On the eve of World Mental Health Day, it was interesting how mental and social health and well-being featured in several of the speakers’ presentations at the Evening Standard’s ‘Leading London’ conference held this morning at Here East in Queen Elizabeth Park. Whether they featured by way of accident or design doesn’t really matter; the fact they did does.
The conference was about London being at the heart of business innovation – hence the venue – but much of it related to the regeneration and place-making activities of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), this being of interest to me in my role as one of three independent members of the Planning Decisions Committee.
So what about these references to mental and social health and well-being? Mayor of London Sadiq Khan opened proceedings and whilst he mentioned affordable housing and the cost of the London Stadium in passing, he used most of his speech to stress the importance of the new Cultural and Education Quarter, something that George Osborne later was keen to claim some credit for when he was Chancellor.
The new Cultural and Education Quarter will be impressive, with many big institutional names lined up, indeed signed up. The V&A, the Smithsonian, Sadler’s Wells, the London School of Fashion and UCL will make it truly world class and one of the largest such concentrations of the arts and education in Europe. But rather than merely herald such an impressive line-up, there was a parallel message about this forming an essential component of the wider regeneration effort, beyond creating new jobs and new homes to one where there will be a rich diversity of uses, with interaction with the local community and connectivity at its heart. All this is on the back of the on-going success of the Park itself, which now attracts five million visitors a year.
Khan and Osborne topped the bill but Professor Julia Hobsbawm OBE
was the most impressive speaker of the day. She specifically mentioned World Mental Health Day but linked it to the concept of social health, one she has defined and talks so eloquently about. She referred to the paradox of how when we have become so well-connected, we have also become less productive and less healthy socially. The massive growth in the population of London since the 1980’s is because people prefer to interact and connect with one another in the environment of a big city - and the growth in this area is a case in point. But she warned of the interrupted episodes caused by e-mail working – 80 a day on average, apparently - and the blurring of work and home life as creating disconnection and dysfunction. She said workplaces must search their souls and it’s ever more important for people to connect personally, as technology takes us in the opposite direction.
Nneka Chukwurah then brought us back to East London and her work at Echo
, seeking to “connect people and potential to fuel prosperity”, as she described it. This involves small businesses and entrepreneurs trading in time and skills rather than pounds and pence, to help create networks and grow their businesses in the kind of way that Julia Hobsbawm was promoting minutes before. Nneka’s sense of pride in what she does and the case studies she spoke of suggested that her work does much to strengthen the well-being of those involved, in all senses of the words, through personal and digital connection.
During the panel discussion towards the end of the session, the Chairman of LLDC Sir Peter Hendy was asked for one thought to sum up all that had been said before. Interestingly, he said the key message was the importance of “work and life, and the balance between them”. I had a true sense that much of the regeneration of this area of East London goes well beyond bricks and mortar, to the well-being of the community and with social interaction being at its heart.