Man juggling coloured balls

‘It’s all very well having a conference about ESG …’

Five minutes withPhineas Harper, CEO of Open City, and … guest panellist at RealService’s upcoming ESG conference

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to Open City

I cut my teeth in youth work. As a teenager I became a trustee of a charity that did politically-engaged youth work including running big camps with delegations from all across the world. 

I studied architecture because it seemed like this interesting intersection of themes: politics, sociology, art, design, history, maths – it felt like a practice in which you had to think ambitiously about climate and communities but also left a lot of scope for creativity.

From architecture I ran away into journalism and then ran away again into curation and then ran away again, for a third time, to Open City. In retrospect I realise I’ve not been running away from construction, but rather running towards finding a way of connecting the world of urbanism, the built environment and architecture with ordinary people. You can do that to some extent as a writer and an editor and to some extent as a curator, creating events and exhibitions, but really it’s Open City that is bridging the gap between placemaking and people most thoroughly and holistically. 

We do run events and podcasts and publish books, but we also have this amazing education programme reaching into very unrepresented communities across London and Birmingham supporting a whole generation of young people to learn about the fundamentals of city-making, architecture and property. For over half of the kids we work with it’s the first time anyone has had a conversation with them about ‘the city’ and how it could be different.

Our Open House festival is the largest celebration of buildings & places in the world

We also run this incredible event – Open House Festival – which is the largest celebration of buildings and places in the world. The London one is colossal but we’ve also helped launch them in New York, San Diego, Osaka, Lagos and beyond. The Open House Festivals are a unique cultural vehicle engaging very large public audiences with urban issues. It’s all very well to have a conference about ESG and the like, but how do you make that legible and interesting to the public – which is all about what we do at Open City.

Phineas Harper

What’s a typical day for you?

It depends on what time of year it is! If it’s festival season I’ll be cycling around London trying to visit as many open days and events as possible. This year I tried to do more around South London, I was going around a mix of social housing estates and private estates just meeting the people who were opening up their homes and the volunteers helping them do that. 

It’s partly trying to understand why they do it – why do they open up their homes to total strangers? – and also to learn about some of these places and what makes them cool.

Next week I’ll be going into a school and helping out at a workshop for teenagers which is a new programme we’ve launched. It’s a scheme where we have trained up people who have been through our programmes in the recent past – and are now late teens or early 20’s – and they run the workshops with younger teenagers thinking about design and city-making as a possible career.

It’s great because rather than training up built-environment professionals to run these workshops, as we used to do, we are training up peers who are only two or three years older than the people they are working with, which is much more powerful.

It’s easier if, say, you are a young Muslim girl from Whitechapel, and you’ve never met an architect, but you have an idea that they are all posh, white men. Then you see another young Muslim girl from Whitechapel who is maybe just three or four years older than you and you discover she’s studying architecture at Cambridge University. That can completely change your perception of that possible career path. You might not go on and do exactly that, but at least it will open up some possibilities like property, engineering, landscaping, design, who knows? 

It’s a very powerful programme because it helps remove what can seem like a gulf of differences between young people and professionals in the industry. For many young people they see ‘role models’ who maybe are the same gender or have the same skin colour but come from a comfortable background, are richer and older, maybe went to elite schools and so on. If we can take a young person from the very same community who is just a little bit further along that career path it’s much more inspiring.

What does the term ESG and especially the ‘s – social value’ mean to you and Open City?

Ultimately it’s about power. It’s about communities not just feeling they have power, but actually having some power.

That’s a very long-term change. One of the critiques I have about scholarship programmes, for example, is they might be fantastic for that one person who gets the scholarship, and it might empower them as individual, even change their life, but they can fall short because they are not reaching enough people to feel like a society-wide change.

That’s the key difference. At Open City we are always trying to think of social value as something which engages a society or a community rather than an individual within a society or community. All our work is trying to speak to or empower groups of people as well as individuals – and that’s really hard!

Wherever there’s a successful community group it’s incredibly fragile and usually under an enormous strain from external forces

There are so many things in contemporary life, especially in London, where you end up not knowing your neighbours and not feeling that you’re part of a community. Even Facebook and digital apps and forums, which you’d think could be used to bring people together, end up leading to animosity, fighting over car parking spaces, bin collections or whining about teenagers hanging out. 

Wherever there’s a successful community group it’s incredibly fragile and is usually under an enormous amount of strain from external forces, so I think when we’re thinking about social impact, consider how we as built environment professionals can foster and support groups of people including existing communities, not just targeting individuals.

How can you get buy-in around the environment from ordinary people?

Most people are already extremely engaged. Polling reveals British people think the environment is a more important political issue than tax, pensions, housing, the military, Brexit or welfare at the moment. There’s been an enormous media hoo-hah recently around trying to persuade British people to care less about the environment but it’s not really cutting through.

Picture of solar panels
‘People understand sustainable electricity is better than unsustainable electricity’

It’s common sense. Most people do understand that a well-insulated home is better than a badly insulated home, that sustainable electricity is better than unsustainable electricity, that air pollution is worse than no air pollution. Those things have become strong and universally understood ideas. 

The challenge then for corporates – and charities like Open City – is to not let certain media and political narratives distract us or persuade us otherwise. It’s very clear the British people care about the environment, they care about the planet, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be taken in by spin which seeks to persuade us otherwise.

What keeps you awake at night?

Well, right now obviously war. The news cycle is just devastating every day. I’m praying for an armistice and have written to every political representative I have urging them to back the United Nations’ call for a ceasefire. 

More locally though, I feel very lucky to be part of a community on a 1964 council estate in south-east London that I love, and I know more people where I live now than ever before. My community gives me huge pride and comfort but it’s also what keeps me up at night because the threats to that community, whether from top-down new policies from the council or other threats, puts strain on that community.

Just the other month the council was trying to get rid of the small, front gardens on the estate and although we’ve made some progress fighting to protect them, the council officially hasn’t backed down. The impact of removing the gardens would have a colossal, negative impact on the spirit of the estate and the fact that we feel so powerless to fight back definitely keeps me awake. It’s the frustration and the fear of what it would be like if it happened. 

Why are you prioritising this completely unnecessary campaign against plant pots?

You think, ‘come on, you’ve not got enough resources already, we know you’re stretched and overworked, why are you prioritising this completely unnecessary campaign against plant pots when there so many things which should be top of your agenda?’

But we’re lucky, my sister’s estate is being demolished bit by bit so she’s at risk of losing her home and potentially her savings. Lots of people are feeling some version of this – tied up in the built environment; there’s an existential threat to some aspect of their home or community that they feel powerless to do anything about.

It’s very hard for a community or social group to feel comfortable enough to make friends, to have wonderful summer parties, or community barbecues when they fear that something might happen. I guess that connects us back to the ESG stuff. For a community to thrive it needs to feel safe and a lot of Londoners don’t feel safe in their home, they feel under some sort of threat.

What’s your take on gentrification? 

Gentrification can sometimes just be places changing gradually over time and I’m not someone who will condemn all and every example of change.

On the other hand, there are examples where it feels so top down and so contrived in order to manufacture a new community, at the expense of the existing community, that it’s impossible to feel good about that change.

What people often fail to do completely is to recognise the value of the existing community, sometimes because it looks different, sounds different or doesn’t speak English or presents itself in a different way. Developers can fail to appreciate what’s already there and that can be a very destructive approach to regeneration.

The sorts of regeneration that are most successful are where you can enjoy and take part in the existing culture and find a way for that to continue and thrive even as positive change happens around it.

We tend to evict everybody, knock down buildings and build new ones so you lose the existing community and the incredible culture it had

That’s what the best examples are across Europe, like Lacaton and Vassal, French architects who do huge estate renovations where they don’t just build new homes, they refurbish existing homes and they do it in a way that no-one gets evicted, even during the construction. People can stay in their homes even as the works happen around them and feel part of the process.

It’s very clever but it’s not rocket science – we could totally do that here! But we don’t. We tend to evict everybody, knock down the buildings and then build completely new buildings so inevitably you’ve lost your existing community and the incredible culture it had. You might have created a new, interesting community and a new, interesting culture but the net loss can be profound.

Do you have a call to action?

Get to know your neighbours.

I’m always amazed at how many people don’t seem to know more than a couple of families on their street or estate. It does take effort, especially if the area hasn’t been well designed for community interaction, but it’s well worth it.

My call would be to try and get to know 10 new families – it might involve over-doing the friendliness, sending them cards or hosting drinks, but challenge yourself – who knows where it might lead. You might end up becoming a community activist or getting more involved, but at the least it’ll end up with you knowing more of your neighbours by name who might feed your cat when you’re away or walk your dog if you’re ill.

Living on Vanbrugh Park Estate, it feels like an urban village and that’s an amazing part of my life that I really value.

Phineas will be on a panel at our CX and ESG seminar on December 12.

Share this article