle. York Central needs to capitalise on this new mood in the country.

Innovation – outside the Ivory Tower

It is welcome to learn that the University of York supports the idea of an innovation hub on York Central, in which the local community and small business can play an important part. A collective ideas lab involving the universities, small businesses and community organisations alongside local innovators like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation would be a refreshing collaborative springboard for innovation which the wider City and other cities can learn from.

Be Brave!

To go forward we need courage, collaboration  and co-operative spirit from all parties. York already has innovators and leaders who are doing great things to meet the challenges we face. York Central offers a canvas on which we can bring it all together and build somewhere future generations will really want to live and work in.