This vision was put forward by the Policy Lab’s Andrea Siodmok, who challenged the accustomed nature of the relationship between those using a service and those delivering it. Volunteering at The Bromley by Bow Centre, her words have stayed with me.
The Centre is a community hub in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs, providing a range of services to help raise local people’s quality of life. Everything from debt and career advice to IT and English classes – and a pioneering ‘social prescription’ scheme – is on offer.
Walking into the office today, I found someone sat at my computer. Tea in hand, she sat with one leg thrown over the other, showing off a dramatic combination of bright pink ballet pumps and turquoise and white striped socks. She turned gently from side to side in her chair, blowing nervously at the contents of her mug. While others were studiously tapping away on their computers, she just looked at me as I stood there by the door, not quite knowing what to say.
The stranger was Linda. She is a frail, elderly lady, who walks with difficulty and doesn’t say much. She’s lived next door to the centre for forty years.
I come to learn that this isn’t her first time visiting. In fact, she’s frequently found here, rubbing shoulders with the programme officers. And it’s not just her: the garden volunteers, many of whom have learning difficulties, pop in and out during the day. It’s this blurring of the line between ‘deliverer’ and ‘user’, this mutual respect, that calls to mind Siodmok’s words. That’s what makes this a lovely place to be.
But the day-to-day difficulties facing the community are not invisible, even in this safe haven. Yesterday I found Rachael, a colleague, comforting a crying woman. Rachael listened and consoled, before persuading the woman to return the following week for an activity that that would get her out of the house.
With no top-down structure, Rachael is as responsible for offering personal support as every other employee here.
In part, the quality of service is down to the people that work here, but the built environment, designed – Google style – to encourage interaction plays a part too. The centre’s architectural fluidity, a wonderful jumble of offices, workshop rooms, and meeting spaces, facilitates fluidity between services, service providers and the community. The space is designed to create interactions. With a health centre on the same plot, lunchtime often sees GPs eating with patients.
There are no ‘Private’ or ‘Staff Only’ signs. In fact, there is no way-finding at all because, as CEO Rob Trimble says, a lack of signage “encourages people to talk to each other and to accompany the lost to their destination”. There’s not even a main entrance or a reception. Admittedly it can be confusing in the first instance but, as a new member of the team, I could not have felt more welcomed and safe.
Linda is still sitting on my chair. We swap a few words, and it turns out we’re off to the same art session. It’s my first time attending as well as hers, so we accompany each other through the signless hallways. I would have gone alone had Linda not felt comfortable enough to sit in my chair.