A rethinking of cities and ecologies in the trees at the magic hour of sunset. ‘Spontaneous City at Cow Tower’ by London Fieldworks: open to occupation by birds and insects. A time for imagination.
The community garden is only one of many community projects we are looking to start up in my day job. Multiple linked efforts that will begin to create a strong, caring and supportive community here. Much of the inspiration has come from Civic Systems Lab, particularly Tessy Britton and Laura Billings, and it’s been wonderful to go through their team’s detailed (and free!) research report on The Open Works research project in West Norwood — just down the road from me now! If only I had moved a year earlier…
This report is for several different audiences — foundations like Lankelly Chase who helped fund it, politicians and government workers like those of Lambeth Council who partnered in this particular project and really should be funding similar projects in the future. For that reason it uses a certain language, but it also manages to be very geared towards those who wish to do similar things in their own community, particularly the last chapters.
It focuses on participatory culture, building on many years of work studying best practices and building this kind of connectivity — a most impressive work of praxis. Civic Systems Lab’s report on Open Works studied on a most basic level whether multiple small-scale community projects engaging people on a daily basis could create real and lasting change on a larger scale.
So much of my life has been spent assuming that that is so — and happily the report agrees. It notes, however, that neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services operate to support such efforts. Rather they work (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc. Rather than building networks and collective efforts, they often destroy them to replace them with one-way relationships of dependency and service.
While I personally and politically am fully committed to full government funding for social services and a safety net, there were always fundamental issues with how these were delivered that no efforts to save them should ignore. We need full funding for better ways of creating healthy and caring communities — like this one. While this does actually fit into Cameron’s hated Big Society in many ways, it doesn’t have to — and this report for survival purposes I respect, has left either possibility open.
Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale
Their key findings in their own words:
- Building a dense participation ecology at scale is possible.
- A fully developed prototype of this dense participatory ecology is estimated to take 3 years to build.
- High levels of micro participation could be a key component for building local sustainability and resilience in a neighbourhood.
- Micro participation needs to reach a threshold to be effective. — early estimates are that around 10% – 15% of local residents would need to be participating regularly at any one time (c. 3 times a week) for multiplier effects to be achieved. This estimated level of participation greatly exceeds any current levels of participation through existing models.
- Two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work… a fully developed participation ecology should consist of two levels of activity. The first level is a highly accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production activity built into everyday life. Building on this foundational level of mass participation in micro activities, the second level would see the development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.
- Moving the centre of gravity through the platform approach has the potential to create a new collaborative model between citizens, government and other institutions.
- The estimated costs of building and maintaining a participatory ecology represent a low percentage of public spending for an area. (21)
I don’t know when we forgot that a mutually supportive and connected community was key to our survival…perhaps when we no longer faced starvation and the need to build our own homes. But sometimes I feel like we are facing a starvation of the spirit here in the developed world, even as people starve in other places intimately connected to us through trade and consumption yet removed from our immediate knowledge. From exactly those places, the development literature grown around decades of aid (making little impact as you can see) has brought us terms such as resilience. It is still perhaps useful here, and will be ever more so through austerity’s bite and the onset of deeper poverty:
Resilience as an integrative construct
The construct of resilience offers a useful lens through which to discuss how neighbourhoods might be re-organised for both individual and collective wellbeing. People and families need to find ways to manage the ongoing ups and downs of life, and this is done through a combination of resources which are collectively referred to as ‘protective factors’.
Resilience resource indices include:
Biological factors (e.g. regular physical exercise, genetic resilience factors).
Individual factors (e.g. optimism, agency and executive functioning).
Interpersonal/family factors (e.g. secure family relations and close social ties).
Community/organisational factors (e.g. green space, volunteering).
The resources used to cope in challenging circumstances are not evenly distributed in or across neighbourhoods – perpetuating unequal access to resilience resources. (24)
I translate that in my mind to more concrete things like access to healthy foods and time for exercise, access to education and the ability to have power over your own life and the political and economic forces impacting you, close and supportive relationships that provide love and intellectual discussion and laughter, and a networked and supportive community.
I think that physical space should be separated from that as its own factor — access to nature, to growing things, to earth, safe and decent housing that makes you feel like you’re home, safe neighbourhoods that encourage you to spend time outside rather than flee, public spaces that encourage chance meetings and bring different people together, perhaps also transportation that ensure no one is trapped and all have good access to all parts of the city. All these things that Gehl, Appleyard, Whyte, Adams and Cullen among others describe.
An Ecology of Place
They don’t quite engage with that literature or work on space, but it fits in well with the thinking embodied in terms like ecology and ecosystems, it fits in also with thinking around networks and emergence, and the growing body of work on permaculture I’ve just started to dig back into.
Where roads and pipes allow for the efficient flow of transport, water and power, this participatory ecosystem aims to create a new and essential piece of connecting social infrastructure for our individual and collective wellbeing.
The report does bring us to the geography of it all — how place and people connect and the fact that ‘Resilient places support resilient people’. Hardly a surprise, though I am amazed at how many development experts consider the two to be separate. So returning to their thoughts on what a resilient place would look like:
An ecology of place:
The projection for a fully formed ecology after 3 years of development would see life experienced through the following participation opportunities:
- Within a 5 to 15 minute walk from your home you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be in spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.
- These activities would be practical, low commitment, low barrier opportunities that would be open to everyone, that you could decide to join at short notice, depending on your other home or work commitments.
- These opportunities would be imaginative and creative project ideas, some of which you would find particularly interesting and which would also help you with your day-to-day life. For example, some projects could save
you money through bulk cooking or bulk buying, you
could learn new things and share what you know through
weekly short lesson skill sharing, you could share, fix or
make things that you need everyday such as equipment,
food, clothing or furniture.
- The network of opportunities would also include free regular incubation programmes which might help you cultivate new interests or livelihoods. These peer-to-peer incubators would allow you to develop your ideas without any formal qualifications and could lead to self-employment or employment.
- Through these activities you would be able to get to know many local people in very informal and enjoyable settings. These people might be like you, but also might come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and cultures, many of whom might have very different social and work networks, and these could be helpful for you to learn or progress to employment.
- The new local community businesses, including collaborative childcare, energy, retail, or urban farming would create opportunities for you to balance your work and family commitments more easily and affordably.
- For families there are projects, kitchens and workshops which enable you to make baby food, toys and clothing in social settings, which save you money and build supportive social networks and friendships.
- Your new local networks would enable you to understand what public resources and benefits would be available to you, and help you easily access professional support when you need it. (26)
I love the illustrations in this evaluation/manual, this is just one example:
I quite love their ambitions as well:
A UNIVERSAL VISION
Active, connected neighbourhoods as a universal ambition
People want to live in places where they know and like their neighbours, where they can do things together regularly, where they can help to create welcoming and safe communities in which to raise their children and grow old.
Through the participatory ecology described in this report, neighbourhoods could be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods. Examples of which already exist.(28)
Not bad at all.
From a community organising background (and one more built around popular education, positive community projects and working with individuals and families rather than a focus on working through institutions to amass power to challenge power which is more IAF’s model), so much of this seems self-evident. Still, I know well from working with many service-providers that this is often opposite to their normal practice (and demands of funders and government and often academics), and key to emphasise how this differs just to be very clear:
- People participate on an equal footing
- There are self-directed pathways of progression from
micro levels of participation through to employment
- There are new dense networks for friendship, support
and resources, as well as opportunities to develop new
skills informally… (30-31)
These networks and participation need to reflect the community and all of its diversity — a challenge in a world that works to effect the opposite. I write and obsess about racism, and there are multiple other factors involved here that such an approach needs to work hard not to sustain, much less to undo — and there isn’t a great deal here about to how to do that, but I think this is an approach that can begin to tackle these issues despite the challenges:
Traditional attempts have largely failed to bring people from a wide range of different backgrounds, with different abilities and cultures, into the same spaces regularly enough to develop the connections and friendships necessary to build large bridging networks.
Experience has shown that creating and sustaining dense and diverse networks is harder than it looks. The way our systems are currently organised shows that these relationships do not develop as naturally as we would hope or as easily as they once did. (42)
This is one place where I think we definitely need to put more work and thought.
Building Platforms and Building to Scale
They also start to struggle with scale — again for us as community organisers this was always a big issue that we never quite cracked and debated endlessly.
The challenge of scale
One of the key strengths of many new participatory models is that they are small scale in nature. Typically, practical activities are done in functional local settings in small groups – and it is these highly personal peer-to-peer experiences that are proving to build relationships and generate mutual benefits. Study of many of these successful projects identified that they offer whole sets of different outcomes, and that they are productive, imaginative and engaging at a time when interest in some traditional community activity is declining in many places.
However, despite all these obvious strengths of participatory culture, we concluded that participatory projects of this kind are unlikely to fulfil their promise to transform places and people’s lives if they remain scattered, unsupported and small scale.
The reality that when things get too big, their truly participatory nature becomes harder and harder to maintain. I think, however, a broad base of people used to this kind of ecology of daily participation in multiple smaller projects with multiple relationships of trust and respect in an area could make a much more participatory society work on many different levels. I think if we created it, we could much more easily start to talk about scale with some integrity. In its absence, everything seems a little hollow and I myself haven’t much hope.
I also like their idea of platform, as a goal, as a foundation, as a construct and invention:
The Open Works project set out to discover if we could invent a platform approach that would allow us to change a whole set of existing participatory infrastructures, and accompany this with a change process that could build a larger system of these small scale experiences. (42)
More on the platform idea, that I’m still trying to get my head around:
Platforms for participation and mutualism: Unlike many government or third-sector led projects of the past, the new participatory project and civic ventures don’t seek to involve people in processes or representative structures, but are direct opportunities for participation. They operate on a platform logic: thriving on uncovering, inviting and combining multiple, unpredictable sources of input such as dormant existing resources or ideas from multiple sources, rather than just focusing on creating new products. For example with overcrowded hospitals a platform approach would look to system redesign, prevention and needs reduction, a products approach would procure more hospital beds. The former is a highly generative approach, as the wide range of unplanned, indirectly facilitated exchanges between platform participants can generate independent momentum. (151)
The scaling ideas they present are really impressive, showing how small projects could grow or serve as groundwork for or even federate into larger, more transformative ones. Here is just one example around growing and energy:
A question of Agency
Much of the literature they draw on is far removed from that of critical theory (not surprising) or community building and organising or even health and wellbeing (a little surprising but not too much). I enjoyed it, and how it presented small snippets of unfamiliar theory that I found quite thought provoking around social change and democracy, like this summary of agency as described through social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura (2006), which ‘incorporates the concept of a humans are both products and producers of their environments.’ Lefebvre says that too of course, a major innovation of critical geography, and I wonder if there is cross-pollination there, but that is to digress. They quote Bandura at length and so shall I:
Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency, each of which is founded in people’s beliefs that they can influence the course of events by their actions. These include individual, proxy and collective agency.
In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events.
In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. In those circumstances, they seek their well-being, security and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or wield influence to act on their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials.
People do not live in isolation. Many of the things they seek are achievable only through socially interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency people pool their knowledge, skills and resources, provide mutual support, form alliances, and work together to secure what they cannot accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their joint capabilities to bring about desired changes in their lives is the foundation of collective agency. Perceived collective efficacy raises people’s vision of what they wish to achieve, enhances motivational commitment to their endeavours, strengthens resilience to adversity, and enhances group accomplishments.” (123)
I quite love that definition of collective agency, particularly in thinking about organising and what so much of my life’s work has been about. It’s interesting arriving at these thoughts not through Freire or Horton or Camilo Torres, but social cognitive theory.
So, a recap from Civic Systems Lab on just what is key to these participatory projects:
Emergent: The projects we have studied have all been
started by citizens as ‘ordinary people’. Not primarily in
a formal role such as community organisers, or to make
money, nor because they were invited to by governing
authority or organisation, or given a pot of money to entice
them into action.
‘Live’ and ‘lean’ development: The initiatives are not efforts to compel some other party to solve a problem, but are
rooted in practical DIY ethos.
Oblique approaches: These initiatives develop oblique or
secondary ways of addressing social, environmental, and
economic issues. (150)
Scale: Most of these projects work on a local scale. They tend to be rooted in the very tangible opportunities and problems of people’s lived experience in local areas and the social networks embedded in them. (151)
I think DIY can only get you so far and sometimes you have to fight bad things, too often really, but it’s true that the building of positive local initiatives has not received nearly enough study or attention. In some ways I agree with this, being always optimistic about what local people working together can achieve — and utterly pessimistic about how long it will take it to be smashed. But that’s for another post maybe, the rougher things become, the more necessary these initiatives will become, and in imagining an ideal base from which to create a different world, I cannot think of a much better one.
This foundational research suggests that a radical re-think of our institutions needs to occur: because of their valuable multiple social outcomes, the autonomous activities of civic initiatives and ventures are worth supporting as a complement to current developments in public service reform and innovation. The challenge is to create structures and investment mechanisms that work with the grain of what citizens are already doing together in this domain. This will be an important next step in the evolution of the relations between the state, the market and citizens in the UK and beyond. There is growing case study evidence on how, at the scale of individual projects, neighbourhoods and whole cities, this evolution is already underway, giving ample cause for optimism. (132)
I found this interesting too, a curious mix of things that on the whole I’m not sure I agree with — and it’s paragraphs like this that make me feel most that I am not the intended audience as this is not a critical study, but a practical one demonstrating not just how to do this, but why it should be funded.
What characterises the participation culture and civic entrepreneurialism we are witnessing now is that it brings together the diverse values of civic society with the new approaches and culture of 21st century start-ups. Where in the 20th Century, civic action was frequently focussed on protest against the state or market, or on demands to be included and represented in government decision-making, the new citizen participation and entrepreneurship firmly focuses on seizing opportunities that make life better or create more enjoyable places through practical action. They are marked by innovative and energetic hands-on design processes and a DIY ethos, drawing on existing resources where possible – whether physical resources in the locality, online tools or collaborative relations with people.
In sum, a ‘many to many’ culture has grown. People now have the access to tools and platforms to act independently of established players: market and state institutions, but also traditional local community power structures. (136)
I’m not sure what I think of ‘civic entrepreneurialism’. So I will let that go for now…and keep thinking about how this approach could lead to a deeper transformation of injustice and oppression in our society than such paragraphs allow. More nuts and bolts to follow, but this is already far too long…
For more on building social spaces…