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< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

The teenage girl in the video was indignant about the way adults typecast young people. We don’t cause trouble, she said - only when we’re defending our territory.

She was responding to a couple of older people who were voicing their generation’s usual complaints - run-down estates, graffiti and ‘gangs hanging around causing trouble’.

The occasion was the last in a series of ‘Steel City shorts’ made by a group of Sheffield teenagers for the BBC. Broadcast to mobile phones across the city centre, they described youngsters’ experiences of city life.

It’s the concept of ‘territory’ that’s disturbing. It’s nothing new - from the turf of American gangsters to the courtyards of gated communities, human beings show an inveterate tendency to barricade their patch against all comers.

And is there so much difference between the teenager snarling at the youths from the neighbouring estate and the archetypal English farmer with green wellies and double-barrelled shotgun, yelling at ramblers to get off his land?

The distance between a strong, cohesive community and an intimidating gang isn’t as great as we might imagine. The difference lies in openness: while a gang is closed and fearful, a healthy community is welcoming.

There was plenty of evidence of the latter in Sheffield this week, as a common emergency produced innumerable acts of minor heroism - from the families who offered to take in stranded commuters who couldn’t make it home, to the individuals who helped people out of flooded buildings and the council and health workers who set aside their own concerns to join a common effort to provide shelter, support and advice.

It’s that attitude, rather than social and demographic make-up, that is at the heart of a sustainable community.

But as teenagers teach us, such an attitude can be counterintuitive.

As Gordon Brown tries to resurrect his government’s fortunes, he needs to pay close attention to what makes communities open and hospitable.

Our neighbourhoods will become good places to be not through lectures on citizenship, but by rewarding behaviour that is directed to the common good rather than self-preservation.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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