Urban Alternatives is launched by a collaboration of different actors which are united in their efforts to create a more democratic, just and sustainable world. This map seeks to highlight initiatives that work towards this goal. Proposal for initiatives not listed yet can be made directly on the website. This process is open to new collaborations.


Coin Street Community Builders

Inclusive Housing & Public Space

What challenges did this initiative look to address?

For centuries, South Bank, a large bend in the River Thames, midway between the City and the West End, remained neglected as low-lying marshland, prone to flooding. Then, in the first half of the 19th century, the population of London trebled and people crammed into little houses built alongside factories and wharves. It was a poor area where families and neighbours supported each other and a close-knit community spirit developed.

During the Second World War the area suffered bomb damage. Afterwards, a significant amount of housing was demolished, which gave rise to new commercial developments along South Bank. Residents either chose to move out due to a general lack of affordable housing or were forcefully evicted. As the population declined sharply, schools and shops closed down and the remaining residents started to organise themselves with some help from local councillors.

In 1977, after a developer announced plans to build Europe’s tallest hotel and over 1 million square feet of office space on the sites, the Coin Street Action Group was set up. Along much of the Thames offices, hotels and private housing developments had ‘cut off’ existing communities from the river and turned the neighbourhood into an unattractive, lifeless area. Coin Street Action Group was set up to make the area a better place to live in, work in and visit by creating a mix of uses across its 13-acre site. The majority of its members live locally and so understand the needs and opportunities of the area.

What has changed?

The organization carefully redesigned the site with an alternative district plan through new housing cooperatives, shopping, galleries, restaurants, cafes and bars, and a park and access to the River Thames. Today, millions of people enjoy the South Bank Riverside Walkway, the green spaces, and the design shops, galleries, restaurants, cafes and bars. An extensive community leisure programme is also run by the Coin Street neighbourhood centre and at other locations in the neighbourhood. Coin Street Community Builders manage and maintain the Gardens and the Riverside Walkway. The costs associated with this are met by income generated through commercial activities.

How did it happen?

Crucial to the success of the project was a strong sense of purpose of the local community. This allowed the group to carry out what was to become an extremely lengthy campaign for an alternative planning strategy based on the twin demands of affordable housing and open space.

The campaign for Coin Street lasted seven years and included two public inquiries. The first, held in 1979, was to decide the future use of the area and the community presented their own alternative plans. The inquiry rejected both plans and eventually both sides – the local community as well as Greater London Council – submitted revised planning applications which were also subject to a public inquiry. This inquiry too was inconclusive, approving both plans, but eventually the developers pulled out through sustained community pressure and because of the local government's eventual support of the residents.

Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) was founded in 1984 by residents and even today, only residents of the neighbourhood can acquire a membership. In order to implement their development plan, CSCB acquired the 13 acre site for £1m using standard mortgages and a business plan showing loans being serviced by temporary uses of the land. The purchase price reflected restrictive covenants and the fact that much of the area remained derelict for over 30 years.

As they have improved the neighbourhood and established commercial activity property values have increased. This then allowed CSCB to borrow more for future investment.

Several projects on the initial site, as well as on other sites in the proximity, have been completed. These include four housing co-operative schemes, a park, a riverside walkway open to the public, as well as community facilities including a new community and sports centre. These have been funded using the profits from commercial endeavours, such as the refurbishment of the Oxo Tower, allowing CSCB to invest money back into the area.

Cross-programming in each part of the scheme generates money from private ventures for use in community facilities, such as including a public car park in the basement of social housing schemes or including conference and meeting facilities in a neighbourhood centre. This careful mixture of private and public uses allows CSCB to provide a range of public facilities.

The long process that saw a community action group transform itself into a community developer is an important example of what residents can achieve also in extremely difficult circumstances. In this transition, it has been CSCB's organisational structure that has allowed it to remain accountable to its members. An affiliated housing association owns and is responsible for building the social housing, which is then leased to independent housing co-operatives. These are fully mutual, meaning that there is no right to buy, and the day-to-day management is also the responsibility of the co-operative. New tenants are required to complete a training course which gives them a sense of responsibility and the skills required for running a co-operative. The members of the CSCB board are mainly local residents, with outsiders used to provide specialised financial advice.