Bermondsey and its online village people

London is famed for its anonymity, but the residents of one block of flats are using the internet to build a community, says Nigel Summerley
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The Independent Online

They say that in London you don't know who your neighbours are, but now an imaginative website project has helped to create a village community right in the heart of the capital.

The residents of the Jam Factory development, just south of Tower Bridge, have access to their own free local internet, or intranet. The development has 160 apartments in three blocks, ranging from small flats to large penthouse spaces with roof gardens. Of a total of about 400 residents, 229 are now registered users of www.myjamfactory.com and it has helped them create a very special community - more like a traditional village than a metropolitan housing estate.

In this virtual village, people know their neighbours well, do favours for each other, run errands, share resources, arrange social events, buy and sell things, get together to sort out communal problems, swap information on services in the locality, and sometimes just let off steam. And this is all done via the website.

Without this intranet, the Jam Factory would probably be like other city developments: people might say hello to neighbours in passing, and a handful might get a residents' association together, but few would really get to know each other.

Sarah Fry, 40, a costume designer, has lived at the Jam Factory for three years and admits: "The first thing I do in the morning is check what the gossip is on the network. I use the intranet as a thermometer for what's going on. I take the temperature of the Jam Factory every morning.

"Sometimes it's really lively - people might all be sending congratulations to a couple getting married. When the temperature is low, it might be that there's a complaint about someone leaving a door open. Or you might see that so-and-so has got a bed to sell. There might be a party invite, or an invitation to a good sale. Or someone might be saying: 'My taps have gone, can someone help me find a plumber?' "

The social possibilities seem endless. Sarah agrees: "A little while ago some people asked: 'Does anyone have a room? Friends are coming over and need somewhere for them to stay.' I said they could come and stay in my place while I was away. As a result of that, I now have the offer of a place to stay in Berlin."

The man who made the difference at the Jam Factory is Sam Bond, an actor and entrepreneur who moved here nearly three years ago. He has appeared in The Bill, Casualty, EastEnders and Family Affairs, and he also works with businesses, showing them how theatre skills can be useful in the office.

His versatility and drive seem typical of the residents here, an impressive mix of creatives and professionals: fashion folk, furniture designers, architects, actors and journalists rub virtual shoulders with doctors, solicitors and bankers. Some have live/work units from which they run their own businesses.

Angel Property, the developer, was the first to mention the possibility of an intranet, but it did not materialise as hoped. Bond, who until recently was chairman of the residents' association, was convinced that this was exactly what the Jam Factory needed.

And he made it happen, primarily with the help of resident and web expert Marcus Greenwood. Other residents involved were Alberto Barreiro, who was doing a research project on social networks in communities for a masters degree, and Andy Gilhespy, a website designer.

The intranet has myriad uses. People might use it to find a cleaner or to arrange piano lessons, says Bond. "When I e-mailed to say: 'I'm going to pick up some wine in France, does anybody want some?' I had 10 orders from people. Someone might say: 'I've had my bike stolen, does anyone know a good lock?' And when someone was mugged recently, people rallied round, sending messages of support."

Aileen McEwan, 40, is a theatrical agent, and has lived at the Jam Factory for two years. "The intranet is a brilliant idea - it's funky," she says. "It was set up so that everybody could communicate. You get to know people's names through it, and I have socialised here more than anywhere else I've lived. People can put up a message saying: 'Does anyone know a good restaurant?' or 'Has anyone got a ladder that I can borrow?' And they get a response.

"We had a flood and I couldn't find my insurance document so I put out a message asking if anyone had a copy of it. The intranet has been fundamental in building a community here. It helps people to work together and it allows people to help you."

Bond and his team have now made it possible for users to post their blogs on the site and also to tailor their home page to reflect their individual interests.

In the near future, they envisage the site having restaurant reviews, advertising and discount offers with local businesses. And they have also formed their own company to sell the virtual village concept to other developments elsewhere.

Julian Hakes, 33, and his wife and business partner, Cari-Jane, run their architecture company, Hakes Associates, from a live/work unit in the Jam Factory. They have been there for two years. "We didn't expect to find a real sense of community," he says. "But we did. It's a really friendly neighbourhood. There is shared communal space and the place is animated. The intranet enhances this feeling of community.

"Once, when someone moved in, they put out an e-mail saying that they'd just arrived and introducing themselves, and someone else replied: 'Do you want to come round for coffee? I'm your neighbour.'"

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